Simplifying the building code

Fire protection engineering codes are better—or are they?

By Carl Baldassarra, PE, FSFPE, Wiss, Janney, Elstner Associates Inc, Northbrook Il May 19, 2016

Looking back at the early 1970s, building codes’ fire safety requirements were minimal. Fire protection features in many new buildings consisted mostly of passive protection features. Sprinklers, detection, and smoke control were largely used at the discretion of the design team, often to achieve a specific goal. Alternate methods were accepted on a case-by-case basis. Fire modeling did not exist.

Protection features were largely driven by the major insurance carriers at the time. Office buildings, hospitals, schools, and apartment buildings were classified as "light hazard," so there was no reason to install sprinklers in them. Following a few high-rise fires in the 1971 timeframe, the landmark Airlie House Conference in 1971 led to the U.S. General Services Administration’s "systems concept" of fire-risk analysis. Also about that time (1973), the report "America Burning" was published and shed light on the nation’s fire problem.

Following the report, Congress passed the legislation leading to the formation of the U.S. Fire Administration, the National Fire Academy, the National Fire Incident Reporting System, and the Fire Research Division at National Institute of Standards and Technology. Another outcome of the report was the change in the practice of architects and engineers in the design of commercial buildings.

According to the loss statistics available from the NFPA, the number of structure fires in the U.S. fell from about 1.1 million/year in 1977 to about 494,000 in 2014, a 55% reduction. In the same period, the number of civilian fire fatalities fell from 6,505 to 2,860, a reduction of 56%. Moreover, the trend in deaths per million persons fell from about 34 in 1977 to about 9 or 10 today, a reduction of 71%. Also, direct property damage fell from about $16 billion to $9.8 billion (in 2014 dollars). Clearly, this is great progress, and the result of improved products, design and construction practices, and code enforcement. However, we cannot rest on this success.

But, how effective are some of the more recent code changes at "moving the needle?" Unfortunately, not much.

The stated purpose of building codes is to establish the minimum requirements to provide for the safety, health, and welfare of the public. Today, the International Building Code (IBC) is the dominant model building code used for construction in the U.S. Like other codes, it represents a consensus of opinions of those who participate in writing the code, not necessarily scientific or technical, based largely upon experience with what works and what doesn’t. So it’s important that the provisions in the code live up to that stated purpose.

In comparing the 1970 edition of the Building Officials and Code Administrators International (BOCA) Basic Building Code (BBC) and the 2015 IBC, the code has grown from 20 chapters to 33 chapters. What’s more, the chapter on fire protection and smoke features—firewalls, smoke barriers, etc.—went from 36 pages in the 1970 BBC to 86 pages in the IBC. The content of the IBC, measured in square inches, has increased by 149%—from about 155 sq ft of text in the 1970 BBC to 386 sq ft in the 2015 IBC. But, the issue is more than the number of chapters and square feet of words in the book. There is no doubt that some of the provisions added to the codes over that 45-year period—for example, sprinkler protection and smoke detection in sleeping occupancies—have helped reduce the losses. But some recent provisions in the codes have simply added to cost without materially affecting the level of fire safety.

Our technology has become more sophisticated over the past 45 years. We have modeling tools for fire growth and egress. Our body of knowledge about fire growth and human behavior in fire has increased. But, it is ironic that as our tools have improved tremendously, we are being governed by an increasing number of prescriptive requirements about what to do, when to do them, and how to do them.

It is important that the code-development process includes a rigorous analysis of major new provisions to assure they are cost-effective. The code-development process should also include a better balance of interests to reduce the influence of those who market their products through the code. Piecemeal approaches to solving problems without considering the holistic effects of all code provisions, e.g., not using the systems concept of risk analysis, only leads to a reduction in design freedom and additional costs for the public.

Carl Baldassarra is a principal and leads the fire protection practice at Wiss, Janney, Elstner Associates.