September 2023 Professional Engineer’s Perspective: Why Has the Profession Allowed Various Interests to Produce Differing Model Codes?

It is interesting to note that engineering principles are based on science, physics, and mathematics. Regardless of where they are applied, these engineering principles remain unchanged—so why do the plumbing codes differ in their application of these principles? While codes must address various climatic conditions, the underlying principles remain the same regardless of the jurisdiction in which they are applied, so you would expect there to be one recognized set of codes to cover all aspects of a construction discipline.

For instance, the United States has a nationally recognized (and referenced many places internationally) National Electric Code. This code is also known as NFPA 70, published by the National Fire Protection Association. It’s curious that this standard/code on electrical policies and procedures is produced not by the electrical engineering community or the recognized model code developers, but by the fire protection community, which does not mean that the electrical engineering community was not involved in its development or that it was developed outside of sound engineering principles utilizing the underlying science and physics. It also is worth noting that it is a single recognized national code for the electric discipline.

If you review the current model plumbing codes side by side, you will note slight differences, but they are also very similar. Why can we not come together and utilize one set of model codes based on sound engineering principles? Codes should not be influenced by politicians, economics, conflicting jurisdictions, or industry groups; the principles of engineering, science, physics, and mathematics do not change when one crosses some imaginary line.

The Purpose of Codes and Standards

To be an American National Standard (ANS), a standard/code must be developed under the ANSI (American National Standards Institute) open consensus process, which does not allow any one group or special interest to have control over the process. It must go through public review to ensure that all interested parties have input into the final product.

It has been and remains my firm belief that codes and standards should be developed to protect the public’s health, safety, and welfare. This is truly the foundation of our profession. These documents should be developed under an open consensus process in which no one group of stakeholders has control or any more input than any other stakeholder. That is why the ANSI-accredited process was developed and should be followed for anything intended to be recognized and employed on a national or international level. Following an ANSI-accredited process removes, to the greatest extent possible, special interests or stakeholder bias, and takes away the control of any specific individual or group of stakeholders overriding the public’s best interest.

Standards and building codes are the foundations for protecting public health, safety, and welfare by providing for safe and sustainable communities. These standards and codes must be based on sound and validated scientific principles; hence, a wide community of stakeholders is needed to develop and edit these documents.

Standards are developed to provide the industry and professionals with requirements on specific areas of interest, processes, procedures, materials, etc., in the establishment of an acceptable standard of care—whereas codes are the minimum provisions covering a broad subject matter to protect public safety. Codes and standards are intended to provide guidance to the design professionals who have the responsibility of producing designs that meet or exceed the minimum requirements, while also meeting owners’ requirements and protecting public health, safety, and welfare.

With this in mind, I’ll share an article written for another group that discusses differing processes used by two of the major model code organizations.

The ANSI Process vs. the Governmental Process

Recently, I wrote an article called “The ANSI Process vs. Governmental Process: A Plumbing Professional Engineer’s View.” This was followed by a response article titled “Everyone Has a Voice in Building Code Changes.” These two articles by engineering peers are differing views of the two major model code developers—the International Association of Plumbing and Mechanical Officials (IAPMO) and the International Code Council (ICC)—and discuss the processes by which they develop model codes.

In my judgment, the IAMPO ANSI-accredited development process produces a better product because final decisions are made by the consensus body in accordance with the ANSI Essential Requirements for due process. Due process means that any party (organization, company, government agency, individual, etc.) with a direct and material interest has a right to participate by expressing a position and its basis, having that position considered, and having the right to appeal. Due process allows for equity and fair play.

On the other hand, as stated in the response article, ICC allows its Governmental members to have the final decision-making authority. It is that author’s opinion that these Governmental members have produced safe, science-backed life-safety codes and standards for many decades. While that may be correct in his view, it is not an open process that is accredited by ANSI. The ICC process is controlled by a single group of stakeholders, the Governmental members (agency heads, code officials, AHJs, plans examiners, inspectors, and public health officials). Some of these Governmental members may be registered Professional Engineers or registered architects, but that is only a small portion of the total membership.

