State House Sound Bites

Capitol reporter Mary Wilson covers Pennsylvania politics and issues at the Pennsylvania state capitol.

Interests at loggerheads over building codes process

Written by Mary Wilson, Capitol Bureau Chief | Aug 6, 2013 9:11 PM
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A 19-member, little-known panel controls whether Pennsylvania's building codes are adopted every three years. At a Tuesday hearing on proposed changes to the commission's process, one state lawmaker called it "broken."

A 2011 law shifted the panel's burden, making it easier to reject updates (like electrical efficiency and safety requirements) than to accept them. Following that, the latest round of suggested code updates was rejected en masse.

The wholesale rejection has prompted an outcry from code officials, safety experts, and manufacturers, who say regular code updates mean safer buildings and are a boon to the safety-assurance industry.

"You just can't just say we're never going to adopt the new codes," said Rep. Bill Keller (D-Philadelphia). "And that's the way it looks like it's going.

But builders often equate code updates with additional costs. Frank Thompson is a residential builder himself and chairman of the Review and Advisory Commission that considers updating building codes in Pennsylvania. He told the House Labor and Industry Committee he wouldn't like to see the panel reject all code updates again - but he thinks the adversarial stance to updated codes is appropriate.

"I think we've seen the pendulum swing to both extremes," Thompson said, "and what I'd like to see in 2015 is probably not adopt everything and probably adopt a lot of things."

It's not clear how the differing interests here will strike a balance. Builders are pushing for less frequent consideration of code updates. Code experts say technology is advancing too quickly for such an approach, and manufacturers agree, adding that frequent and regular dialogue on code updates is important.

The proposal the jump-started the conversation about code updates appears to be dead on arrival. There's broad consensus that the bill to change the approval process for different parts of the building codes would lead to massive confusion, because of the way different pieces of the codes fit together.

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