The Nation’s buildings have never been safer. Fire deaths have declined significantly—the 10-year trend in the fire death rate per million population decreased 21 percent from 2001 to 20101 —and new buildings incorporate lessons learned from previous hazard events to better protect their occupants. These improvements are largely the result of strong building codes and a regulatory system focused at the state and local level. And the majority of these codes and standards for constructing safe, efficient buildings are developed by private-sector organizations.
Unlike the standards development process in most other countries, the United States relies on the private sector, rather than the government, to develop and disseminate building codes and related standards. There are several reasons why the private sector has taken a prominent role to promulgate such criteria.
State and local governments in the United States are responsible for the adoption and enforcement of building codes as one of their governmental functions. In the past, these same entities also were the parties responsible for developing the codes themselves. This meant the potential for thousands of different municipalities placing thousands of different code requirements on manufacturers, designers and contractors.
In the early part of the last century, realizing the significant impact such a system had on the building industry (not to mention the expense on thousands of communities to develop their own codes), regional groups of building officials began to form to develop "model” building codes that individual jurisdictions could adopt, thereby improving consistency across municipalities, reducing costs and providing a forum for exchange of best practices and lessons learned. Today, that process has evolved into a national model code system that supports consistency and certainty for the manufacturers, designers and contractors that make up a large segment of the national economy and delivers buildings and structures that serve the needs of our nation’s citizens.
Still facilitated by private-sector organizations consisting of safety officials from jurisdictions across the nation, the model code development process is open to anyone who wishes to participate and the entire process is transparent. State and local code officials play a prominent role in the development process and have the opportunity to interact with design professionals, manufacturers and builders to seek the most effective and affordable means to provide public safety. These state and local officials are ultimately the parties responsible for enforcing the provisions and they often learn about new and innovative solutions through these interactive experiences with professional colleagues. While the debate on the need or legality of a federally imposed building code is a discussion for another day, the current infrastructure at the state and local level has allowed for strong "boots on the ground” understanding and enforcement of building codes.
A key value of this system is consistency and certainty—which ultimately benefits the U.S. economy, U.S. businesses and U.S. citizens. The U.S. Congress2 and the Office of Management and Budget3 both have recognized the value of this private-sector-led system. This private-sector-led process also supports the incorporation of new technologies and innovations through a consistent development process.
If private-sector organizations cannot be compensated for their work, they will no longer be able to invest in the development process, leaving existing standards to remain stagnant (thus inhibiting innovation); restricting the ability to address emerging safety issues that impact the built environment; and shifting future standards development back to governments (with government bearing the expense, while abandoning the long history of private-sector involvement). In a fiscal environment where state and local agencies are currently struggling with tight budgets, it appears unwise to add an additional budget item when the current private-sector method is already achieving the goal—public safety.
Realistically, with state and local governments unable to fund codes and standards development, the responsibility would very likely shift to the federal government. Despite all good intentions, the federal regulatory system is neither quick nor timely, and there is limited federal infrastructure to take over the current process.
As the entity established by the U.S. Congress to serve as "an authoritative national source to make findings and advise both the public and private sector with respect to the use of building science and technology in achieving nationally acceptable standards and other technical provisions for use in Federal, State and local and housing and building regulations,”4 the National Institute of Building Sciences remains committed to assuring the nation’s buildings provide the safety, security, efficiency, productivity and resilience our communities demand.
Though not perfect, the current system of private-sector-administered building codes and standards—coupled with an effective state and local enforcement infrastructure—has served our Nation well.
Making codes and standards readily available to the public is an important factor in securing safe and affordable buildings. (Many codes and standards development organizations already provide access to their criteria through the Internet. Libraries and local building departments also have the books available for reference.) However, abandoning the current system of code development and ceding to the short-sighted calls to make access to codes and standards "free” today will have long-standing—and expensive—consequences to the safety of our buildings and communities tomorrow.
Should you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to contact me.
Henry L. Green, Hon. AIA
1U.S. Fire Administration, Overall Fire Death Rates & Relative Risk (2001-2010). http://www.usfa.fema.gov/statistics/estimates/trend_overall.shtm
2National Technology Transfer and Advancement Act (NTTAA)
4Public Law 93-383