The ball is now in the court of Pennsylvania’s General Assembly, which has two bills before it that, if passed, would mandate how frequently the state’s Uniform Construction Code Review and Advisory Council (RAC) must consider adopting the latest building codes, which the Washington-based International Code Council (ICC) revises every three years.
Until recently, reviewing and revising codes were pretty much rote exercises in the Granite State. Indeed, Pennsylvania adopted ICC’s 2009 codes for construction, energy efficiency, remodeling, gas, plumbing, and fire with only minor omissions, says Frank Thompson, RAC’s chairman and owner of Sweetwater Builders, a general contractor based in Cranbury Township, Pa.
What changed the game was the passage, in 2011, of House Bill 377, better known as Act 1. That legislation gave the Council, which was established three years earlier, more authority over the code adoption process. The bill requires a two-thirds majority within RAC before any updated code is accepted.
Last year the Council—whose 19 members include builders, architects, code officials, engineers, and building inspectors—reviewed the 2012 ICC codes, and held public hearings, but chose not to adopt them. An officer with the Pennsylvania Builders Association, Joe Mingioni of Edgemont, Pa.-based Mingioni Construction, is on record stating that RAC’s decision not to adopt should be interpreted as a “policy statement” that the revisions weren’t needed.
Thompson doesn’t go that far. But he explains that RAC chose not to adopt because “we felt the codes were changing too quickly,” and that its members simply did not have enough time to consider the revisions properly.
Review extension sought. RAC has presented a proposal to the General Assembly that a “major” review to adopt ICC codes should be conducted every six years, with “minor” reviews done every three years so that any significant changes in energy efficiency or building practices that would benefit Pennsylvania aren’t missed. “We think our recommendations, which include ample time to review and modify provisions, are the best way to improve the process,” says Thompson. “We have tried to put together a commonsense approach, and serve as a backstop to the ICC process.”
RAC’s proposal hasn’t sat well with some elected officials and environmental groups that see an elongated review process as an end-run around more rigorous code adoption and enforcement.
“We’d like Pennsylvania to have modern efficient building codes,” says Andrew Sharp, southeastern outreach coordinator for PennFuture, a Harrisburg-based environmental group that recently launched a web portal, BuildItSafe.org, to inform the public about the value of applying the latest building codes.
On September 23, the state’s Senate Labor and Industry Committee heard testimony on Senate Bill 1023, which along with House Bill 1209 calls for Pennsylvania to reinstate the triennial review and adoption process. Both bills mandate that RAC—which the Senate bill would expand to 21 members—reviews the latest code revisions, holds public hearings on them, and submits a report to Pennsylvania’s Secretary of State within 12 months of ICC publishing its new codes. Provisions specified for either adoption or rejection would be designated separately in that report.
The Senate bill requires a two-thirds majority within RAC to reject any code revisions.
NAHB weighs in. This debate about code revisions isn’t confined to Pennsylvania. On Dec. 27, 2012, Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder signed into law a bill that extends to six years from three a requirement to periodically update the state’s building codes. And last October, NAHB and the American Institute of Architects sent letters urging ICC to reconsider its code cycle. “We believe that a longer interval between published code editions would make it easier and less expensive for builders and contractors, architects, engineers, manufacturers, and building officials to manage change,” wrote Dwight Richardson, chairman of NAHB’s Construction, Codes, and Standards Committee.
But don’t expect ICC to yield any time soon. Sara Yerkes, the Council’s senior vice president of government relations, explains that the code cycle seeks consensus from many constituencies. “This is a membership decision, and there are many stakeholders at the table,” including, she acknowledges, manufacturers looking to get their products into the code’s language as quickly as possible.
Yerkes predicts that if ICC went to a five- or six-year revision cycle, the time between the publication of revised codes and their implementation by states and municipalities would get longer, too. She notes that California, which mandates a three-year review process, won’t start enforcing the 2012 code until January 1, 2014.
Yerkes adds that many code changes revise existing codes that have been rendered outmoded by technology and building practices. “I would bet your cellphone is going to be obsolete in three years, and the same is true of some codes.”