What is the Right Code?

I have seen a lot of change in warehouse construction and operations. When you have been designing and operating warehouse facilities for almost three decades, you get to see a lot of change in the technology and practices.

Still, some foundational aspects of the job never change. Like asking the local building officials what model codes they follow.

If you asked the head of any building department 20 years ago, you would hear things like BOCA, UBC or SBC, depending on location of the project. All this changed as the three different regional building codes combined into a single model code in 2000, the International Building Code (IBC).

If you just plan to follow the IBC, you might find that while the Building Department inspector is happy, the fire inspector is not. The fire departments like to use the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) model codes as their reference, specifically NFPA 1.

You might think that these departments would get together and use the same set of rules. While on the surface that idea makes sense, when you look beneath the surface and consider the separate missions of the building and fire departments, you begin to understand why there is a diversion in codes.

The Building Department’s mission concerns code compliance in the construction of new buildings, and it has little authority to enforce compliance in older buildings. The only time the building department can force a building owner to upgrade to the latest code is when the building owner makes a change to the building that requires a building permit. Unless the changes are major, many of the upgrades building owners make do not require permits. When they do, many older buildings are protected from the code upgrades by grandfather clauses.

Building codes have purposes beyond simple public safety. Building codes address handicapped accessibility, aesthetic appeal, building setbacks, and height restrictions. While some building codes address safety, far more of the code involves how things appear.

Fire codes are different. Fire inspectors can choose to inspect buildings that are open to the public, and they also inspect multi-tenant residential properties (such as hotels, apartment complexes, and condos) in the name of public safety. Fire codes address not only new buildings, but existing buildings. Fire inspectors have more power to force a building owner, or the operator of a leased building, to make changes.

Life and Safety Codes

Life and Safety codes in the US date back to 1913, and began with the efforts of the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) Committee on Safety to Life. In 1913, the committee analyzed notable fires that had killed people, searching for the causes of the fires, and the reasons why people died. The work led to the development of the first building codes addressing exits in public buildings like factories and schools, and to standards for exit stairways, fire escapes, fire alarms, and drills. This work became the basis for two early NFPA publications, "Outside Stairs for Fire Exits" and "Safeguarding Factory Workers from Fire."

Written for construction contractors and building trades, these publications were not laws or regulations. But the deadly Cocoanut Grove nightclub fire in 1942, and a series of deadly fires in 1946 at the La Salle, Canfield, and Winecoff hotels brought about a serious change to the NFPA Building Exits Codes, changing the focus in order to examine how to build structures that protected people. With this new emphasis, the title of the code was changed to Code for Safety to Life from Fire in 1966. The Winecoff fire in particular ignited debate about enforcement of new life and safety codes in older buildings. Until the 1946 hotel fires, ex post facto code enforcement met resistance from those who claimed that such enforcement amounted to unconstitutional taking of property. With new legislation, building code standards enforcement spread beyond new construction to existing buildings.

Model Codes Develop

The NFPA codes are not national codes. Building code enforcement is a local activity, undertaken at the municipal level. The NFPA codes are an example of model codes.

Many building departments developed their own sets of building codes in the early 20th century. There was no uniform code from city to city, let alone from region to region. As the country grew, building development grew and there was a need for more uniform codes. Local officials lacked the breadth of knowledge and the financial resources to develop their own codes, so they looked to committees of experts to help develop model codes.

Model codes helped building officials develop their own local codes. The building official either adopted or accepted the model code to use in his jurisdiction. Simple adoption, and acceptance without modification, became the norm for many smaller cities and towns, while the building departments in major cities adapted parts of the model codes to their own building codes.

Developed by standards organizations like the NFPA, the Building Officials Code Administrators (BOCA), the Southern Building Codes Conference (SBCC), or the Council of Building Officials (CBO), model codes are the result of a pooling of financial, intellectual, and technical resources. The organizations continued to research and update the codes to include the latest technology and techniques, releasing updates to a planned schedule.

In the US, three model building codes developed on a regional basis. Building officials on the East Coast and in the Midwest embraced BOCA, officials in the South used the SBC, and officials in the Western US used the UBC of the SBC. Add to this mess of regional adoption the Fire inspectors' use of NFPA, and the manner in which the NFPA Electrical Codes became the model code of Electrical Inspection, and the confusion grows.

Which Code?

When I worked on warehouse and distribution center projects in the 1980s and 1990s, I learned to ask the local building officials what model they based their codes on. Simple things like mezzanine handrails became troublesome as the three model codes did not agree on requirements for the number of intermediate rails, the distance of the rails, or the anchor attachments. A system designed for Georgia could run afoul of a sharp-eyed inspector in California.

Things started to simplify as the three different regional model code organizations combined their codes into a single unified code, the International Building Code (IBC) in 2000. Again, while it was not the law of the land, the IBC was a unified code, and after publishing, the code became the model that building departments adopted or adapted. Still, change is sometimes slow. Recently I asked a building official if they had adopted IBC. The official got a strange look on his face, and said they used BOCA.

NFPA had developed a building code along the way, as the oldest of the standards organizations in the building trades. Initially NFPA participated in the effort to develop a combined national model building code until the release of the first draft of the proposed new code. NFPA chose to partner with the International Association of Plumbing and Mechanical Officials (IAPMO); the American Society of Heating, Refigeration, and Air Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE); and the Western Fire Chiefs Association to create an alternative set of codes that conformed to American National Standards Institute (ANSI) established practices for the development of voluntary standards.

Powerful trade groups, including the American Institute of Architects (AIA), the Building Owners and Managers Association (BOMA), the National Association of Home Builders, and many real estate associations mounted strong opposition to the NFPA alternate codes. At first, these organizations attempted to encourage NFPA to abandon the alternative efforts and integrate the NFPA codes into the ICC code regime. As NFPA continued to create and release NFPA 5000, the resistance grew, with members of each of these organizations mounting political pressure in cities like New York and states like California.

The supporters of IBC like to proclaim that IBC is the national standard. Change is slow, however, and many municipalities use NFPA 5000 as their model code, or they use IBC as the building code and NFPA 1 as the model fire code. So it still is wise to ask the question about model code.

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Articles in This Series



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One of the changes in warehouse management over the last 30 years has been the enforcement of building codes when it comes to warehouse storage systems — specifically pallet racking. In the 1970s and 80s, permits for pallet racks did not exist. Most companies and building departments treated pallet racks as simply a piece of equipment.

That is no longer true. Most city building departments require a permit to erect and use pallet racks and other storage systems that are over 12 feet in height. In states where there is a high potential for seismic activity, like California and Western Tennessee, all storage rack systems over 8 feet require permits from the building department.

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Past Prolog

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What is High Pile?

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The answer is — it depends. It depends on the fire code used. It depends on the commodity being stored. It depends on the form of storage. Generally speaking, it is the stacking of material above 12 feet in height. For some products, however, even six feet is getting a bit high.

High-Piled storage fire and safety requirements started to appear in the 1990s, as some spectacular warehouse fires captured the attention of fire chiefs and life safety experts, who then focused their attention on the challenges of fighting fires in tall warehouse buildings. The codes that subsequently evolved followed the evolution of fire and building codes in general, and the application of codes across the local face of the US.

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