What Role Should the Federal Government Play in Our Industry?

Julie Ruth
August 30, 2013
COLUMN : Code Arena | Codes & Standards

“What role should the government play in our daily lives?” This question has been debated for centuries, with no clear answer.

The question takes an interesting twist when we consider it from a building code perspective. Code enforcement is, by its very nature, a branch of government that reaches into where we live, work and play. From the moment we wake in the morning—and even while we sleep— building codes affect our lives.

Key to Success

In most instances, government bodies enforce building codes, and in the U.S., this happens at the state or local level. The key to success is the public’s acceptance of these codes.

The general public’s apparent willingness to accept the building codes might be attributable to the open, democratic process used to put them in place. From the ICC code development process to hearings at the state and local level, there is ample opportunity to make one’s voice heard. Jurisdictions have appeals boards, for example, to hear challenges to the local code official’s ruling. If the challenger does not receive satisfaction through this procedure, he or she can take the jurisdiction to court or appeal to a higher-level government body. The latter happened in Florida in the late 1990s, when general contractors felt the codes put in place after Hurricane Andrew unfairly limited their choice of building products and methods of construction. The result was the Florida Building Code process many of us know and feel strongly about today.

Cooperation ―and strife ― at the local , state and federal level

Although state governments can mandate the level of code enforcement in local jurisdictions, the federal government cannot mandate the level of code enforcement in the states or their localities. Hence, we have the rather unique situation of representatives from federal agencies asking local code officials to adopt and enforce federal regulations. The International Code Council and its legacy agencies have a long history of working with federal agencies to determine appropriate code provisions.

For example, ICC/ANSI A117.1 is the result of decades of cooperative effort between ICC and its legacy agencies, the U.S. Access Board and numerous other interested parties to determine how to appropriately comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act. Also, much of the floodplain and seismic provisions of the I-codes are based upon recommendations from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

So, the ICC and federal agencies can—and have—worked together successfully in the past. More recently, however, we’ve seen some resistance to federal agencies’ involvement in the development of the I-codes. This resistance began when the U.S. Department of Energy threatened to pass federal legislation that would give it the right to develop and enforce energy conservation codes if the ICC and ASHRAE did not meet the performance goals DOE had established. DOE has a long history of successful participation in the ICC process. But this was the first time it resorted to making threats to accomplish its agenda.

The ICC met the DOE’s performance goals with the introduction of the 2012 International Energy Conservation Code, but now local jurisdictions are balking at having the federal government dictate provisions to them. Many state and local jurisdictions accepted the DOE incentives to adopt and enforce the 2009 IECC, and several states are enforcing this code. But according to the ICC website, only five states have adopted the 2012 IECC to date.

This seems to indicate reluctance on the part of local jurisdictions to accept the mandates of the federal government.

Local government pushback against federal involvement was particularly evident when the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency sought to make changes to the 2012 I-codes for the 2015 editions. The EPA proposals basically would have required local code officials to enforce state and federal laws. This would have included enforcement of the Lead Reduction and Replacement Program. Local code officials said, repeatedly and consistently, “no”.

Finding the Right Balance

Political conservatives might argue that the less government interferes with our lives, the better, while liberals might advocate a government-based social agenda. In the end, I believe most Americans would agree that we need to find the right balance between the two. It would appear the same is true with regard to building codes. The I-codes, in particular, have benefitted greatly from the involvement of various federal agencies in the past. But that doesn’t mean federal agencies should dictate the content of the codes. Finding the right balance is key to moving forward. 

Code Arena is brought to you by the America Architectural Manufacturers Association. Julie Ruth may be reached through AAMA at 847/303-5664 or via e-mail at julruth@aol.com.