Julius Ballanco: Code change process makes national headlines
ICC and the New York Times
The ICC held its annual conference and code change hearings in Las Vegas (Clark County) the last two weeks of October.
In the middle of the hearings, the New York Times published what appeared to be a scathing article regarding the ICC code change process. The article insinuated that there was a secret deal between ICC and the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB). The implication was homebuilders have an unfair advantage in getting code change proposals either approved or disapproved.
There was so much discussion about the article that I had to download it (www.nytimes.com/2019/10/26/climate/building-codes-secret-deal.html) to see exactly what was stated. To the credit of the Times, many of the statements were correct. However, some of the implications were not accurate.
The article insinuates that energy groups consider the deal ICC established with NAHB as being secret. Clearly, the energy groups are upset that they did not receive favorable consideration of their code changes to the residential section of the ICC International Energy Conservation Code. While calling the ICC/NAHB deal a secret, many of these energy groups have been late to the table compared to the longevity of ICC, not knowing the complete history of the organization.
You need to recall that ICC actually started with the Plumbing Code. The three legacy code groups first started meeting in 1993, with the first code being the International Plumbing Code, published in 1995. ICC finally became a complete entity with the merger of BOCA, ICBO and SBCCI in 2000. However, technically, the organization formed in 1994.
In 2002, ICC formalized an agreement with NAHB. Part of the agreement was NAHB would support and promote the adoption of the ICC codes in various states and local jurisdictions. In return, ICC would provide NAHB with four seats out of 11 on the Residential Building Code Committee, the Residential Plumbing and Mechanical Code Committee and the Residential Energy Conservation Code Committee.
Using the term so prevalent in media today, it was a “quid pro quo.” While that may sound underhanded or sleazy, quid pro quo is a part of what takes place in our daily lives, and certainly within the codes and standards profession.
The Times identified the agreement with NAHB as being secret and not disclosed. However, that is not accurate, since all of us involved in the code profession knew about the agreement when it first was announced. ICC did not hide the fact that NAHB was getting four seats on the various residential code committees. That was well known.
In the long run, I think ICC got the better end of the deal. The homebuilders only received four out of 11 votes. That means, even if they voted as a block, they could be outvoted. Hence, not a great deal for NAHB. From ICC’s perspective, it sure does help to have the support of NAHB to get the codes adopted throughout the country. NAHB is one of the strongest lobby groups for construction. It is a plus to have them on your side.
The AGA deal
What I found interesting is the article did not pick on another agreement made by ICC; this time with the American Gas Association. AGA managed to get a sweeter deal than NAHB. The AGA agreement allows ICC to use sections from the National Fuel Gas Code, which is jointly published by NFPA and AGA, but AGA owns the copyright. In return for using parts of the National Fuel Gas Code, AGA gets six seats out of 12 on the Fuel Gas Code Committee. The other part of the agreement is that none of the AGA representatives can serve as chair of the committee. The remaining six committee members must be from code enforcement (inspectors).
The AGA deal makes it so AGA completely controls the outcome of the code changes to the Fuel Gas Code. The ICC rules only allow the chair to vote in the event of a tie. With only 12 people serving on the committee, there is never a tie. That means the vote is usually 6 to 5 for the controversial code changes that AGA wants approved. Quite often, when there is a 6 to 5 vote, the ICC voting membership overturns the outcome of the committee.
As Mike Pfeiffer, senior vice president of ICC, pointed out in the Times article, that is the checks and balances of the system. The same process of outvoting the NAHB representatives takes place with residential code changes.
What appears to be the instigation of the article is disgruntled energy groups who have struggled to get some of their code changes approved. If the energy groups cannot gain approval of the Residential Energy Conservation Committee, it takes a two-third majority to overturn the committee at the annual meeting. That is a tough hurdle to overcome.
In defense of NAHB and the ICC membership, some of the energy group code changes fall into the category of outrageous. They are asking for changes that will cost a significant amount of money, many times without any payback. Other times, builders are asked to spend hundreds of dollars to save pennies in energy costs.
Too many times, energy groups want to spend whatever it costs simply because there may be less energy use. From an engineering perspective, there needs to be a payback to justify an energy code change, otherwise the item becomes an option.
For example, some energy groups would like every new home to have a plug-in located in the garage for an electric vehicle. This is based on the possibility that the homeowner may buy an electric vehicle. In response, what if they never buy an electric vehicle? Why should they pay the price to install a plug-in?
These are the kind of code changes that the energy groups think everyone should simply accept. Whereas, NAHB does not have a problem ques-tioning the mentality behind such code changes. In the long run, NAHB has been able to convince other committee members to agree with them when a less-than-appropriate energy conservation code change is proposed.
The only plus for ICC is that it made front page headlines in the Times. Maybe the slant of the article could have been different, but at least it got most (not all) of the facts correct.
With that, I wish you all a Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah and Happy New Year.