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Pa Act 1 of 2011 Summary; What You Should Know

Thursday, December 8th, 2011

HB 377, or Pa Act 1 of 2011 was Governor Tom Corbett’s first signed legislation. PBA and supporting HBA’s members had spent many months crafting a bill that could both repeal the most costly requirements made mandatory for new residential construction in IRC 2009, and still pass the house and senate. For most of us, this bill represented a repeal of the residential sprinkler requirement; found to be the most important issue facing our builder members after IRC ’09 became part of Pennsylvania’s Uniform Construction Code.

The history of our statewide building code is not long; dating back to Act 45 of 1999. Act 45 was the genesis of our statewide code, putting in place the legislative mechanism for application, enforcement, update, and training of code officials. The bill referenced BOCA (specifically BOCA’99) and all subsequent codes as the model code, with a few prescriptive exceptions. That opened the door for the expansion of the codes with which we must now comply. BOCA became part of the International Codes Council (ICC) and the ICC family of codes by virtue of Act 45, became the law of the land.

Act 45 calls for the automatic update of the UCC correlating with the release of the new ICC codes, every three years. There is only one mechanism in place to make changes to any ICC amendment to the codes; The UCC Review and Advisory Council, or the RAC. The RAC members are appointed by the Governor, and its membership numbers and their professional expertise are stipulated by law. They alone make recommendation for legislative action to change ICC’s codes before they become Pennsylvania law. So, one can see that unless the builder members of the RAC could win a majority vote against ICC code updates, any change to their codes will automatically move forward through legislation and become Pennsylvania’s law.

So it happened, that IRC ’09 adoption became such a hot point for Pennsylvania builders. The code included many changes that are costly and confusing in nature. The changes that have drawn the most attention were a requirement for residential sprinklers, new wall bracing requirements (primarily during design), Arc Fault Circuit Breakers- virtually everywhere that GFCI is not already required, Tamper-Proof outlets, Make-Up air for  large exhaust vents, high efficiency equipment tradeoffs were eliminated, dryer duct length requirements, deck lateral bracing, Etc. There are hundreds of changes each code cycle, but these changes were significant and costly. By the time that most Pennsylvania builders became aware of these changes, they were three years old at ICC.

Of these issues, PBA’s task force identified, through member input, that sprinklers, wall bracing, and revisions to Rescheck requirements (elimination of energy efficiency tradeoffs for equipment) to be the priorities in that order. After finding that there was no pathway to re-introduce energy efficiency tradeoffs back into the code, the main focus was placed on sprinklers, wall bracing, and correcting the unforgiving nature of Pennsylvania’s code adoption process.

Although IRC 2009 became law in Pennsylvania on 1/1/2010, the sprinkler issue phased in via the schedule in the International Residential Code, which meant one and two family homes had until 1/1/2011 to comply. Earlier legislation gave most builders a reprieve from this hard and fast deadline, thanks to design and construction contract provisions found in Act 45, and PBA sponsored legislation, Act 46 of 2010 (the Permit Extension Act). Stakeholders, influenced by fire safety professionals, would undoubtedly fight any repeal of a code requirement for which they fought so hard. However, there was considerable support for revision to the sprinkler requirement, although certain construction types, namely town homes or row housing, were outside of consideration for any change to the law. Ultimately, a compromise was struck, and in exchange for the elimination of the sprinkler requirement for one and two family homes, we gained an ICC amendment (that had been proposed for 2012) for floor systems containing Engineered Wood Products, or EWP’s.

EWP’s  are comprised of I-joist floor systems and open web floor trusses for the sake of this article. There is concern from fire safety professionals that these systems present a higher risk to residents and firemen in the event of a fire, due to a faster failure rate. A proposal to include language in HB377 to address this made fire protection of such floor systems from below a requirement. As the law is written, three methods of protection are offered. First, a builder may opt to protect these floor systems with a sprinkler system. In the event they do not want to install sprinklers, the builder may install ½” Gypsum Wall Board or greater, or 5/8” plywood or greater to the underside of the floor system in any spaces taller than three feet or containing mechanical equipment.  This really only applies to the basements and crawlspaces of new construction, since any second floor joists will presumably already be protected by a ceiling finish. In addition to these prescriptive alternatives, a local building code official may approve such methods that he or she find to offer equal fire protection to the floor system. Some such alternative systems might include factory fire treatment of the assembly members (possible for floor trusses) or a roll on or spray applied coating offering fire protection. Again, such systems would need approval from the local building code official prior to use.

