Consensus for the Built Environment?

Two years ago, following its failed attempt to reach consensus with the International Code Council over a single national building code, the National Fire Protection Association took the first steps toward developing its own code. Today this new code—NFPA 5000, Building Code—stands ready for adoption, possibly as soon as this fall.

By Martin "Mickey" Reiss, P.E., President and CEO and Stephen Rondinelli, AIA, Vice President, Rolf Jensen & Associates, Inc., Framingham, Mass. May 1, 2002

Two years ago, following its failed attempt to reach consensus with the International Code Council over a single national building code, the National Fire Protection Association took the first steps toward developing its own code. Today this new code—NFPA 5000, Building Code —stands ready for adoption, possibly as soon as this fall.

What will NFPA 5000 look like?

There are five major tenets underlying this new code:

  • Safety from fire.

  • Safety from structural failure.

  • Safety during building use.

  • Safety from unwanted entry.

  • Safety from hazardous materials.

These tenets are arranged in a format similar to many of the current model building codes. For example, an administrative section guides municipal building departments with respect to change of use, existing conditions, authority for the agency and the permit/approval processes. There are similar requirements related to occupancy, types of construction, height and area limitations, fire-protection systems and special requirements for certain occupancy classes.

The proposed code has also incorporated the traditional chapters relating to building codes—Accessibility, Exterior Wall Construction, Roof Assemblies and Roof Structures, Structural Design, Soils, Foundations and Retaining Walls—as well as chapters dealing with specific construction materials. These chapters were developed using both known construction technology and current building codes and standards.

But this is where the similarities end. Many sections of this code are unique and will prove useful to jurisdictions that adopt it, such as clearer provisions for performance-based design, construction types and height/area requirements.

In addition, the code incorporates unprecedented provisions relating to firefighters:

  • Performance-based design. NFPA 5000 has proposed provisions for the use of options when complying with building design and life safety requirements, i.e., either by using prescriptive or performance-based design. However, the performance-based design method is required to achieve the goals and objectives related to the code’s five tenets. Performance-based design, of course, is intended to be engineer-based and will still require an independent review by an approved third party for methodology evaluation, with final approval given by the authority having jurisdiction.

It should be noted that the methods for using performance-based design are based on those utilized in NFPA 101, Life Safety Code and NFPA 1, Fire Prevention Code.

  • Occupancy use and classification . NFPA 5000 also proposes to incorporate the classification system used in NFPA 101. This method uses clearly defined occupancy definitions, both for new and existing occupancies. These occupancies are then referenced to specific chapters that define and describe all the fire-protection and life-safety requirements for that occupancy.

  • Construction types and height/requirements. NFPA 5000 describes construction types and height/area requirements in a completely different manner from other codes. Traditionally, referenced tables that specifically relate to height and allowable area have been perceived by some as a weak element, as they do not appear to have been substantiated by any real fire-engineering modeling. The approach being proposed by NFPA 5000 is a modification of the traditional method, whereby there is a combination of established tables for allowable height and area as currently guided by NFPA 101, whose basis is code provisions resulting from actual fires. The code also reflects input from the various technical committees as well as the technical correlation committee.

  • Firefighting considerations. A final aspect that sets NFPA 5000 apart is its provisions addressing firefighters. Being involved in the fire-service and protection industry, NFPA had a special interest in addressing the safety of fire-service personnel. Specifically, NFPA 5000 requires that buildings be designed and constructed to provide a reasonable level of safety for firefighters and emergency responders during search and rescue operations. With the known hazards and degree of risk taken by the fire service to protect the public’s health and welfare, it is gratifying to see consideration for the safety of the firefighter during the initial rescue operation.

Proven process

Another first is that NFPA 5000 will be the only model building code ever developed using an American National Standards Institute-accredited, open-consensus process.

For more than 80 years, ANSI has been the administrator and coordinator of the nation’s voluntary standardization system. In that role, ANSI has accredited code and standard developers that adhere to their consensus principles. In order to receive such accreditation, code development bodies require numerous checks and balances so that no one interest group may dominate the code development process. Certainly the widespread adoption and respect for the National Electrical Code (NFPA 70) and the Life Safety Code demonstrates that an open, consensus-based process achieves the timeliest, most practical and most technically advanced safety documents possible.Thus, when developing NFPA 5000 itself, the process was far from new to NFPA, which of course has implemented more than 300 codes and standards in its history. The primary challenge was developing a comprehensive document that would not only complement its existing codes, but also address missing elements—structural matters and other standards related to the built environment—as well as the needs of NFPA’s partners, including the International Association of Plumbing and Mechanical Officials, the Western Fire Chiefs Association and ASHRAE.

