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May  2004

Code/Concerns

Florida Building Commission Hijinks
The Rules are Different Here!
by Michael Fischer

Once upon a time, not all that long ago, the official tourism slogan of Florida celebrated the idea that in “Florida: the rules are different here.” While perhaps effective as a way to draw tourism dollars, the concept has no place in regulatory development. Yet as the Florida Building Commission moves to adopt the 2003 International Codes as the basis for the next generation of the Florida Building and Residential Codes, even Alice would be struck at just how “curiouser and curiouser” the process has become.

Height and Area 
Table Controversy

One of the important technical considerations for the Florida Building Commission was the issue of the height and area tables that would serve as a basis for determining limits on construction under the new code. The existing Florida Building Code (FBC) contains height and area tables drawn from the Standard Building Code (SBC), while the International Building Code (IBC) contains much more liberal requirements that allow single-story buildings of unlimited size. 

The tables in the IBC were developed as a result of a compromise of the International Code Council that accepted the least restrictive provisions from each of the existing model codes, including the SBC. This compromise allowed combinations of added stories and increased floor area that had been considered previously as separate issues. Along with the inclusion of very liberal sprinkler trade-offs, this compromise was seen as a way to avoid a political battle during the consolidation of the existing model code councils. The stated goal was to take the least restrictive provisions of each of the model codes so no building built under the old codes would be prohibited under the new IBC. While some technical provisions in the IBC, including wind and seismic design, were based upon the most conservative of each of the codes, the IBC development team somehow decided that the least conservative building limits in the existing codes would do when dealing with height and area. 

The Florida Department of Community Affairs (DCA) staff was charged with reviewing the IBC to provide technical analysis to the Florida Building Commission. The basis for the DCA’s technical recommendation was to keep the more restrictive provisions of the current FBC intact under the new IBC-based Florida code. The staff recommendation was to keep the existing height and area tables intact as the new code was developed. The technical analysis was sent to the Fire Technical Advisory Committee (TAC) for review. 

During several meetings of the Fire TAC, industry advocates for the passive fire industry as well as the sprinkler industry testified before the Fire TAC and recommended action regarding height and area tables. After some spirited debate, it became apparent that the Fire TAC would be unable to reach a consensus on which direction to take and would be unable to provide a recommendation to the Florida Building Commission. This is where the story takes a strange turn.

A Strange Meeting
The Florida Building Commission met in an unusual evening meeting on March 1 to consider one issue—the height and area tables. The commission operates under rules that require a 75-percent majority to effect a technical change to the code. Any changes from the existing Florida code to new provisions would then require a vote of 14 of the 18 commission members in attendance on March 1.

The commission heard public testimony that raised several issues important to the consideration of the height and area issue. After closing the public testimony, the issue was handed back to the commission for a decision. Instead of asking for a motion from the commission, however, the chair turned the item over to the moderator. In a baffling move, the moderator, a staff functionary who should serve a neutral position in expediting the process, decided to call a straw vote to determine where the commissioners stood on the issue. The straw vote resulted in a 9-9 tie on the issue of which height and area tables to include in the new Florida code. Had this been an actual motion, the vote would have resulted in the failure of the motion, and the existing code requirements would have remained intact. The DCA staff recommendation to keep the more conservative requirements in the Florida Code would then have been accepted. What happened next can only be described as an abuse of the code development process.

After the straw vote was completed, the moderator determined that the nine commission members who believed that the existing provisions should be kept intact should describe the reasons for their position so that they could be convinced to change their minds. The committee discussion included concerns by commissioner Steve Bassett that the commission should not adopt less conservative requirements just because the IBC had been formed out of a questionable compromise, saying, “Just because we follow the group to the mountain top does NOT mean that we have to jump.”

Commissioner Christ Sanidas of Orange County, Florida, testified that he was part of the drafting committee for this section of the IBC. He described how the decision to accept, and combine, the least restrictive height and area values of the previous model codes had resulted in more liberal requirements. Sanidas also raised concerns about relying on sprinklers in Florida when many communities had issues with water supplies.

The moderator continued to push toward adoption of the IBC language by picking off the commission members one by one until there were enough votes to gain the necessary 75-percent majority. 

WDMA and its members are committed to supporting the development and adoption of the International Codes. The consolidation of the three regional model code assemblies into one national organization has resulted in tremendous economies for the construction products industry. While concerns about the results of the technical compromises during the I-Codes development are valid, WDMA has faith in the process as we move forward. The manner in which individual states deal with specific technical and procedural issues, however, may allow issues of national significance to be fought on separate venues. Thus, satisfaction with the advantages of three codes moving into one will still have to be tempered with the realization that in all reality we will have 50 sets of codes, developed through 50 sets of code change cycles, proposals and public comment actions.

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