“Definition: 2.1.1 Governmental Member — A Governmental Member shall be a governmental unit, department or agency engaged in the administration, formulation, implementation or enforcement of laws, ordinances, rules or regulations relating to the public health, safety and welfare. Each Governmental Member shall designate its Primary Representative who will receive benefits of membership in the Council on behalf of the Governmental Member as determined by the Board of Directors from time to time.” — Bylaws for the International Code Council

“Provision: The International Code Council develops construction and public safety codes through a governmental consensus process. The governmental consensus process leaves the final determination of code provisions in the hands of public safety officials who, with no vested financial interest, can legitimately represent the public interest. This system of code development has provided the highest level of safety in the world for more than 90 years.” — Code Development Process — ICC

When I saw the lines above on the ICC website, as a licensed professional engineer, I got a little “fired up” by the implication that anything other than the public interest would motivate participation in the code development process. The ICC only allows government representatives who are also ICC members to have the final say in code development.

But that is really not fair to professional engineers or other stakeholders. Rules, regulations and standards are there to protect the public good. We engineers have a duty to serve the public good. It is expected — demanded even — that we apply our knowledge in the making of sound judgments as it relates to code development. We are expected to fairly evaluate the proposal placed before us. We are expected to be fair in our judgment of said proposals without regard to outside solicitation or inducement.

Stakeholders, governmental members and vested financial interest

“Governmental members” may desire a public perception of having “no vested financial interest in” the development process. But there is no requirement or mandate for them to be transparent in avoiding conflicts of interest. Registered professional engineers, on the other hand, must recuse themselves from decisions when there is a perceived or actual conflict of interest. Failing to do so can mean a reprimand, suspension, fine or even the loss of licensure.

With their educational background and demonstrated and verified competency in their discipline, registered professional engineers have long proved that they are an important part of the code development process. After all, expertise should be the most important factor in developing a code.

While many “governmental” stakeholders may not intentionally tilt the final decision, the best way to guard against the possibility is for all stakeholders to be represented, with no single group having control.

Installers, inspectors and manufacturers are also important to the code development process. Each of these stakeholders brings a different, valuable and needed expertise to the process. But the question remains: How can everyday citizens make sure everyone in the process is acting on behalf of the public good and not some hidden agendas?

The answer is ANSI’s (American National Standards Institute) consensus process. ANSI provides third-party guidance and oversight, ensuring that individuals from different backgrounds have a seat at the table. ANSI’s requirements ensure that a code development process is open, balanced and addresses the priorities of designers, code enforcers, construction communities, consumers, the general public and others. Together, this group focuses on sound technical decisions that protect the health, safety and welfare of local citizens at the lowest possible upfront and long-term costs.

While many “governmental” stakeholders may not intentionally tilt the final decision, the best way to guard against the possibility is for all stakeholders to be represented, with no single group having control.  

Bottom line: Every step of the code development and alteration process needs to be open, transparent, and subject to consensus within the process as well. This is especially true for the composition of its deciding members.

No one individual nor any group, regardless of their well-meaning intentions, should have control and final say when it comes to the protection of public health, safety, and welfare.

The ICC is the only model code developer that not only allows but requires the final decision on code to be made only by “Governmental” members (except for its energy code; more on that below).

That is not a consensus process.

IECC “going ANSI” = inconsistently

The ICC does indeed claim to follow an “ANSI-like process” when it comes to the International Energy Conservation Code (IECC). But in reality, the IECC fails to comply with due process requirements of ANSI, including the submittal of PINS (Project Initiation Notification System), BSR (Board of Standards Review), ANSI approval, or a third-party appeals process. Furthermore, this “ANSI process” that the ICC follows is not subject to audits, an important part of the official ANSI accreditation process. The ICC made the switch in its procedures last year when problems occurred in its governmental-member-only process.  The problem is they didn’t switch the other codes that they develop to similar oversight: The International Plumbing Code (IPC), International Mechanical Code (IMC) and the other 11 “I-Codes” remain under the governmental code process.   