That is not to say it was a simple process. Guided by the board of directors, as well as its more than 75,000 international members, this process has been a complex task. Something as fundamental to public safety as a building code mandated ongoing input from a variety of experts: local and state building and fire authorities; fire-protection, mechanical and structural engineers; and construction industry specialists and interest groups. Technical committee members included representatives from the cities of Phoenix and Las Vegas, the New York City Fire Dept., Underwriters Laboratories, FM Global, the Air Force, the National Association of Home Builders, the Building Owners and Managers Association, the U.S. General Services Administration and the American Institute of Architects. Also, public comments came from a number of individuals from various consulting engineering firms. The 16 technical committees—including more than 300 volunteers from numerous professions—have been working to ensure that the code reflects the viewpoints of various fields, such as the fire service, enforcing authorities, consumers, industry, installers, maintenance personnel, manufacturers and others.

Besides their work in the drafting process, the technical committees also carefully evaluated hundreds of substantive comments from the public that were made when the draft was made available for public review.

In addition to coordinating the vast amount of input, the technical committees have gone to great efforts to coordinate the new code with all the related codes and standards that currently exist. Throughout the development of the new building code, NFPA and its technical committee volunteers has stayed true to the following principles:

  • Openness. Any materially affected and interested party has the ability to participate in the process.

  • Balance of interests. The technical committees must be balanced and cannot be dominated by any single interest category or organization.

  • Due process. The code development organization shall make an attempt to resolve all objections, and interested parties who believe that they have been treated unfairly have a right to appeal.

  • Consensus. More than a majority, but not necessarily unanimity, must be achieved.

Ongoing process

NFPA’s role will not end with the passage of the new code either. The organization has put in place an experienced staff to support the continuing development of the building code. This team includes a highly respected group of engineers, already known for their work on NFPA’s life-safety documents. Additionally, the Building and Life Safety Department at NFPA has employed a building code specialist and a structural engineer, as well as an expanded team of regional managers for building and fire codes. These managers and staff will be available for technical questions and assistance to jurisdictions adopting NFPA 5000.

Additionally, the Technical Correlating Committee was created to coordinate all the different elements and code requirements to ensure compatibility of the documents and to ensure the coordination of NFPA 5000 with all the other appropriate NFPA codes and standards.

Even after the release of the Building Code , NFPA will continue to host an annual forum, inviting representatives from each state’s building code agency or association. The most recent Building Officials Forum focused on the processes and procedures used by NFPA in the codes and standards development process. Additionally, NFPA 5000 has been recognized as a component of the ISO Grading Schedule and the Federal Emergency Management Agency for utilizing concepts for hazard mitigation.

Debate welcomed

Developing quality, consensus-based codes and standards in a timely and efficient way takes commitment, resources and experience. The result of this colossal effort is a building code that offers state, local governments and other adopting bodies a high-quality, up-to-date code for the built environment and which addresses all aspects of building safety design and construction: wind, seismic, flood and fire hazards.

And because of involvement from the representatives of these diverse environments, the proposed code is rapidly piquing interest in many parties as an element that might influence building safety for decades to come.

If affirmed by NFPA membership at the upcoming World Safety Conference and Exposition in Minneapolis this month, and granted subsequent approval by NFPA’s Standards Council, the new building code could be issued as soon as August, making it available for adoption later this year. Undoubtedly, there will be a great deal of debate regarding the building code at the conference, but that’s something both anticipated and welcomed as healthy for the development of such an historic document.

Author Information
Reiss is the chairman of the National Fire Protection Association’s Board of Directors. Rondinelli, a senior architectural consultant and manager of RJA’s Denver office, is a member of the NFPA Building Code Technical Committee. Prior to joining RJA, he was the Denver regional manager for NFPA. He is also a career firefighter.

Q&A with NFPA’s George Miller

By Jim Crockett, Editor in Chief

CSE: What was the impetus behind creating NFPA 5000?

