Article No: 45

2006-05-01 09:15:25
Building Codes Rule in the Construction of Homes
By: Ed Sauter

In today's information-packed world, building codes typically fall to the bottom of the list of leisure reading. Chances are you are familiar with the aspects of the code that impact your daily business but have little interest in the code process until a new ruling affects your bottom line. However, unlike many aspects of business out of your immediate control, you can and should have an impact on the code process. The secret is understanding the process and learning how to establish codes that work to your advantage.

Until 1994, three separate bodies were the primary developers of codes throughout the United States, based upon geographic region. These groups — the Building Officials and Code Administrators International (BOCA), the Southern Building Code Congress International (SBCCI), and the International Conference of Building Officials (ICBO) — developed the BOCA National Building, Standard Building, and the Uniform Building Codes, respectively. In addition, the three groups jointly were responsible for producing the CABO One- and Two-Family Dwelling Code. However, the entities opted to pool their resources to develop one code writing body known as the International Code Council (ICC). The reason for the collaborative effort was the pursuit of a single set of comprehensive codes to take the place of the various codes being enforced.

The result of the non-profit ICC organization was the development of the International Building Code (IBC) for commercial structures and the International Residential Code (IRC) for one- and two-family dwellings. ICC released the first IRC in 2000 and it has already been adopted in a number of states and local jurisdictions. Chances are, as one concerned with the construction of concrete homes, if you don't already fall under the IRC-2000, you will soon fall under its authority.

Adoption Rules

While the stage has been set for the widespread adoption of the IRC, many are surprised to learn that a code has no technical or legal weight until a jurisdiction adopts it. While some states adopt the codes, which make the code apply statewide, other states leave the process to local jurisdictions.

"The IBC and IRC simply act as a measuring stick until the codes are adopted at a state or local level," said Steve Skalko of the Portland Cement Association (PCA). Skalko is a former director of building inspections for Macon, Ga., and has applied his expertise to guide PCA's code efforts for the past 15 years. "Right now, we are at a crossing point for construction codes as more and more states and localities adopt the IRC," he said.

Even before a new edition of a code is approved by the ICC membership, the cycle of proposed modifications to the base code begins again. Codes are typically updated on a three-year cycle through a series of public hearings. Throughout the three-year period, the codes are constantly revised through a series of amendments and public hearings, and the best chance to impact the codes lies here through the amendment process.

A public hearing, largely attended by major industry lobbyists sent to represent their particular industry, is held to propose and review changes to the code. While the IRC Code Change committee is comprised of building officials, homebuilders and architects, any citizen can propose a change to the code. However, don't get the idea that you can simply waltz into the meeting, air your complaints and rewrite the code, as this is far from the standard process. A detailed procedure and established timelines must be followed for submitting changes and much of the consideration is done without your input before it comes to a vote.

"Although no formal decisions are made at this public hearing," said Skalko, "the tone is set for changes that will be finalized at the next meeting with the committee. The testimony of both proponents and opponents is heard and is judged based on technical merit."

Challenges Heard

The IRC Code Change Committee then reviews and makes recommendations on suggested changes. Items are recommended either for approval as submitted, approval with minor modifications, or not to be approved. The recommendations are then published as a challenge agenda and anyone wishing to challenge the recommendation of the IRC Committee can do so. Only those items challenged are placed on the agenda for the annual business meeting of the ICC.

At the annual business meeting, the code officials with voting powers hear all issues on challenged items once again. Their votes can accept the recommendation of the IRC Committee, or their votes can change the recommendation to a different action. When the vote is held, you have a total of three minutes to make your case (two minutes to explain and an additional minute for rebuttal to those who can also argue against your comments), a vote is then called for and it either passes or is rejected. For example, the IRC Committee may have recommended approval. The voting membership could disagree with the committee and recommend disapproval. That becomes the final action on the code change.

After voting is complete, the final actions are incorporated into a published supplement that shows differences in the code provisions from the last printed edition. The cycle then continues on an annual basis. The process may slow however, as the ICC is examining having supplements published every 18 months instead of every 12 months. Under this scenario, the IBC and IRC code books will still be published every three years.

