NFPA Makes Push on Coasts, but IBC Maintains Strong Hold in Majority of U.S.

In the battle to reign supreme as the national model building code, at least on paper, the International Code Council's (ICC) International Building Code (IBC) appears to be winning by a wide margin. The IBC has been adopted in nearly all 50 states at the local level, approximately 30 states at the state level and by the U.

By Geoff Weisenberger, Production/Web Editor December 1, 2004

In the battle to reign supreme as the national model building code, at least on paper, the International Code Council’s (ICC) International Building Code (IBC) appears to be winning by a wide margin. The IBC has been adopted in nearly all 50 states at the local level, approximately 30 states at the state level and by the U.S. Dept. of Defense and the National Park Service. It’s also been adopted in cities such as Denver, Washington, D.C., Kansas City and Las Vegas, and in many other major U.S. cities that are in states that have adopted the code statewide.

“People recognize that [IBC] is a tested and used code,” said Steve Daggers, vice president of communications for ICC. “It does the job. It’s got a history. The I-Codes (IBC) came out of what were the original codes for the three model code organizations that have been in use for many decades. Everybody that’s familiar with them know how they work. They’re a good product.”

The National Fire Protection Assn.’s NFPA 5000, on the other hand, has been adopted in a handful of local jurisdictions. Phoenix was set to adopt the code, but the city changed its mind and opted for IBC. A Phoenix City Council report noted that the two codes were similar with regard to technical provisions and that both codes gave top priority to safety of first responders and would not compromise public safety.

But the Code Review Committee eventually voted 6-3 in favor of the IBC, saying that the majority felt that the transition to IBC would take less staff time, require less training for staff and customers and appeared less costly for the city, adding that those who would be involved with the code felt more comfortable with the IBC because surrounding communities had already adopted it. Additionally, Larry Litchfield, assistant director of the Development Services Dept. for Phoenix, added that Phoenix’s familiarity with the ICC code process was another determining factor, as the city had previously employed codes developed by ICBO (International Conference of Building Officials), one of the entities that joined forces to form the ICC. He also added that the city eventually saw the decision as a bidding process between two vendors. He echoed the committee report, saying that since the committee saw virtually no difference between the codes from a technical standpoint, they went with the entity that was able to provide the best incentive from a cost and ease of transition perspective.

Tim Walocha, a practicing building inspector in Cary, Ill., said that building inspectors who are used to a certain code, and a level of service for the corresponding code agency, have no real incentive to move into a new environment. “If you work for a municipality and support a position that is not the norm, you’d better have a strong case,” he added. “My guess as to what happened in Phoenix is the council saw what was happening and realized that the adoption of a code that is not the norm would be like putting the city on its own little island.”

Walocha also acknowledged the intensity of the debate between the two model code bodies. “I know the ICC lobbied hard to defeat the adoption of NFPA in Phoenix,” he said. “[Its] adoption in a major city like Phoenix would be considered a victory in what is essentially considered a turf war.”

“NFPA has had codes for a long time, but not a model building code,” added Richard Piccolo, president of the Building and Fire Code Academy, Hoffman Estates, Ill. “People are comfortable with the IBC format because that’s what they’ve been using for years.”

NFPA says the review process in Phoenix became a political issue and despite losing the battle in that community, its building code is alive and well. The organization says that its biggest challenge has been dealing with code officials who want to maintain complete control over the development of model codes and prefer the ICC process because it gives them the greatest degree of control. “However, when our code is evaluated fairly, it has done well,” said an NFPA spokesperson. “[Innovations] include ideas such as performance-based design options and rehabilitation criteria for existing buildings. Architects have wanted performance-based design options and city and town governments have wanted code-based solutions to deal with adaptive re-use of existing buildings.”

NFPA is betting on the fact that code officials will eventually see the advantages of its product and is continuing to cultivate it. The organization is in the process of developing the next version of NFPA 5000, and the membership will consider proposed revisions for the 2006 edition next year.

And there have been some other major jurisdictions looking into NFPA 5000 as of late. The California Building Standards Commission last year voted 8-2 in favor of adopting the code as the basis for the California Building Code. “They made statements during the meeting that they thought it was the safest code for California,” said CBSC’s Stan Nishimura. Since last year, he explained, state agencies have been working on conceptual documents based on the code, adding that the process has come to somewhat of a standstill because of concerns expressed by various organizations that the conceptual documents violate copyright issues of other model codes. There has been no indication as to when the process will get going again.

According to Jon Traw, a retired code official, California’s decision to go with NFPA 5000 was for the same reason NFPA sees Phoenix moving toward IBC. “In my opinion, the prior decision by CBSC was more heavily influenced by the political power base rather than technical content and support services,” he said. “History has shown that California has often chosen not to follow the direction of the remainder of the country and this is just one additional case where that has occurred.”

Anil Ahuja, P.E., CCJM Engineers, Chicago, suggested that California’s choice also stems from its unique environment. “[NFPA 5000] is a very rigid code, which focuses on the problems in California and other high-seismic areas on the West Coast, and is very costly to implement,” he says. “This apparently is the reason that other states have not been enthusiastic about implementing or adopting it.”

But California isn’t the only major jurisdiction looking at NFPA 5000. Just last month during a hearing before the New York City Council, hundreds of public safety advocates including firefighters and officers voiced their support for Intro 368, a bill that would adopt NFPA 5000 as the basis for the city’s building code. The presidents of the Uniformed Fire Officers Assn., Local 854, and the Uniformed Firefighters Assn., Local 94 were among those pushing for 368.

NFPA said that several other municipalities are also in the process of reviewing the code. “As jurisdictions have the opportunity to review NFPA 5000, we are confident that more will view it as the best choice for their community,” said a spokesperson from the organization.

While the debate clearly isn’t over, and might not be for quite some time, if ever, Piccolo is one involved party who would like to eventually see a true national code.

“It would be better if everyone uses the same basic document,” he said. “Could either one do the job? They both have their pluses and minuses. Both need further change to be the ultimate document.”