No Vote, No Voice

Governmental members having the final say on what gets amended in the code is not a balanced, democratic process where all voices are welcomed. It is a closed process in which a single group of stakeholders controls everything in the otherwise open process. It is an oxymoron: one cannot have a democratic process if the people do not have a right to vote or have their say. Until the majority of those involved has the final say, it is the minority stakeholders (Governmental members in this case) who control the process. What ICC in essence is admitting is that everyone may have a voice, but not everyone has a say. How can you have a voice without having a vote?

The author of the response article believes that the Governmental members have no financial interest at stake. However, every stakeholder (whether governmental or non-governmental) has a vested interest—personal, financial, or otherwise—in the process and the ultimate outcome for one simple reason: we all collect a paycheck for our everyday work. That is why due process is so important to minimize such interests. ICC states, “First, and perhaps most importantly, they [Governmental members] have no financial interest at stake. Public safety is their first concern, and their decisions on code are made through that filter.” However, Governmental members are not the only sector responsible for public safety. Governmental members are responsible for reviewing designs to ensure that they meet the minimal requirements of the code. Design professionals, whether they are engineers or architects, also have the responsibility and legal obligation to protect public health, safety, and welfare through their designs. When these professionals place their signature and seal on contract documents, they attest to the Governmental members that the design meets the intent of the code and is therefore code compliant.

Conveniently not discussed in the response article was the matter of inconsistency in the ICC’s code development process: If the governmental consensus process, which differs from ANSI due process requirements, is acceptable in ICC’s view, then why do they claim to use an ANSI-accredited process within the IECC (International Energy Conservation Code)? I say they make this claim because the IECC does not comply with ANSI Essential Requirements for due process as required for all ANSI-accredited documents. Regardless, it seems strange that ICC makes this claim for only one code within the suite of ICC codes. The IECC skips various steps required by ANSI Essential Requirements for due process, which is why the IECC will not be published as an ANSI-accredited document. I, for one, would like to hear their reasoning behind this contradiction in procedures and why the plumbing (and mechanical) code development process should be different.

We All Must Be Involved to Protect Our Communities

I agree with the idea that model building codes must be based on a community’s best interests, but that can only truly occur when the entire community is actively involved in the entire process. The best interests of our communities must be protected through a fully open process such as an ANSI-accredited process.

I also agree with the idea that codes are not intended to be used as a design manual, whether the codes are prescriptive or performance based. The codes cannot cover every possible design scenario or newly developed technology. Since design professionals have the moral and legal obligation of protecting public health, safety, and welfare, they must be allowed to apply the appropriate criteria to the engineered design approach. Their approaches may exceed the minimum requirements of the codes without meeting the exact language of those codes. The Governmental members review the design for compliance with the requirements of the code and ask questions or seek clarification if they have concerns, but the design belongs to the design professional of record and the act of placing their signature and seal attests to compliance with the intent of the code.

Building professionals and governmental members all are working toward the same end: safe, resilient, sustainable, and affordable structures that support the health and wellbeing of users and occupants. The model code developers, IAMPO and ICC, as stewards of the codes need to follow processes that bring all interested stakeholders together to ensure that these codes support the use of modern and cost-effective approaches to design. However, as in any democratic and open process, the onus is on all interested parties and stakeholders to participate so every opinion is heard and no one person or group of stakeholders has the final word on acceptance of the codes or their modifications.

I don’t have a preference for which model code organization produces these national codes, but it is time to stop having competing interests that do not fully follow an ANSI-accredited process. It is also an added cost to the consumer to maintain such competing interests. It is time to settle on a single set of model codes that are nationally recognized and developed through a fully compliant ANSI process—or at least that is my point of view. What is yours?

About the Author

David D. Dexter, FNSPE, FASPE, CPD, CPI, LEED BD+C, PE, is a registered Professional Engineer, Certified Plumbing Inspector, and Certified Plans Examiner with more than 40 years of experience in the installation and design of plumbing systems. He specializes in plumbing, fire protection, and HVAC design as well as forensics related to mechanical system failures. Dave serves as Chair of ASPE’s Main Design Standards Committee, Chair of the Bylaws Committee, Co-Chair of the College of Fellows Selection Committee, and Co-Chair of the Professional Engineer Working Group. He also was the 2008–2009 President of the Engineering Foundation of Ohio, 2010–2011 President of the Ohio Society of Professional Engineers, and 2012–2014 Central Region Director for the National Society of Professional Engineers.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and not the American Society of Plumbing Engineers.

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