Miller: We were quite content to do the various codes we had been doing and tried to negotiate with the International Code Council (ICC) [who launched its International Building Code in 2000] to get them to agree to use some of our codes, but we were unsuccessful. In further pursuing this matter with various adopting authorities in a number of states, we also discovered that many states were not interested in using any of NFPA’s codes because they wanted to adopt a single code. So it became apparent that if we wanted people to keep using our codes, we had to put them together in some sort of a package.

The other factor was that NFPA has been producing a building code in the form of the Life Safety Code [NFPA 101] for years. Frankly, my staff convinced me that NFPA 101 constitutes about 75% to 80% of most building codes anyway. The things that were missing were guidelines on the structural side—concrete and steel. And in reality, ICC’s code doesn’t address those things either—they go to ASME [American Society of Mechanical Engineers], ASCE [American Society of Consulting Engineers] and other places to get that information. So there was no reason we couldn’t do the same thing.

CSE: What is the advantage of a single building code?

Miller: The advantages are really accrued by people like developers and architects. Everybody has been faced with having to shift to different codes depending on the geography.

The American Institute of Architects has been thumping the tom-tom to get the model building organizations to come up with a single code for more than 25 years. In fact, in 1975, AIA said there should be a single code, but to do so meant one of three things had to happen:

The three major model code organizations [Building Officials and Code Administrators, the International Conference of Building Officials and the Southern Building Code Congress International] would have to come together and produce the single code.

NFPA would have to do it.

The federal government would have to do it.

Holding the specter of the federal government getting involved was obviously an attempt to get us to do something, but at the time we declined to get into the realm of structural code, as the other model building code folks were already doing that.

Of course, it wasn’t until 1992-93 that the three code organizations finally combined their operations [forming the ICC] to come up with a single set of codes.

But from a local building code perspective, it probably doesn’t make a lot of difference. In fact, things have worked well at the local level using the three different codes, mixing them with NFPA codes such as the National Electrical Code [NFPA 70] and the National Fire Alarm Code [NFPA 72]. I suspect that will still continue in the future.

CSE: Then what would be the incentive for local bodies to adopt NFPA 5000 or the ICC building code, for that matter?

Miller: There will be a lot of pressure from organizations like AIA, BOMA [Building Owners and Managers Association] and so forth to use the same code across the United States. I don’t think that’s going to happen. States traditionally operate independently and will ultimately do what they want. That being said, the movement to adopt a single building code—in other words a complete set of codes—is migrating upward to a state level. And quite a few states are saying they will only use one code. That, of course, puts the onus on local communities to use it as well.

CSE: What is the major difference between NFPA 5000 and ICC’s code?

Miller: One of the things that make it unique is that it harmonizes all these different elements like the Life Safety Code or the National Electric Code into one code that also now directly relates to a structural code—that’s the major difference.

CSE: What are some of the other significant differences?

Miller: When the NFPA board approved the notion of creating a single building code, they made it clear that we had to have a defined goal and objective—provide firefighter safety during search and rescue operations. To my knowledge, that is not an objective in the ICC code.

NFPA 5000 also has imbedded in it an option for performance-based design. Having these provisions in the code rather than creating a stand-alone performance-based code will make it easier for designers, building managers and code enforcers to use this option.

Also, NFPA 5000, like the Life Safety Code , is organized in a clear, occupancy-based format, making it easier for code enforcers to apply the provisions to whatever type of building they’re dealing with.

CSE: What is your gut feeling on how the proposed code will fare in the field?

Miller: ICC has had its code out for a number of years now, and quite a few communities have adopted it—even a couple of states. But by and large, most states are holding off, and the word we’re getting back is that they’re waiting to see what we come up with.

I’m convinced NFPA 5000 is going to be a quality product and will be highly competitive. Having said that, I don’t think I can honestly say it’s going to be adopted all over the United States—at least in the early stages—because many people are committed to the ICC. And it makes sense because many local building officials are heavily involved in the organization, so a lot of the ICC code will still prevail. But I am optimistic that NFPA 5000 will be widely accepted.

CSE: Within NFPA itself, do you anticipate any hitches?

Miller : Nothing really contentious—no floor fights or anything like that—but there will be some technical matters that may change or be appealed. But as a whole, I’m very confident it will be embraced by the membership.

CSE: When will it officially hit the books?

Miller : If it’s approved at the conference, it will go before the Standards Council who will review in August. If they approve it, it could be on the streets by Sept. 1.