BSSC’s First Executive Director, James R. Smith, Dies

James R. Smith, the first executive director of the National Institute of Building Sciences Building Seismic Safety Council (BSSC), passed away June 21.

Smith graduated from The Catholic University of America in 1953 with a bachelor’s degree in architectural engineering. For the first five years of his career, Smith worked for E.I. duPont de Nemours Co. In 1958, he moved to the Naval Facilities Engineering Command, where he had an exciting engineering experience with atomic testing in the Pacific after World War II. He then joined the staff of the Building Research Advisory Board (BRAB) at the National Academy of Sciences.

During his 23 years there, Smith participated in the preparation of the "Douglas Report.” Senator Paul Douglas held extensive hearings about the state of housing and buildings in the post-war United States. The resulting report ultimately led to the creation of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and the National Institute of Building Sciences.

"During his time at the Academy, Jim had been frustrated by the lack of any process to address the practical application of science to the many issues facing the building community,” said Gerald Jones, former BSSC chairman, past Institute chairman and longtime colleague. "He saw a pressing need to bring together engineering, commercial and societal resources to work together to solve these kinds of problems, so he and several staff members were able to include the skeleton of the Institute in the language of the report and, eventually, the legislation creating the Institute.”

As the newly created Institute was organizing, the Applied Technology Council completed an extensive research project to develop a new concept of seismic design titled ATC-3. The project, which was funded by the National Science Foundation and the National Bureau of Standards, was the result of intense involvement by the research, academic and engineering communities. Reviewers of the project recognized that for the document to be accepted as a consensus standard, it needed to be exposed to a much broader consensus process involving industry, regulatory and societal input. A group of building community leaders decided to establish a Building Seismic Safety Council (BSSC) specifically to conduct such a process. Not wishing to create a new independent bureaucracy, they arranged for the council to be integrated into the National Institute of Building Sciences as its first council.

The Institute established the BSSC in 1979. Smith was appointed its first full-time executive director in 1982. This coincided with the Institute’s signing of a $600,000 contract with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). The funding would enable the BSSC to assess and refine the tentative provisions and submit the revised document to a consensus approval process that reflected a broad cross section of the building community with an interest in seismic design and construction. The result of this initial project was the first edition of the NEHRP (National Earthquake Hazards Reduction Program) Recommended Provisions for Seismic Regulations for New Buildings, which was issued in 1985.

"I first met Jim in 1972 just after my husband and I moved to the D.C. area and I got a job working for the Building Research Advisory Board at the National Academy of Sciences,” said Claret Heider, recently retired Vice President of BSSC. "I then worked directly for him when he moved to the Institute, and the next couple of decades are ‘history.’ Jim taught me just about all I needed to know to begin working as a technical editor on seismic design issues, a topic about which I knew almost nothing initially.”

"We spent those early years working to establish our credibility and to demonstrate to those in the seismic community the need for an organization that would give materials manufacturers, contractors, labor and others in the building community, as well as designers, a voice when it comes to seismic design and construction,” Smith recalled upon his retirement from the Council in 1998. "Truthfully, not until the past decade or so has the general public begun realizing that earthquakes are not strictly a California phenomenon.”

BSSC was established as a voluntary membership body of the Institute, with the fundamental purpose of enhancing public safety by providing a national forum that fosters improved seismic safety provisions for use by the building community in the planning, design, construction, regulation and utilization of buildings. It served to represent a wide variety of building community interests.

"Jim had enormous respect for the expert volunteers who contributed to BSSC projects. Sharing his understanding of how best to collaborate with such dedicated folks was probably Jim's greatest gift to me,” said Heider. "The Institute and all who knew Jim benefited tremendously from his friendship and the knowledge he so freely shared.”

Several major accomplishments occurred during Smith’s time at BSSC. In 1992, FEMA selected BSSC to receive its Outstanding Public Service Award. In presenting the award, then FEMA Director Wallace Stickney recognized BSSC "for its uninterrupted series of major accomplishments on behalf of an improved seismic safety of the built environment in this country.” Most significantly, by the mid-1990s, the nation’s model building codes reflected the seismic design concepts presented in the NEHRP Recommended Provisions, which had been updated every three years since 1985, and, when the International Code Council (ICC) was created, Smith was instrumental in obtaining FEMA support for the BSSC to ensure that the initial versions of ICC’s relevant International Codes also reflected the Provisions requirements. During his time at BSSC, the organization distributed more than 70,000 seismic documents to technical professionals and the public, and conducted ongoing education and training efforts.

"Jim worked tirelessly over the years to engage the many diverse (and often contentious) interests and thus forge provisions that were fair and useable by the building community and are now fully encompassed in the building codes of the United States and around the world,” said Jones. "His fingerprints are all over the buildings constructed in the last 30 years. We owe him ‘big time’ and I will miss him greatly.”

James R. Smith is survived by his wife, Dolores Hynson Smith, of 59 years, nine children, 26 grandchildren and 10 great-grandchildren.


The National Institute of Building Sciences,authorized by public law 93-383 in 1974, is a nonprofit, nongovernmental organization that brings together representatives of government, the professions, industry, labor and consumer interests to identify and resolve building process and facility performance problems. The Institute serves as an authoritative source of advice for both the private and public sectors with respect to the use of building science and technology.

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