This is an expensive and difficult requirement. The alternative, sprinklers in all new residential construction, is far more expensive for the builder. Pennsylvania is the first state with such a requirement; I do not think it will be the only one for long. A basement under a simple 2800 square foot home might be considered two rooms by virtue of the center beam and (solid blocking above) under IRC ‘09, further simplifying flow rate requirements. Consider such a system as an alternative to the daunting task of dry walling prior to, or around, rough-ins.

The second change of significance was the roll back of the wall bracing requirements to 2006 IRC. This is a very difficult section of the code for a code official or builder, let alone a casual observer. The best description I heard for the 2009 requirements was from a gentleman from the Pennsylvania Housing Research Center, Bob Buddenbohn. His simple clarification shows what actually changed to the code. IRC 2009 requires the notation of braced wall lines on the building plans. These are not actual lines of walls, but the “load pathway” that the building designer used to comply with wall bracing requirements; in other words, theoretical load paths. Notation of these means that compliance with the wall bracing requirements needed to be considered at the time of design, and that the plan reviewer had a clear idea of the designer’s intent. Wall bracing methods themselves are the actual means by which a builder braces the structure against design loads. The wall bracing requirements were complicated in IRC 2006, and were not easily enforceable. 2009 added some options for mixing wall bracing types, but did not largely change the methodology by which bracing was accomplished. In the absence of a notation of a braced wall line, or the requirement thereof, many smaller builders will not choose to incur the cost of an engineer’s review of wall bracing needs, choosing instead to use their existing home designs. This may well mean business as usual in much of the state, but a well educated building official may still choose to enforce the requirements of 2006 IRC, and a builder who does not own a copy of the code book is in no position to debate his or her enforcement decisions.

Possibly the most important change to the Pa UCC under Act 1 of 2011 was the change to the Pa UCC Review Advisory Council. Earlier I wrote that this is the only critical review of the International Code Council’s code revision that takes place prior to their adoption. Under Act 1 revisions, they still are. However, several changes to the RAC help ensure full participation by the builder community. First, residential builders themselves will have a representative, as they did, as will non-residential general contractors. Due to ambiguous language in the original bill, this group was under represented. The second major change to the RAC is to their process of code review. There will be three open and public meetings located around the state for stakeholder input. This will be your chance to let your voice be heard individually. One will be in the eastern region, one in the central region, and one in the west. The RAC used to vote and carry a vote by simple majority. No longer; there are nineteen members on the RAC. the majority will carry on a 2/3 vote, or 13 votes.

The RAC is also tasked with considering any change to the code by considering the impact to the public’s health and safety, technical feasibility, and economic and financial impact of the change. Although ICC considers safety and technical feasibility, there is no mandate to consider financial burden to the end user. This is a hugely important change, given that it will be a powerful mechanism against costly changes to the code, and therefore, pricing would-be homebuyers out of the market.

Of all the changes that Act 1 of 2011 made, the changes to the way the RAC works are of the most impact to the UCC. This seemingly simple change potentially can reduce the tumultuous effects of the triennial code adoption process by allowing Pennsylvanians a clear voice in the process. The RAC will begin review of ICC’s 2012 family of codes as I write this. Stand up and be heard.

The Council has established the following meeting dates

Thursday, October 20, 2011
10 AM to 5 PM
Breaker & Colliery Rooms
Comfort Inn
58 State Route 93
West Hazleton, PA 18202

Wednesday, November 9, 2011
10 AM to 5 PM
Great Room A
Regional Learning Alliance at Cranberry Woods
850 Cranberry Woods Drive
Cranberry Township, PA 16066

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