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Building Code Regulations Are Boring, But They Are Also Vital

By Mrcreosote | Think Pieces | July 21, 2017 |

By Mrcreosote | Think Pieces | July 21, 2017 |

Building and fire codes are like the old canard about war — 90 percent tedious dry boredom, and 10 percent horror and fear. The Grenfell fire was that 10 percent writ large. The only positive aspect of the tragedy was for a brief period people are willing to talk about building codes, or in fact regulations in general-why they matter and why they’re needed.

Perhaps the most frustrating and enraging part about this fire is that it’s happened before. Many times. Azerbaijan, 2015. Dubai, twice in 2012 and 2015. Chechnya, 2013. Turkey, 2012. Shanghai, 2010. Qatar, 2010. It goes on and on, all the pictures and videos looking chillingly similar. Giant Roman candles, with debris crashing down on surroundings. High rise residential buildings are a nightmare under the best of conditions-adding fuel to the outside just makes things much worse.

So, knowing all the issues with flammable exterior cladding, why would officials allow it? Why wouldn’t the building code prohibit something that seems so obvious? Why would this material even be an option? Why not sprinkle the damn buildings before tarting up the outside, so that wealthy neighbors can have a better view?

Because there were not enforced regulations.

Codes are intended as the bare minimum set of requirements to design buildings-you can always do more. As a matter of fact, given construction tolerances, more should be built in. However, on most projects, particularly government projects, the bare minimum is often all there is funding for. If the base level of cladding is allowed, it will be used. If retrofitting sprinklers or a fire alarm system is not required, or their lack is grandfathered in, it will not be done. Not out of malice, or cartoonish evil, but simply because there is never enough money. The assumption is if it’s allowed, it’s safe.

And why not sprinkle the buildings first? Insulating the buildings has a payback, fire protection does not. Energy consumption drops, utility bills are more manageable, and the building is more comfortable. For facilities with limited resources, lowering these bills is huge, not to mention it is good PR. European countries have much better environmental building standards than the US-energy is more expensive, and frankly Europe cares more. Fire protection and accessibility, however, are more enforced in the US. Younger building stock, larger building footprints, and extensive energy subsidies make energy efficiency less important.

Energy conservation however, doesn’t align with fire protection. All the best insulation is flammable. Non-flammable insulation is less effective, more expensive, and more high maintenance. That’s why there are extensive regulations in the US about using combustible materials in the skin of buildings. It’s both a compromise to allow these materials in some applications, and a check on their use in the more vulnerable situations. Without these tests and restrictions, the assumption is if they can be used, they must be safe.

Sprinklers are a pain to install, they never provide payback, and you anticipate never having to use them. Therefore, they must be required. Otherwise they won’t be installed. There have also been quotes from officials that they were not installed because of the inconvenience of the work. This is true, installing a new, building-wide water-based system is a pain in the ass. It’s certainly easier to reskin the exterior of a building, where the work can be done with less interruption of day to day life. This is why there are regulations that require a building is brought up to current code if substantial work is done. I suspect this is where any blame for the Grenfell fire will be placed. There was a lot of work done on a building that cannot possibly have met code (mea culpa-I’m not familiar with London code, but I’m pretty sure it’s not 40 years behind the US). The existing building requirements are often up to interpretation. A lot of pressure can be brought to bear on a local building official, even one for a major metropolitan area. The assumption is, if they’re not required, it’s safe.

Look, when regulations work like they are supposed to, nothing much happens. A fire in a unit is extinguished and becomes an insurance claim. A potentially unsafe building material can’t get approval to be used, so it’s either reformulated or isn’t brought to market. Water comes out of your tap, pretty much like you expect it to, and you really don’t think about it. Your elevators have load limits listed on little yellow pieces of paper you joke about when your whole family is going up. Your neighborhood is comprised of houses and businesses, not houses and a fertilizer warehouse with shoddy storage practices that occasionally blows up. This is the strength of codes, but also their weakness.

London has had a conservative, business oriented government for some time. These governments detest regulations. They will find and drag out a ridiculous rule or statistic (And inevitably there are some) and flog it saying “See, this is impeding progress! How can we expect to grow the economy and make money in the face of those oppressive impediments?” And this is a pretty effective argument. The rules are boring, tedious, and often a massive pain in the ass. About 90 percent of the time.

The other 10 percent of the time, they will offer thoughts and prayers, and maybe even prosecute some hapless contractor, or minor government functionary. But, even when rules are tightened, it’s only a matter of time before there is interest in making them more flexible. One of the major reasons these fires haven’t happened in the US is that there are a series of tests and regulations that limit or prohibit combustible material on commercial buildings, and require fire suppression on most building above single-family dwellings. These rules have been in place since a series of Las Vegas fires in the early ’80s. In the past few years however, there has been a quiet push to roll these regulations back, because nothing has happened, so what purpose could these regulations serve? And although this push has failed at the highest levels, some local jurisdictions have rolled back requirements. Washington DC, Minnesota, Indiana, and Massachusetts have eliminated some requirements for combustible materials in sprinklered buildings. Not in high rise buildings, but in smaller residential and commercial buildings.

These regulations are complicated, expensive, and interdependent. The tests are of systems, not components, meaning every change in design has the possibility of making a building non-compliant. They are also boring as hell, and not the fun part of either design or construction. No one wins awards for “safest building” or “least likely to become a flaming deathtrap.” This usually means the only people who pay attention are those with a vested interest, and that almost always means money. Developers, investors, shareholders-all the usual suspects. Who the hell else is going to sit in a meeting in a windowless room discussing the flame spread rating of polyiso insulation and how far apart fireblocking needs to be installed? Hell, I dozed off typing that last sentence. But, I urge people to try. Because this is what government can do well. It can provide a floor, beneath which standards will not fall. And that means lots of bad things will not happen. And in this context, things not happening is pretty damn exciting.

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Dustin is the founder and co-owner of Pajiba. You may email him here, follow him on Twitter, or listen to his weekly TV podcast, Podjiba.