ASHRAE, Building Codes Development, Adoption

Codes are designed to be good building practices. They are not meant to penalize or add needless requirements, said David Terry, executive director of the national Association of State Energy Officials. Understanding how codes are developed and adopted and knowing how to appeal codes at both the local and international levels can help engineers address their code challenges.

Code Development

Organizations usually call on code officials, engineers, architects, contractors and others to form committees that review the model codes and discuss code change proposals.

It is important to have subject matter experts such as engineers participate in the process at the international and state levels because they can help others understand the technical side of the industry and requirements, said Sara Yerkes, the International Code Council’s (ICC) senior vice president of governmental relations.

“Engineers are respected because engineers want to build well. They want to build safe and resilient buildings, and they want to follow the rules,” she said.

The latest versions of codes are usually scheduled to be released every few years. The ICC’s International Codes are released every three years, said Yerkes.

The code development process is open and transparent, as required by law, Yerkes said. If someone wants to change a part of one of the ICC’s codes, they can submit a proposal, which is discussed during public hearings.

“If you’re not happy with the end result, you can appeal,” Yerkes said.

The latest revision of International Codes was released in early September. As part of the three-year cycle, the ICC will begin working on the 2021 International Codes early next year. This first step is the ICC asking for volunteers to review the codes, said Yerkes.

Code Adoption

Codes are released on schedules like clockwork but their adoption process is not as clear-cut.

Some states, like California, adopt and enforce the codes throughout the state, while states, including Illinois, designate agencies to enforce the building codes. Other states, including Delaware, enforce home rule policies that allow local governments to adopt the codes or not.

“We don’t encourage the codes being amended down, but we recognize the authority of the jurisdiction to adopt the codes to review and amend and to fit their climatic, geographic needs or local needs,” Yerkes said.

It is not uncommon for three editions of codes to be adopted throughout the United States, she said.

States and local jurisdictions tend to adopt the most up-to-date codes quicker if builders in those locations are already developing high performing buildings and earning LEED certifications, Terry said. The latest codes are not too big a leap for those professionals, he said.

On the other hand, high performing buildings are not the norm in some places, according to Terry. Adopting the latest version of the code could be more expensive and difficult for that location, which explains why they would be resistant to the changes, he said. Some states have stakeholder meetings around the adoption process to get feedback and input from the building community to help both sides understand what is in the code and what is being considered for adoption, Terry said.

Others work with their building communities when deciding whether to adopt certain aspects of the latest codes, Terry said. Jurisdictions in some states can adopt modified versions of the codes if some aspects reach too far or are too expensive to implement.

“It’s not all or nothing. They’re trying to move forward together. A lot of that has to do with relationship building and a certain amount of trust,” he said.

In Virginia, code officials work with the building community during the code adoption process as well, Yerkes said.

Code Challenge Tips

The model code development process in imperfect, but industry professionals are still legally required to adhere to the codes, said Steve Taylor, P.E., Fellow ASHRAE.  Taylor, a member of SSPC 90.1, Energy Standard for Buildings Except Low-Rise Residential Buildings, who served as ASHRAE’s liaison on the International Association of Plumbing and Mechanical Officials (IAPMO) Mechanical Technical Committee for more than 10 years. Taylor said there are a few ways industry professionals can work around challenges with codes.

“Almost all codes have the ability to get approved for changes,” he said.

At the local level, engineers can submit an alternative means and methods request (AMMR) that explains what the code calls for, why the code is not practical and what the engineer proposes to do instead.

Local code officials approve AMMRs, so the request’s success depends on the code official, Taylor said. Some code officials are strictly by the book, and they might not approve AMMRs.

Sometimes local code officials proactively change a problematic code item if it is addressed in a newly released code revision, he said. If a code is changed in the 2018 version, the 2015 version can be retroactively addressed because the code adoption process can take years. Taylor said code officials treat these like an unofficial AMMR and are common practices.

If there is a dispute with a code, talking with a local code official should be the first step toward resolution, Yerkes said.

Some states and local jurisdictions allow certain flexibilities if builders want to use a certain aspect of a more up-to-date code, but there might be location-specific restrictions.

“It would be a case-by-case situation, dependent on the jurisdiction and what that jurisdiction will permit,” Yerkes said.

On the international level, engineers can also submit code change proposals that could change IAPMO’s codes, Taylor said. The ICC also has an appeals process.

Taylor said he has submitted dozens of code change proposals to IAPMO’s Mechanical Technical Committee. When doing so, Taylor recommends providing lots of substantiated rationale that supports the proposal’s technical correctness. He said this increases the chance of the proposal being accepted.

Another recommendation is for a local ASHRAE chapter to submit a code change proposal as a group instead of as an individual. He said code change proposals carry more clout if the committee recognizes the entity, such as ASHRAE chapters.

“You also get various input for numerous people and not just one person, so we can actually make the language better by having more people editing it,” he said.

Working with Colleagues, Code Officials

While working with different versions of the codes can be frustrating for engineers, local code officials also feel challenged, said Terry.

Terry said some local governments lack financial resources and staff, and local code officials try to understand what engineers are asking of them and how the code could be implemented. Even the more robustly funded local governments face struggles, he said.

Yerkes said the ICC has more than 350 chapters that are available to help building professionals work through code issues. Several code ambassador programs associated with the National Association of State Energy Officials are available to help as well, Terry said.

“Having a relationship with a code official is always a good thing,” Yerkes said.

Because some code requirements do not make technical sense, Taylor said ASHRAE members, chapters and the Society need to take a more active stance regarding code development at the national, state and local levels.

“We’re so passive. We generally accept whatever the codes are,” he said. “We can be more active.”

This article was written by Mary Kate McGowan, Associate Editor, News and originally published in the October 2017 issue of ASHRAE Journal.

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