When the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory caught fire in New York in 1911, padlocked doors and a lack of proper egress from the upper floors of the 10-story Asch Building contributed to the deaths of 146 garment workers. This watershed moment launched a massive reform movement in occupational safety and health standards, as well as fire safety. Over the intervening 100 years, prescriptions for fire-resistive construction have become a matter of law in the form of municipal and state building codes. And as every architect who has ever shepherded a design through the approval and permitting process knows, meeting these codes requires a fairly simple formula: The larger and taller a building is, and the greater the number of people who will occupy it, the more fire-resistive measures must be built into the structure. The basic concept is to compartmentalize the building into smaller spaces through fire-rated construction so as to limit the spread of a potential fire, to allow egress from the building, and to give firefighters time to put the fire out.

Yet, within this formula, there is room for quite a lot of variation. “The code doesn’t set specific requirements in terms of what the construction of walls and ceilings should be. It sets requirements of fire performance and continuity,” explains Richard Walke, a senior regulatory engineer at Underwriters Laboratories, the nation’s largest product-testing and certification organization. “It’s up to design professionals to make judgments of what types of materials they want to use and then to find a way of using those materials in wall assemblies that meet the performance criteria of the code.”

For architects, arriving at a code-compliant design that satisfies their aesthetic and functional goals may seem like a very dry process. But, especially on larger projects, going into the permitting process with a clear understanding of the code—and how to satisfy it—can save valuable time, not to mention millions of dollars.

From Model Code to Law

At the end of the day, state legislatures and municipalities vote building codes into law and take on the burden of enforcement. Before becoming law, however, codes begin life as model codes. Until recently, there were three different model codes in the U.S. developed by three separate organizations: the Building Officials and Code Administrators International, the International Conference of Building Officials, and the Southern Building Code Congress International. In 1994, these organizations created the International Code Council (ICC) as a joint effort to take on the monumental task of melding the three codes into one coordinated national model construction code. In 2000, the ICC released the fruit of this process, the International Building Code (IBC).

“ICC is a membership organization that generates the provisions of the IBC through a consensus process,” says Chris Reeves, manager of plan review services at the ICC. “Anybody can propose a code change, but final decisions are made by ICC governmental member voting representatives and honorary members.” The ICC’s membership includes state, county, and municipal code enforcement and fire officials, architects, engineers, builders, contractors, elected officials, manufacturers and others in the construction industry. Committees hear code-change proposals from anyone who cares to make them and then pass them on to the organization’s voting members, who are governmental member voting representatives and honorary members.