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Knowing which building codes to support can make an enormous difference. Ron Nickson explains the differences between the International Code Council's (ICC) government consensus method and the National Fire Protection Association's (NFPA) true consensus process.

Does the process an organization uses to develop its model building code matter? Is one method really superior to another? Should an apartment owner/developer care whether the codes being adopted are developed by government consensus, true consensus or an ANSI-approved process?

The short answer is yes. The method does matter, as much as the outcome. The entire issue centers on who gets to vote. To understand why, you need to understand the difference between the International Code Council's (ICC) government consensus method and the National Fire Protection Association's (NFPA) process, which it calls true consensus. Understanding the key differences between these code development methods is the first step to understanding why NAA/NMHC have chosen to support the ICC codes over the NFPA.

ICC Government Consensus Method

In the ICC government consensus process, public building and fire officials from local communities control the final vote across the country. As impartial officials, they have no vested interest in any specific building product. Their primary concern is to identify the minimum standards necessary to safeguard the public's health, safety and general welfare. Their day-to-day experiences provide them with first-hand knowledge of What is important and provides them with a better understanding of the true impact the building codes will have on their local community.

While the ICC relies on the code officials for the final vote, its two-step open hearing procedure allows anyone to speak for or against a proposal. In the first step, the ICC benefits from the collective expertise of code officials, industry representatives and technical experts sitting on committees listening to testimony at hearings. In the second step, the committee recommendations are sent to the ICC code official members for ratifications and a final vote. This final vote serves as an unbiased filter for processing code changes. The committee recommendations can be challenged by anyone present for a floor vote. (In a floor vote, every member, including the industry representatives present, is allowed to vote.) A successful floor vote on a challenge to a committee recommendation creates, in effect, an automatic challenge to the item for consideration at the second and final hearing. Additionally, anyone can challenge a committee recommendation at the final hearings.

Only the building and fire officials present, however, conduct the final vote. Items that are not challenged are voted as a block by the code officials at the final hearing. Items that are challenged are discussed at the final meeting and then voted on by the code officials. This system provides industry participants, including apartment owners and developers, with multiple opportunities to challenge provisions and present data in support of their positions, with the final decision being made by impartial code officials.

NFPA's True Consensus Code

In contrast, the NFPA's true consensus is based on the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) procedure, which requires balanced committees with representation from the various interests. The balanced committee requirement allows all dues-paying members to vote on issues, including members who have a vested interest in specific products. The NFPA process lacks the third-party building code filter of the ICC process. In addition, the NFPA procedures permit instructed votes, which means members can arrive at meetings with instructions on how to vote on issues without any consideration of the technical merit or discussion at the meeting.

With the exception of the committee responsible for developing the new NFPA building code, discussion at NFPA committee deliberations is controlled, and non-committee members are required to seek permission in advance to speak at a meeting. The chairman of the committee can, and in many cases does, use this rule to limit outside participation. In contrast to the ICC two-step process, in the NFPA process all proposals go first to the committees. The committees meet twice to act on proposals, which are then forwarded to the membership for action. However, unlike the ICC process where the membership vote at the annual meeting is the final vote, in the NFPA process the membership vote is not the final action on any proposal. The final vote is taken by the Standards Council in a closed meeting.

Even though the NFPA process is more closed and susceptible to vendor manipulation, the NFPA is trying to convince local governments that their code process is superior; that their "true" or ANSI-approved consensus is better than the ICCs government consensus. Upon further examination, however, it is clear that this argument is a red herring. Each process has its good and bad points. The most important element of either process is that the ICC and NFPA enforce the rule under which they operate. This is especially important in the NFPA process because of the vendor interest and procedures permitting instructed votes.

Code Comparisons

Even without the differences in the process, however, NAA/NMHC would still support the ICC codes over the to-be-developed NFPA building codes because the ICC codes are the only comprehensive set of national model codes designed to work together as a package. The ICC codes replace the codes previously published by the Building Officials and Code Administrators International (BOCA), International Conference of Building Officials (ICBO), and Southern Building Code Congress International (SBCCI) and they are very favorable to the apartment industry. While they are not perfect, they have removed many of the restrictive provisions found in the previous regional codes.