If understanding the code-making process is the crucial first task in affecting change, the next step is knowledge of current provisions and issues on the table that may have an impact on your business. For example, under the previously adopted CABO code, there were provisions for construction of foundations for one- and two-family dwellings. The seismic zones throughout the country dictated what was required of the foundation in each geographic area, but during the transition from CABO to IRC, the map of the seismic zones changed. The map has moved higher seismic zones to the East Coast, where previously these restrictions did not resist. As part of this evolving process, there has been more attention to requirements for reinforcing in higher seismic areas. For the concrete foundation contractor community, this change may equate to altering their provisions for poured wall construction, resulting in higher costs and more labor.

Another crucial issue affecting those involved in the construction of concrete homes is the National Fire Protection Association efforts. The trend in the national model building codes, both the IBC and the National Fire Protection Association Standard 5000, is to require the minimum life-safety provisions for fire with the most rigorous structural design requirements for buildings. Both national and model codes include more restrictive seismic requirements that can be unfavorable to those involved in concrete construction, to include provisions for increased thermal resistance insulation for energy conservation and more relaxed fire- and life-safety requirements. All not only jeopardize buildings and their inhabitants, but also will dramatically reduce the ability to specify concrete as a solution for residential construction.

Recognizing the importance of involvement at the local level, industry representatives and citizens in New York and New England formed the Fire Safety Construction Advisory Council (FSCAC) with the intent of introducing modifications in the local code that ensure a reasonable level of property and life safety through the concept of a balanced design. A similar coalition exists in Minnesota and consideration is being given to development of such a coalition in both Maryland and Pennsylvania.

Residential Standard

Yet another issue that should be on the radar screen for the home industry is ACI development of a residential concrete standard. The standard is being developed to serve as a document that can be referenced by the IRC, much like ACI-318 which is the accepted reference standard for commercial concrete construction under the IBC. Under development for the past seven years, the document is expected to clear the committee for ACI technical review within the year.

While there are no absolutes, Skalko is quick to point out that special interest groups and citizens do have an impact on the process. In other words, you can make a difference and should take an active role in amending codes that impact your business.

Since code adoption is an open process, all necessary information is available to the public. The first step is reviewing your statewide code, if one exists, since state codes always outweigh local codes. Getting involved and knowing the key players is the next step. Identify the jurisdiction that has authority over the areas that affect your business and determine who is in charge so you can form relationships with these officials. It also is advantageous to get on their mailing lists and regularly attend scheduled code meetings. Finally, form organizations with other contractors, builders, and architects to learn more about the existing codes and how to change them. There is power in numbers.

While anyone can propose a change to a code, those successful in affecting change usually have a well-thought-out decree with strong supporting data and evidence. Code officials will ask technical questions and information should be reliable or you will lose easily lose credibility. Since the amendment process is the best chance to influence the code and its effect on your business, you must abide by the detailed procedure and timelines in submitting changes and attendance at the public hearings to provide expert testimony.

"When the IRC starts to show up in the marketplace, you can play an active role in the state or local adoption process," said Skalko. "Once adoption of a code occurs, you are expected to follow it, so now is your chance to influence and take control of your bottom line by becoming actively involved in the code process."

Finally, it is important to lean on those associations that are uniquely positioned and staffed to assist you in these efforts. The Concrete Foundations Association (CFA) of North America is a voluntary, non-profit organization dedicated to the advancement of concrete contractors. The CFA represents the interests of its members and the industry on several code and regulatory bodies, to include the American Concrete Institute's code for residential concrete (ACI-332), and cold-weather concrete standards. The Association also offers educational seminars and counsel on how to impact local code bodies and processes. Call CFA at 866-232-9255 or visit for more information.

CFA's ally, the Portland Cement Association, has three full time code development professionals who monitor, attend, propose modifications and argue the case of the cement industry in several code venues. Contact Skalko at 478-477-5028, or visit

Ed Sauter is executive director of the Concrete Foundations Association. He can be contacted at