The ICC gave these reasons why an ANSI process is preferred over the governmental process for the IECC:

  • “The topics included in the energy code require more technical discussion than currently allowed;”
  • “Switching to an ANSI standard process would prevent “manipulation” of vote;”
  • “Switching to the ANSI standard would allow for more consideration of cost-effectiveness and quicker responses to new technologies …”

I couldn’t have said it better!

So now the question is: If all these considerations apply to the energy code, why do they not apply to the governance of plumbing and mechanical systems as well? Plumbing, in my experience as a professional engineer, requires quite a bit of technical discussion.  

And why wouldn’t the ICC want a process that not only allows for more consideration of cost effectiveness, but also speeds up the response to new technologies? Heck, why don’t these arguments extend to mechanical codes, building codes, etc.? Why should any jurisdiction accept a code that isn’t developed by an ANSI process? With concerns of waterborne pathogens and water quality increasing, while water resources have been diminishing, with viruses surviving in human waste, medical gas system capacities being taxed by global pandemics, and the digitalization and electronification of plumbing systems occurring, the plumbing industry is undergoing a very rapid rate of technical change.

Even the American Institute of Architects (AIA) and others have pointed out this inconsistency and asked why all 13 I-Code books aren’t developed the same way as the IECC is now.

ANSI code process = best science and best interest for public good

It would appear that the ICC remains committed to giving governmental members the final say on code changes. This is not, in my judgment, in the public’s best interest. The ANSI process requires the code development to be open and transparent. It allows for more technical discussion. While ICC committees and working groups may try to be “balanced (no one group of stakeholders having a majority or control),” they are under no requirement to be. And it’s a moot point since committees and working groups don’t have a vote and can be completely overruled when it comes to final code language.

The ICC has no incentive to change its practices without the demand of the stakeholders as well as municipalities adopting their building codes.

This is why, as a professional engineer who specifies in plumbing, I think the Uniform Plumbing Code (UPC) may be a better selection for a plumbing code. I prefer codes to be developed under the ANSI process, and I like the Uniform Codes for plumbing and mechanical standards use that process.  Because the ANSI process leads with the science to help communities build resiliency and more open process. Codes need to be based on science, to prioritize flexibility, and to allow for performance considerations and not necessarily be prescriptive. The UPC appears to do this better than the ICC.

The UPC is the only plumbing code that follows the ANSI process and uses consensus from a balanced technical committee made up of a wide variety of interest groups to make decisions. To recap why that matters:

  • The ANSI process is the best process to develop standards and codes because it allows for needed technical discussions; input from all affected stakeholders;
  • The ANSI process is transparent and prevents manipulation of votes;
  • The ANSI process is THE code development process that gives engineers like us — and other interest groups that care about public health and safety — not only a voice but a say in code development;
  • The ANSI process requires public review and comment; and
  • The ANSI process requires the ability to appeal, both at the developer level and to ANSI. That additional oversight is important if/when something goes astray.

While the Uniform Codes do subscribe to the ANSI process, a word of caution must be offered, the final code approval group is heavily influenced by plumber/pipefitter associations (the UA in particular). Many of the changes proposed by the consensus group are often overruled, for their own reasons/agenda, by the plumber/pipefitters associations. Also note that the UPC is much more restrictive on the subject of venting. Many of the IPC venting systems are not found in the UPC. Since these venting systems are simpler and a proven means of venting, they require less labor and material.  This is where the laws of engineering, science, and physics should prevail as they do not change by jurisdiction.

As a licensed professional engineer, I took a solemn oath to protect the public health, safety and welfare above all other considerations. IAPMO in the UPC agrees and follows a process that gives engineers a voice and a say — and that difference is worth knowing when adopting plumbing codes: Which code really serves the public interest?

The views expressed here are strictly those of the author and do not represent PM Engineer or BNP Media.