Building codes may be the bane of the architects, but it is highly likely they will have a role in whether your project makes it past the drawing board.

Steve Thomas
Jensen Sutta Steve Thomas

For Steve Thomas, president of Denver-based Colorado Code Consulting, regulations are his jam. As the author of the 2009 and 2012 editions of Building Code Basics, and the 2015 and 2018 editions of Building Code Essentials (all published by the International Code Council), he wants to turn technical standards into armchair reading.

ARCHITECT caught up with Thomas to learn what it takes to write a code book about, well, another code book (the International Building Code) what’s new in the latest edition of the International Building Code, and what architects most often get wrong in their documentation.

ARCHITECT: I started reading Building Code Essentials, became engrossed in the nuances and technicalities of design and construction, and then realized I was halfway through the book.
Thomas: That means I reached the goal. I wrote it for people who are not really building code people.

Does it get easier with writing each edition?
Yes, because each edition is just an update from the previous more than anything else. It’s not like having to write a book from scratch. I’m actually doing that right now on [the topic of] marijuana and the building codes.

Wait. Can you talk more about that?
Yeah, I’m not sure why they had some guy from Colorado write something on marijuana (laughs). With more states [legalizing it], building and fire departments are struggling with how to address [a structure that houses] the processing of the plant material and the oil extraction. It’s so new that they’re all essentially freaking out.

I’m trying to dispel a lot of concerns by saying, “Hey, it’s just another industrial process. It just happens to be cannabis.” It’s been an interesting subject to research and figure out how it fits within the building codes. [The book is due out in 2019.]

Courtesy International Code Council

Back to Building Codes Essentials. What are key differences that architects should know from to 2012 to 2015 to 2018 editions of the book [and, as such, of the International Building Code]?
There weren’t any major changes between the ’15 and the ’18 editions. The biggest is probably the inclusion of language for occupied roofs. … It’s popular now for people to put dining areas, swimming pools, or sunbathing areas on apartment building roofs. [Since] we’re putting people on roofs that weren’t originally designed for that, the question is how do we handle that?

There’s detailed information on commercial greenhouses now, on how to apply the code and how they’re constructed.

Between the ’12 and the ’18 [editions], healthcare provisions really improved because we wanted to be consistent with NFPA 101—the National Fire Protection Association Life Safety Code—because most healthcare facilities have to comply with both requirements. It’s now easier on the owners and architects.

The threshold [for sprinkler systems in schools] was reduced, so more schools are going to need to be sprinklered than in the past. It used to be just based on area. Now it’s based on occupant load.

The 2018 edition has new language on locking devices for schools and colleges because, unfortunately, of the active shooter issue. It basically says that [classroom doors] must [be able to be] locked from the inside to keep somebody from the outside from coming in. But to maintain a life-safety standpoint, you [must be able to] get out of the room in an emergency.

If that language on locking devices made it into the 2018 edition, it must have been in the works for a couple of years.
Absolutely. It can take anywhere from three to nine years to get a code change approved and into the code.

How many projects or clients does your firm see in a year?
Probably in the hundreds. We see a lot. We work with architects to review and prepare their drawings [for submission to] the building department for approval. Then we also work for jurisdictions to do their plan reviews and inspections from an enforcement standpoint. And then we run the building department for seven different jurisdictions here in Colorado. [We don’t work on projects when we have a conflict of interest, of course.]

What common oversights do you find on documents?
Many people miss the exceptions in the code that they could use but don’t. For example, if the building is sprinklered, then they may not have to follow certain requirements. Or they might miss a footnote in a table that might help them [meet project goals]. If the plans exceed the minimum code, a city examiner is not going to say anything. So that’s something architects should pay a little more attention to.

A lot of people have a hard time understanding fire-rated construction and how to properly detail those types of assemblies in drawings. The code requires the assemblies to be tested, and there’s many resources—UL, Factory Mutual [now FM Approvals]—for that. Architects often refer to a listed system and add a detail on the drawings, but the detail doesn’t agree with the actual listing. So, they get dinged on the plan review.

Are design firms still following prescriptive requirements or are more attempting the performance path?
Mostly everybody follows the prescriptive path, and I think it’s partly because building departments have a hard time with anything outside of prescriptive themselves. If you start wandering off the black-and-white portion of the code, building departments are not as comfortable as I think they should be, but a lot of that comes with experience as well.

If you get a brand new inspector or plans examiner, you don’t know if they’re comfortable enough with the code yet to make those decisions. I’ve been doing this for almost 40 years, which means my consulting firm can help architects get through that and say, “Hey, here’s an idea, let’s try this.”

How can the code review process be improved upon?
My answer is more education on the code because the more people understand how the code works, the better. I wish people [would] read the code and just go from there. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way. It takes time. That’s basically why we wrote Building Code Essentials.

I think a lot of architects are afraid to ask questions of the code official. It’s a two-edged sword because a lot of building departments don’t want to answer questions. They’ll say, “You submit what you want to do and we’ll tell you if it’s right.” Well, wait a minute. A simple answer would be a lot easier than drawing something three or four times. So, good relationships with the building departments are always a [positive] thing.

What’s your background?
I have a construction background, but I have a business degree. I served as a [public] building official for a jurisdiction for 18 years, and before that I worked for a private code consulting firm. When I left [my position with] the city, I said, “Maybe I can become a code consultant and help people understand the code and work for other jurisdictions.” I was in the right place at the right time and very lucky. Now I teach building code classes all over the country and love working with architects and helping people understand the intricacies of the code.

Note: The conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.