Stan Nishimura's job is to make sure California is up to code. As executive director of the Building Standards Commission, which coordinates codes adopted by various state agencies, he is at the center of a storm of controversy over who will determine what rules government administrators will use and how they will do it.

"The push to standardize building codes across the country began about 10 years ago," Nishimura recalled. At that time the organizations that produced the three most widely used codes in the United States, attempting to bring some consistency to a confusing, redundant system, agreed to standardize a set of regulations under the name International Code Council (ICC).

But before long, the ICC faced a challenge. The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) decided that since it wasn't invited to participate in the ICC, it would create its own code - known in its current draft stage as NFPA 5000. "Consolidation is a noble cause," said Ray Bizal, regional manager of the Western NFPA Building Code Field Office. "But competition is healthy and we need choices. If the federal government came out with one code, states would make amendments anyway."

Paying the Price for Politics

California has selected to use the NFPA code.

"California is choosing to go away from the rest of the country and it is unfortunate," said Tom Trimberger, a 14-year code veteran and senior mechanical engineer for Sacramento County. "Until the political debate is settled, we are stuck using an out-of-date 1997 code that could cost us with FEMA if there is a disaster and our buildings are not up to modern national standards."

In Trimberger's experience, California's decision to work off a different codebook is especially troublesome for large architects, builders and tenants. Designs for chain stores and restaurants often vary little from site to site and the ability to repeat the process saves tremendous time and money. Trimberger told the story of a retailer building a store in Sacramento that conforms to property clearance lines in most other states. Getting the project built required numerous site visits by the Minneapolis-based architect to justify a waiver and so much wasted time that the store will not open before the Christmas season as planned - a delay that cost the company and the city tens of thousands of dollars in lost revenue.

This debate would be merely academic if the stakes were not so high. Trimberger's 25 commercial inspectors work on more than 100 projects at any one time. Sacramento County permitted 4,000 homes last year and building now under construction in the city represents an investment of $1.4 billion. Statewide, that figure is closer to $30.8 billion, according to a 1998 U.S. Bureau of the Census estimate of gross product. Construction is the third-largest industry after agriculture and mining.

The stakes for code writers are even higher. Whoever represents the accepted standard controls what products are allowed, what seminars are given and how competitive the marketplace will be. "I worry that the new code endorses more labor-intensive work, but gives fewer options, thereby limiting the market and raising the price," said Trimberger. "This will hurt big builders, mom-and-pop operations and eventually the homeowner and tenant. The ultimate cost could be in the billions of dollars," he warned.

Bizal said the opposite would be the case. "NFPA 5000 includes performance-based criteria that will allow the use of alternatives. This - will lower costs."

A Technical Solution

Regardless of what code is eventually adopted, "The current regulatory and construction system is fragmented, uncoordinated and unpredictable among the 44,000 jurisdictions which adopt and/or enforce regulations," proclaimed the National Conference of States on Building Codes and Standards (NCSBCS) Web site. The NCSBCS has made finding a technology fix that will "build faster, better, safer and at less cost" its main priority. This

J.T. Long  |  Contributing Writer