Viewpoint: Building code adoption, enforcement trends suggest decreasing safety

Reduced attention to building codes means reduced safety for new homes and businesses.

Ralph DorioBy Ralph Dorio

There has been a decade of steady progress toward implementing a single national model building code in all communities across the country. Since the legacy code groups combined forces to release the first international code in 2000, many states have put such model codes into effect. Adopting and enforcing the latest model code ensures that buildings will be constructed to the highest level of engineering knowledge available, promoting safety for the occupants and emergency responders, structural stability and sustainability.

However, as the pace of new construction has slowed significantly, economic issues threaten code adoption and enforcement progress in many areas of the country. Many states have slowed their new code edition adoption rate, which is a problem because as construction methods and materials are constantly evolving, so are proper application and installation procedures. The latest edition of the codes guides designers and builders in the proper application and installation of the complex array of interdependent systems in a modern building.

Because many local building code agencies depend entirely on permit fees to fund their operations, many are suffering now as new building construction rates are low. A sizable number of communities have cut back on staffing, loading up remaining workers with inspection and code enforcement responsibilities or curtailing operations. In places where code enforcement is not mandatory, communities could eliminate their departments altogether or outsource to private code enforcement agencies. Adopting updated building codes may present communities with additional costs of reviewing the national code for local suitability, purchasing code books for staff, and training staff in the newly adopted code.

Since the mid-1990s, the Jersey City, N.J.-based Insurance Services Office (ISO) has been monitoring code adoption and enforcement activities through its Building Code Effectiveness Grading Schedule (BCEGS) program. In 2002, the year before code groups published the 2003 code, 90 percent of departments had adopted the 2000 code. In 2005, the year before the industry published the 2006 code, 50 percent of departments had moved to the 2003 code. Then in 2008, the year before the industry published the 2009 code, slightly more than 40 percent had moved to the 2006 code. It appears that just 30 percent of code agencies will adopt the 2009 code before the publication of the 2012 edition.

Analysis of ISO BCEGS data demonstrates that the national code adoption and enforcement landscape varies significantly. But around the country, adoption of the latest code edition is slowing, so local code enforcement agencies cannot require the latest construction features despite the intent of code development groups. And to complicate the issue further, analysis of BCEGS data also reveals that the revenue-to-expense ratio of local building code enforcement agencies is dropping. That means future budgets will be even harder to balance — leading to staffing and workload issues.

The importance of communities adopting and enforcing the latest codes is particularly evident in the 2009 residential code — the first to require the installation of residential fire sprinklers in new one- and two-family dwellings. Studies from communities that have adopted the regulation show that they have reduced their fire loss by 80 percent and have not had a loss of life fire in a residence with fire sprinklers.

The 2009 International Building Code also has many new requirements for the structural stability and wind resistance of commercial buildings. One noteworthy example enhances the general structural integrity of high-rise buildings by establishing minimum requirements for tying primary structural elements together. Studies of recent wind events have shown that wall sheathing can fail in wind speed as low as 60 miles per hour. New provisions use structural panels to resist wind pressure.

Local officials will need to make critical decisions to retain the integrity of the essential mission of code administration. ISO continues to monitor, evaluate and report the status of code effectiveness to insurers and the building code community. It will be important for insurers to track those trends carefully with the BCEGS program. The future of code effectiveness may well hang in the balance.

Ralph Dorio is community hazard mitigation manager at ISO Risk Decision Services,

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