Another important component of the ICC codes are their accessibility provisions. The ICC accessibility provisions have been designed to comply with the Americans With Disabilities Act Accessibility Guidelines (ADAAG) and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Fair Housing Accessibility Guidelines (FHAG). In addition, HUD has approved the codes (International Building Code B 2000, with 2001 Supplement) as a safe harbor for complying with the FHAG. And the ICC codes are easier to use because they have mainstreamed the accessibility provisions throughout the code. For example, the accessibility provisions related to means of egress are in the means of egress chapter and not in a separate accessibility section. The ICC accessibility provisions have also been harmonized to comply with the ADAAG provisions.

The ICC codes include many provisions important to apartment construction. The most important are the sprinkler design options, including extra heights and areas, permitted with the installation of a NFPA 13R sprinkler system. They are very extensive and in many cases offset the installation cost of the sprinkler system. This is especially true in areas in which the SBCCI and ICBO building codes are now being used. The only design options permitted under these codes required the installation of a NFPA 13 sprinkler system, which costs about double that of a NFPA 13R sprinkler system. Many of the design options apply to small and large buildings and they will become increasingly important in the 2003 edition of the IBC where sprinklers will be required in almost all occupancy including all apartments.

The IBC provisions for open-end corridors resolve code issues concerning corridors designed with open exterior exit stairs. Artificial restrictions on many things have been removed, most importantly, the removal of the restriction on the number of floors in parking garages under residential occupancies.

In contrast the NFPA codes, which are still under development, will be a compilation of codes developed by several organizations including NFPA, the International Association of Plumbing and Mechanical Officials (IAPMO), the American Society of Heating and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE), and the Western Fire Chiefs (WFC). The NFPA set of codes will not be as complete and comprehensive as the ICC codes, and they will not have all of the ICC codes' accessibility provisions. Most important, they will not have HUDs endorsement as a safe harbor for designing in accordance with FHAG.

The 18-month development cycle for the NFPA building code is also a major problem. Whereas the ICC took five years, including several drafts and two full code cycles, to develop the International Building Code, NFPA will be publishing the first edition of the NFPA building code after 18 months and with only one code development cycle. Because of the truncated procedure and the rush to make a code available, the NFPA building code will not have the detailed review that has been completed with the ICC Codes. Even now, as we go into the final months before publication, the first real draft of the code has not been released and many of the technical code provisions have not been resolved.

For these various reasons, NAA/NMHC have throw their support behind what the ICC does. Local apartment firms are encouraged to support the adoption of these codes at the local level and to actively oppose the adoption of the soon-to-be-published NFPA codes. For a copy of talking points in support of the ICC codes, contact Michelle Mathis at NAA at 703/518-6141 or via e-mail at

ICC Set of Comprehensive Codes Developed Under the Government Consensus Process:

* International Building Code;

* International Fire Code;

* International Residential Code;

* International Plumbing Code;

* International Mechanical Code;

* International Property

* Maintenance Code;

* International Energy Conservation Code;

* International Fuel Gas Code;

* International Zoning Code;

* International Sewage Disposal Code; and

* International Code Council Electrical Code.

NFPA Family of Codes Developed Under the NFPA True Consensus Process:

* NFPA 5000 B Building Code (Under Development)

* NFPA I B Fire Prevention Code (Under Development)

* IAPMO B Uniform Plumbing Code (2000 Edition of the Codes Is Not ANSI Approved)

* IAPMO B Uniform Mechanical Code (2000 Edition of the Code is not ANSI Approved)

* ASHRAE 90.1 B Energy Standard for Buildings Except Low-Rise Residential

* ASHRAE 90.2 B Energy-Efficient Design of New Low-Rise Residential Buildings

Ron Nickson is NAA/NMHC Vice President Building Codes.
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Date:Jun 1, 2001
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