Viewpoints

Community safety, sustainability goals at risk

By Ryan M. Colker

Buildings across the United States support the economic and social fabric of our communities. Many communities look to assure that these buildings are designed and constructed in accordance with their community’s norms for safety and sustainability. And the responsibility for oversight of the design and construction process often falls to a community’s building department or code department. However, these departments and the people that make them function are under increasing stress—to the point that the realization of community goals may be in jeopardy unless state and local governments and the building industry take action.

Two related, but different, phenomena are leading to this pending crisis. First, current code professionals are set to leave the profession in droves. Second, the recent recession and increasing responsibilities have strained the financial and technical resources of departments across the country.

The Code Professional Workforce

A recent survey of nearly 4,000 code professionals conducted by the National Institute of Building Sciences (Institute) on behalf of the International Code Council (ICC) revealed some alarming results. Eight out of ten code professionals surveyed expect to retire in the next 15 years, with three in ten expecting to do so in the next five years. Couple that with the staff size of the departments they are leaving—almost 80 percent of respondents work in departments of less than 15 employees, and 57 percent of departments have nine or less—the results could be devastating. More than half of the nation’s building and code departments would be left with only one or two of their current employees still on the job in the next 15 years.

While the survey results are alarming, they present an unprecedented opportunity to reinvigorate the code profession and support a much-needed technology shift. Many current departments still rely on the tried and true methods of permitting and plan review. Attracting and retaining the next generation of code professionals will depend on the ability of communities to update their process to incorporate technology-based solutions. Paper-based processes (or even the automation of a paper-based process) just won’t cut it. Building information modeling (BIM) and automated code checking for routine plan reviews will drive efficiencies in the process and attract technology-savvy entrants. The local architecture, construction and owner community can help guide that journey—they have significant savings to gain. ICC has taken the first step to deploy technology in the code development process through introduction of online participation (see Not Your Father’s Code Development Process).

The work of code professionals is invaluable, yet they are largely unknown in a community until a building-related incident occurs. Community leaders have an opportunity to build respect and drive current students and building professionals to careers as code professionals. As one survey respondent indicated, “If you stop and think about the inspection you just performed, the plans you just reviewed or the complaint you just settled, you can consider yourself a pre-first responder.”

Under-resourced Code Departments

Code departments bear a lot of responsibility—from assuring life-safety to verifying compliance with energy or sustainability requirements. As indicated above, this responsibility falls to incredibly reduced staffs. Staffs were impacted by the recent construction slow down and strains in state and local budgeting. Departments have not yet caught up with the increasing construction demand, and many don’t see relief in sight.

As construction fell in communities, code departments saw major cuts in budgets and, thus, staffs (despite the fact that many departments were expected to be self-funded and had built up surpluses during the boom years for just such a scenario). Like many skilled workers in the industry, many code professionals left the field and have not returned. The staff that remained now must cover an increasing portfolio of projects. Time spent on training just results in a further backlog of inspections and plan reviews.

In order to support the safety and sustainability of the nation’s communities, it is imperative that the budgets, training opportunities and personnel of code departments reflect the valuable services these departments provide to communities across the United States. State and local governments need to take action. Now is the time to assess capacity to realize community goals, identify long-term needs and prepare for the future. Examine whether budgets and staffing match the contribution the department provides to realizing community goals. Invest in your staff through education, training and professional certifications. Invest in your local building industry’s contribution to the local economy by implementing technology into the code department to facilitate efficiency. Invest in code-related careers through mentor and ride-along programs for students. And, most importantly, highlight the important role code professionals play in realizing the community’s safety and sustainability goals. Federal agencies also need to support state and local efforts by providing technical assistance and supporting development of tools to support education and training, as well as code administration, adoption and enforcement.

Representatives from federal, state and local governments and the building and insurance industries are focused on this important issue and working to establish a path forward. They will meet later this month in a Town Hall Meeting during the ICC Annual Conference in Ft. Lauderdale. This pressing issue needs a multi-faceted response. The continued safety and sustainability of our communities depend on it.

Ryan M. Colker serves as presidential advisor at the National Institute of Building Science. Established by the U.S. Congress, the Institute works across the public and private sectors to support improvements in the built environment. In addition to his advisory role, he serves as director of the National Council of Governments on Building Codes and Standards (NCGBCS).

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Derek Prall

Derek Prall is a professional journalist who has held numerous positions with a variety of print and online publications including The Public Manager magazine and the New Jersey Herald. He is a 2008...

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Jason Axelrod is an award-winning journalist who has reported for The Seattle Times, The Arizona Republic, the Phoenix Business Journal and Mother Nature Network, among other outlets. Jason...
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