2021 Workshop

Double Vision: Industry and the U.S. Building Code

Color print of burning city and people fleeing.
Chicago in Flames: Scene at Randolph Street Bridge, hand-colored lithograph by Currier & Ives, 1872-74. [Library of Congress]

On a cold Boston day in March 1895, six men gathered in the offices of the Underwriters Bureau of New England to discuss what would soon become the National Fire Protection Association or NFPA. While small building fires remain common today, fires at the turn of the 19th century were significantly larger and more deadly; nineteen of the 20 deadliest fires in U.S. history occurred before 1948, according to NFPA records.1In 2001, the September 11 terrorist attacks at the World Trade Center became the deadliest fire in U.S. History, killing 2,666 people and shattering the previous record set in 1865. “Deadliest Fires and Explosions in U.S. History,” NFPA News & Research. Presumably, tragedies like the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, which killed approximately 300 people and left a third of city residents homeless, loomed in the minds of the officials gathered at the Underwriters Bureau.

On a cold Boston day in 1895, six men gathered to discuss what would become the National Fire Protection Association.

Since its creation, the NFPA has established guidelines mandating safety features like smoke alarms and fire sprinklers that have helped to mitigate hazards and reduce the danger of building fires — especially the types of disasters common before the organization’s founding. Remarkably, however, the purpose of that six-man gathering in Boston was not to discuss public safety or saving lives. Of the six, five represented insurance companies. The other was the president of a Boston firm that made fire sprinklers, a technology that had recently been invented.2“The Men Who Made the NFPA,” NFPA Journal, May & June (1995): 97. The NFPA’s own account of this meeting tells us that these men did discuss the risks posed by building fires, but it was financial risks they sought to mitigate. Through the creation of a uniform fire code, insurance underwriters and sprinkler-company executives sought to reduce liability and turn a profit, respectively. From its inception, in other words, fire code has served dual agendas, both protecting public safety and advancing industry interests.

The same duality can be traced in the histories of other agencies who are today entrusted to write and update U.S. building codes. A 2013 study by the Environmental and Energy Study Institute reports that the International Code Council or ICC — the organization responsible for writing and revising the most prominent building codes used throughout the United States — provides “a baseline for estimating and managing risk” to “an insurance industry grappling with the effects of climate change and extreme weather.”3Ellen Vaughan and Jim Turner, “Report: The Value and Impact of Building Codes,” EESI: Environmental and Energy Study Institute (September 30, 2013). Organizations such as the NFPA, the ICC, and others create and maintain living documents known as model building codes. Model codes are the template for almost every building code implemented across the country, and are adopted at the state level — often as-written in the model document, or with very minor changes. The reach of these organizations thus touches us all, from high-rise developers in New York City to homeowners in Paradise, California.

Throughout the long history of building code in the U.S., industry has played a strikingly active role in its development.

Across the U.S., nearly all structures must comply with the codes adopted by their state and community. There are model codes that apply to general construction, materials selection, fire safety, environmental control, seismic safety, plumbing, energy efficiency, and many other aspects of building. They impose minimum standards designed to promote safety and occupant comfort, and are supposed to ensure that a building can withstand climate conditions in its locale. At a moment when weather and climate are increasingly unpredictable, however, it is essential to understand who writes the building code shaping our built environment, and how its evolution unfolds. For, throughout the long history of code in the United States, industry has played a strikingly active role in its development. While public safety and human well-being are, of course, the mission of nearly all the organizations who write code, their boards, sponsors, and even names are intimately tied to the industries they regulate.4For example, ASHRAE, the American Society of Heating, Refrigerant, and Air-Conditioning Engineers, is responsible for writing the environmental codes that regulate these industries. ASHRAE creates code that “advanc[es] human well-being through sustainable technology for the built environment.” Yet the organization’s name itself contradicts this mission, given that heating, refrigerant, and cooling systems account for the lion’s share of harmful emissions from the built environment. What might such code look like if the (fictitious) “Foundation for Passive Environmental Controls” were in charge?

