Will the Evolution of the ICC Code-development Process Ensure its Future?

Julie Ruth
October 11, 2013
COLUMN : Code Arena | Codes & Standards

My daughter, Maria, taught our family about evolution. She explained to us that when living organisms—whether plants or animals—develop characteristics that uniquely suit their survival under specific conditions, those organisms become dominant over time. Over more time, the organisms that fail to adapt cease to exist. Some refer to this as “survival of the fittest.” Another way to view it is “seeking, and finding, the best solution for any particular situation.”

It was in memory of Maria that my youngest son, Anthony, and I traveled to the Galapagos Islands this summer. Anthony wanted to see “Los Tortugas Grandes.” I wanted to snorkel with sea lions. It had been on the top of my bucket list for a long time. And yes, we both got our wish. It was an incredible journey!

We were not very far into “La Adventura de su Vida”—the adventure of a lifetime, as we came to call it—when I realized that 30-plus years of a desk job had not prepared me at all for the Galapagos. Knowing the International Building Code and International Residential Code, and understanding the inner workings of ANSI A117, were of absolutely no value to me when trying to transfer from a bobbing boat onto a wet lava rock without going splat! Not only was the “dry landing” not handicap accessible, there were not even any handrails! Oh my!

The fact that my own lifestyle affected my ability to do what I wanted in the Galapagos served as a quick reminder to me that evolution is not limited to the plant and animal species. It applies to everyone, as we learn to survive in the environment we live in.

Beyond that, evolution is not limited to living organisms. Music evolves. Fashion evolves. If a language doesn’t evolve, it dies.

Styles evolve. How we design and construct buildings has evolved. A contractor that still builds the same way it did 30 years ago will not be in business very long in today’s world.

Business evolves. What new practices has your company put into place within the last six or seven years to survive? Are those changes permanent or temporary? Which of those changes will you maintain, and which will fall by the wayside?

Codes must also evolve to survive. Prior to the International Code Council, there were the three legacy code agencies—BOCA, ICBO and SBCCI—and the model codes they published. Before that, most local jurisdictions just wrote their own codes. But they usually didn’t have the resources needed to adapt the codes to changing construction practices. So, over time, the model codes evolved, became dominant and now only a handful of locally developed construction codes are still used.

Evolution of the code-development process

The content of the codes, and the code-development process itself, must also evolve. ICC is currently preparing to launch a new codedevelopment process called cdpAccess. The initial purpose of the program was to permit eligible voters—those representing governmental agencies—to participate in the ICC code-development process without having to travel to code hearings. So the ICC began to explore “remote voting.” As one ICC board member said, “If they can do it for American Idol, why can’t we do it for our codes?”

As the program developed, however, it evolved into something more extensive. In addition to remote voting capabilities, the cdpAccess program now features the use of a cloud-based database to develop code-change proposals, collaborate with others, submit proposals, attach supporting information and discuss proposals with interested parties.

The process will still include two sets of hearings each year: one in the Spring, when a committee of balanced interests will vote on the code-change proposals that have been submitted, and a second in the Fall, when eligible voters will vote on the code-change proposals and public comments.

However, now the Fall vote will not constitute final action. Once that vote is taken, a ballot will be sent to all ICC eligible voters to confirm or disapprove the action taken at the Public Comment Hearings. The final action on any proposal that received public comments will not be known until after this vote is complete.

What lies ahead

This new process embraces the latest in modern technology. It is clearly an example of the ICC code-development process evolving. But whether or not this evolution results in the survival of the International Codes remains to be seen. The primary questions are: Are the ICC codes responsive to changes in the built environment? And if so, do they adapt to those changes better than other codes a jurisdiction might choose to use instead? Specifically, are they the best solution for a jurisdiction?

It’s difficult to know just where this process of evolution will take the U.S. construction codes. Comparison to other models, such as language, art, fashion, etc., indicates that adaptation will continue.

To some extent, this has already occurred in the International Codes. When they were first published in 2000, the goal was to create one nationwide family of codes. Many jurisdictions did adopt the first edition without amendment. But almost immediately, some jurisdictions began the process of amending the International Codes as they adopted them.

The 2015 IBC was finalized three years before it was ever intended to be used. The revisions that were made between the 2012 IBC and 2015 IBC were decided before the 2012 IBC had ever even been tested. If a jurisdiction has adopted the 2012 IBC and made amendments specific to its own environment, by 2015, which code is it likely to consider better suited to its locality: the 2015 IBC or its own version of the 2012 IBC?

At what point do amended codes become a “new species?” And if they become a new species, does the original parent code eventually die out, just as Latin did while leaving behind French, Spanish, Portuguese and Italian?

These are hypothetical questions, of course. The more basic fact is that adaptation, and therefore diversity, of the U.S. codes will continue. This is necessary to find the best solution with regards to life safety, fire safety, energy conservation and sustainable construction.

For you, this means having to keep track of multiple sets of requirements. The larger the area you sell into, the more this is the case. It is up to you, the manufacturer, to develop your own unique solutions to this particular environment so that you may survive in it and become dominant.

Julie Ruth is a code consultant for the American Architectural Manufacturers Association. She can be contacted through AAMA at 847/303-5664 or via e-mail at julruth@aol.com. Ruth is also owner of JRuth Code Consulting.