The Role of Code Officials in the Design-Build Process

Insights into the role of building safety code, from the International Code Council.
By Grace Calengor
October 6, 2023

Building codes are an integral part of the design-build process, but what role do building code professionals play throughout that process?

Kevin McOsker, vice president of technology resources, government relations at the International Code Council, breaks it down, from basic design to groundbreaking ideas to incorporating new technology and retrofitting older builds.

McOsker, whose experience includes time with the city of Las Vegas as their building official, is no stranger to striking architecture and the safety protocols that go along with it. He believes that safety protocol starts before the contractors begin building and that contractors should be involved throughout the entire journey.

McOsker urges, “There is always an opportunity for code officials and design professionals to work with contractors who obtain building permits through local building departments. There has always been a working relationship between code officials, design professionals and contractors, but I think there is a bigger picture here for growth and progress: we need to work together on planning, preparation and meeting expectations.

McOsker says he would love to see more community members involved in code development. So, how does one get involved in the code development process?

McOsker explains, “One thing we can do as a community is get with the local building department during the design process of our buildings and houses. We want to set a stage where we know up front what some of the expectations are, what some of the challenges will be, what the codes call for and what will be the different interpretations [of the codes]. This way, we can establish a design that meets all those parameters. Taking an hour at the front end saves a lot at the back end.”

Many building departments, construction companies and others involved with the design-build process will host meetings—presubmittal, preconstruction, permitting, logistical, responsibility—to lay out the plans, establish jurisdiction—who oversees third-party inspection, materials testing, etc.—and get everyone on the same page.

“Know who is involved and what their responsibilities are at the start to know what the inspector needs during that process,” states McOsker. “Communication is key, on all sides, and your needs should be communicated from inspector to contractor.”

Communication is key—an age-old adage that has proven true time and time again, scenario and scenario again. But what about communicating new features, new technology, new ideas and bold designs into existing building codes? What happens when the building code does not cover elements of the cutting edge? For example, what do the building codes say about artificial intelligence, new sustainability efforts or autonomous robots?

The good thing about building codes, says McOsker, is that they are adaptable, fluid and ever-changing. It helps that they are also not retroactive—so older, historic buildings that were up to code for their time do not necessarily need to be retrofitted to keep up with new materials, technology or sustainability standards.

“Any building that is existing is considered to be compliant,” says McOsker. A brick house has a solid foundation whether equipped with a smart-home system or not.

“It is very rare that local building agencies reinspect and reevaluate when a building goes through a renovation, addition, repair, etc. Minor changes require minor inspections, but major changes—like the change of the use of a building from a residence into a restaurant—require more attention.”

McOsker elaborates, “In Las Vegas, we dealt with that [type of change] quite a bit. That's one of those things going through the process of looking at the International Existing Building Code as the basis, then how much change is occurring. You don't want to lose some of the architecture and history, so there are ways you can work within the existing code framework.”

He continues, “Codes are ever evolving because humans use buildings differently. We have different expectations for buildings in the last 10-15 years or so. For example, there has been a huge focus on sustainability in our buildings. We also learn from certain events, whether human or natural. Codes go through a three-year code cycle, and then a new set of codes—including the original and newly proposed codes—gets published by the Code Council based on the code development process. This is completely open, transparent and free. Anyone with a computer can make a code change proposal: a homeowner, user, contractor, etc.”

The public can not only be part of the code adoption process, but it also plays a big role in what is incorporated into new designs and how those elements are used in the end.

“A lot of [artificial intelligence] is learning the behavior of people in buildings and having those building systems react to what people do,” explains McOsker. “That is how a building code development process works as well. The Code Council asks how people use buildings and what can we do to make them safe.”

From the smart thermostat for the home user to the 3D printing for the builder and remote video inspection for the safety professional, emerging technology has become increasingly prevalent in the construction industry—for all involved.

McOsker “couldn’t dream” of what today’s technology, has brought us: vehicle lane departure warnings, Bluetooth speakers, apps to control your thermostat and building elements that collect solar energy, so it’s safe to say the technology of tomorrow will bring even more surprise.

McOsker says, “The human experience is such that people will innovate. We’ve always innovated. We’ve taken the wheel and made it into cars. So, buildings will continue to innovate, and the codes will adapt to reflect changes in technology and the built environment. And it will not just be the code officials making those changes, it will be everyone who is involved in the built environment. We can all work together not only during inspections, but also during the beginning stages of code adoption, safety methodologies, and work with stakeholders on the other side to get their perspective on the logical and practical application of those methodologies. The progression of the built environment will definitely be fascinating.”

Building codes are here to protect not only those inside the building but also those using the exterior and within the vicinity. Codes also protect the built environment adjacent to construction—including construction zones, areas where cranes operate and where pedestrians are present. The entire design-build process encompasses a bigger picture than just the building.

According to McOsker, “The key message is that there is a partnership, a circle of life; we help the contractors, they help us. Subs and general contractors, materials suppliers and manufacturers, design professionals and inspectors; we are all part of that circle of construction. We are all stakeholders in this process, and it is our responsibility to ensure that when the building is complete, it functions and operates in a way that is safe and usable. Building that coalition with other team partners throughout the process is important. Communicate! It is a great way for contractors and construction executives to get involved in the code development process as well.”

by Grace Calengor
Grace Calengor is associate editor of Construction Executive.

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