Every fall, building professionals, industry reps, regulatory agents, and anyone else who pays to attend the ICC’s annual conference gather to discuss how research, innovation, building products, and construction trends from the past year correspond to the current version of the model code, and to vote on additions and revisions.5Attendance at the public-comment hearings is free and open to anyone, but all other aspects of the conference require a registration fee. Attendees are surrounded by industry advertisements, imprinted on their hotel keycards and emblazoned on banners and kiosks throughout the event hall. Industry donors like the American Gas Association and the American Concrete Institute receive special recognition.6See the list at International Code Council, “2021 Sponsors.”

Among a slew of conference speakers, networking events, and typical conference gimmicks are the annual “Code Hearings.” Throughout the year, the ICC receives public comments, suggested revisions, and supporting documentation from any “interested party” through an online submission process accessed through its webpage. Members of the ICC’s fifteen code-development committees deliberate regarding these proposed revisions, and decide what changes to incorporate into the model code, which is updated every three years. Committees are composed of design and construction professionals, industry representatives, local inspectors, and public-safety officials, each selected by the ICC Codes and Standards Council for qualifications and experience. These members join the committee not only as objective experts on safety and building construction, but also to subjectively represent the interests of their industry, agency, or constituency. The process of amending the code, in other words, is contingent on a small number of experts making decisions that must simultaneously weigh the requirements of life safety, the interests of their constituency, and their subjective understanding of the public’s well-being.

The critical question is not whether the subjectivity of code officials is problematic, but whether or not the current code-development system is equipped to synthesize the multitude of subjectivities required to address the challenges facing our built environment, and to respond with urgency. Of course, a majority of the experts best equipped to guide the development of model codes will be members of the industries and professions those codes will come to bear on. There is no avoiding this overlap, and the ongoing dialogue between regulators and industry is part of what makes model codes effective. However, we must recognize that what is best for a particular industry’s “well-being” will not always align with that of the general public — much less the rapidly changing conditions of our global climate. The reality is that while building code is shaped by a multitude of interests, some of the most pressing concerns affecting public safety and well-being are poorly represented in the current code-development process. In a moment when our society and our buildings face existential threats from a changing climate and natural disasters, maintaining the building code — and scrutinizing the processes that shape it — is a responsibility that architects, designers, engineers, and every other practitioner who shapes the built environment can no longer afford to ignore.

Page of 43 corporate logos.
The International Code Council’s 2021 Visibility Prospectus, with logos of the professional associations, insurance agencies, and other regulatory agencies that sponsor the ICC.

Notes

  1. In 2001, the September 11 terrorist attacks at the World Trade Center became the deadliest fire in U.S. History, killing 2,666 people and shattering the previous record set in 1865. “Deadliest Fires and Explosions in U.S. History,” NFPA News & Research.
  2. “The Men Who Made the NFPA,” NFPA Journal, May & June (1995): 97.
  3. Ellen Vaughan and Jim Turner, “Report: The Value and Impact of Building Codes,” EESI: Environmental and Energy Study Institute (September 30, 2013).
  4. For example, ASHRAE, the American Society of Heating, Refrigerant, and Air-Conditioning Engineers, is responsible for writing the environmental codes that regulate these industries. ASHRAE creates code that “advanc[es] human well-being through sustainable technology for the built environment.” Yet the organization’s name itself contradicts this mission, given that heating, refrigerant, and cooling systems account for the lion’s share of harmful emissions from the built environment. What might such code look like if the (fictitious) “Foundation for Passive Environmental Controls” were in charge?
  5. Attendance at the public-comment hearings is free and open to anyone, but all other aspects of the conference require a registration fee.
  6. See the list at International Code Council, “2021 Sponsors.”

About the Author

Tyler Gaeth

Tyler Gaeth is an architectural designer and researcher based in Ann Arbor, Michigan. His projects interrogate how political, ideological, and ecological systems come to bear on the built environment, and influence the physical world. Gaeth received his Master of Architecture from the University of Michigan and a Bachelor of Science in Architecture from the University of Minnesota.