State House Sound Bites

Capitol reporter Katie Meyer covers Pennsylvania politics and issues at the Pennsylvania state capitol.
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For building code updates, a look to past practice

Written by Mary Wilson, Former Capitol Bureau Chief | Aug 4, 2013 5:35 PM

Editor's note: This post has been updated to reflect groups represented by Cozen O'Connor. 11:14 a.m., Aug. 5, 2013.

Building construction codes are coming under scrutiny by state lawmakers in an upcoming hearing. The state's approach to adopting updates to the codes has changed under the Corbett administration, leading a state commission to reject all of the most recent internationally-provided model updates.

A proposal by Rep. Pat Harkins (D-Erie) would restore some of the ease of accepting updated codes for commercial buildings.

"The commercial buildings support public use," Harkins said, "so naturally I think that the duty is to ensure that all buildings are in the best possible shape and practical for public inhabitants and use day in and day out."

Residential building codes are left out of Harkins' bill - meaning the default position for such codes would favor not adopting suggested updates. Residential builders have fought past efforts to update codes that add safety and energy efficiency requirements, saying such measures would hike their costs by as much as $15,000, on average, for each home built.

Critics say Harkins' proposal would be tricky to implement and say there's no reason commercial buildings should be safer than homes.

Shari Shapiro, a lawyer with Cozen O'Connor, lobbies for manufacturers, code organizations and energy efficiency companies -- groups that have an interest in seeing building codes updated regularly. She said if Pennsylvania isn't updating its codes as the new models are available, the state isn't benefiting from the experience of those who have studied building disasters.

"So for example, after 9/11, later versions of the code after that incorporated different requirements for fire safety and exists and so forth in high rise buildings," Shapiro said. "However, if the choice is between not updating any codes and at least updating some of them, that addresses one of the issues."

Harkins introduced his bill months before the June 5 collapse of a building (used for both commercial and residential purposes) in Philadelphia during a demolition, but he said it's still prompting lawmakers to think about what could be done to prevent such incidents.

"What we're trying to do is just make sure that all the commercial buildings are safe," Harkins said. "And I don't think anybody is neglecting or straying away from or intimidated by the lobbying industry for the residential. It's just that at this time, this is on the front burner."


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