Catching a Code

Building codes are a critical but confusing issue for states. Technology and consolidation may make them more user-friendly.

by / April 15, 2002
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 "Until the political debate is settled, we are stuck using an out-of-date 1997 code that could cost us with FEMA if there is a disaster and our buildings are not up to modern national standards."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 umbrella organization for a coalition of 44 national organizations is sponsoring the National Alliance for Building Regulatory Reform in the Digital Age, a task force that presented their findings to the National Governor's Association in August.

"The goal is to streamline the nation's building regulatory process through innovative uses of information technology," proclaimed the organization's Executive Director Robert Wible. The group expects the regulatory coming together will enhance "the public's social and economic well-being through safe, durable and efficient buildings for living, working and recreation."

Since that can be difficult to measure, some more concrete action items were developed, including the reduction of regulatory processing time by 60 percent. By February 2002, the NCSBCS Tech Task Force hopes to create a list of hardware and software available and itemize the cost of adopting, training and creating interoperability. At the same time, it is collecting a list of the basic laws in all states and, by June of that year, hopes to develop language for legislation that will allow multi-jurisdictional streamlined building regulatory processes. Funding for all this data collection will come from the members - U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, Partnership of Advancing Technology in Housing, International Alliance for Interoperability, National Institute of Standards and Technology and National Institute of Building Sciences and public and private grants.

Already the group has collected 52 examples of best practices of technology applications. CodeBuddy, from Carl Mileff & Associates, a building code consulting company in Fresno, Calif., makes the building code process user-friendly by keeping everyone involved in a project up-to-date on the latest code changes and showing the impact of each regulation in an easy-to-understand format.

Another California-based software, Smart Permit, which is supported by Joint Venture: Silicon Valley, goes one step farther than "paving the cow path" as some have described the effort to repackage the hodge-podge of code. In addition to categorizing and explaining existing code, the nonprofit organization has gathered together chief building officials from 27 Bay Area cities and two counties and reduced the local amendments from 400 to 11 while including strict seismic standards. Using this simplified set of rules, the two pilot cities, Sunnyvale and San Carlos, have pledged to get building inspectors involved earlier in the process. The program was a finalist in the Innovations in American Government Awards competition and is seen as a model that could work in other places where moving quickly is essential.

Aldona Valicenti, CIO of Kentucky and past president of the National Association of State Chief Information Officers, is convinced that finding a way to move information quickly is an important part of the answer. Her office was already working on a system to streamline the exchange of data for the Department of Justice when she was asked by the Governmental Accounting Standards Board (GASB) if the same systems could help in the regulatory process without investing in new infrastructure. "Every state reviews buildings. If we could just get them all to agree on what they are looking for, we wouldn't have a bottleneck, something we can't tolerate in one of the most viable sectors in the nation," she said.

If things work out the way the GASB hopes it will, local governments could end up agreeing not only on what they will inspect, but the codes their bookkeeping will be measured by.
J.T. Long Contributing Writer