HB 409: A Bad Compromise

After putting forth two dawdling bills to update Pennsylvania’s building code adoption process, the legislature moved like lightning yesterday to unexpectedly pass House Bill 409 (read the bill here.) The bill had only one “nay” vote but that shouldn’t be viewed as an indication of its quality.

Neither proponents nor opponents of the bill were thrilled about it. HB409 was necessary because PA continues to use the 2009 code, a version which would no longer be supported by the International Code Council (ICC), and because its adoption process was terribly broken. PA’s Uniform Construction Code (UCC) is adopted by a review committee that is politically-appointed and has rules that make revising and adopting the updated ICC provisions onerous. HB409 sets rules about adoption of the 2015 and some of the 2012 standards, and helps to fix the rules for adopting future revisions. There are problems. The legislation extends the mandatory review of the UCC from every three years to 4.5 years. The ICC updates building codes every three years, meaning PA can ignore ICC updates until the succeeding update is halfway completed. In two cycles, PA will be three versions behind again. HB409 also continues the mandate that no municipality (except Philadelphia) may opt to adopt higher standards in lieu of the UCC.

It’s important to remember that the UCC is not a best practices document. Building codes are minimum standards. In the case of life safety, you would hope that those minimum standards are more rigorous than, say, the standards that UCC has for energy; but the code is something less than cutting edge. Because of PA’s ponderous process, the current UCC – 2009 standards – includes processes and technologies that were in place when the review for 2009 began in 2006. That means technology entering the market in the past decade doesn’t meet PA codes. HB409 will help with that but the next mandated review will be in 2022 so technology developed since the 2015 review process began in 2012 won’t be included until it is a decade old.

For Pittsburgh, the worst part of the legislation is that it denies municipalities the option to adopt newer codes. Because of Philadelphia’s overwhelming lobbying and political clout, that city won exemption; but Pittsburgh did not. Many of Pittsburgh’s commercial buildings are already being built and renovated to standards that far exceed PA’s UCC but the city misses out on the opportunity to codify higher standards for energy, water and life safety. Reaching a middle ground gets legislation passed (and there’s very little of that going on) but it doesn’t move the Commonwealth forward.

Very little project news: Penn State selected Clayco as design/builder for its $35 million West Campus Parking Garage at the Hershey Medical Center campus. Allegheny Health Network selected the Mascaro/Stantec team to design and build its $15 million, 30,000 square foot cancer center in Butler.

 

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