July 19, 2004
The Mesa City Council votes next month on rewriting every building code in the city’s rule book — the first major revisions in a decade.
"I’m not sure why there weren’t efforts made over the years," said Terry Williams, Mesa’s building safety director, who was hired in July 2003. "It was a surprise to me when I first applied here."
Building codes are basic safety rules for construction. They are typically revised every three years, something that can be "the most boring process in the world," said Larry Litchfield, a Phoenix official who is leading that city through its own revisions.
However, after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and recent controversies in Phoenix and California, building codes are getting a lot of attention.
"You’ll never see a headline that says ‘Building stands up,’ but hundreds do it every day," Litchfield said. "In this country, we have a really high expectation of something not failing in our homes and workplaces."
There are no estimates on the financial impact.
Outdated building codes or lax enforcement can result in higher insurance costs for property owners and developers, insurance industry experts said.
Some changes to Mesa’s codes would be more restrictive and could raise the cost of construction or remodeling projects. Other codes are looser and could save money.
• All electrical outlets in bathrooms and kitchens in new buildings have to be specially designed to prevent electrocution. Previously, the special outlets were required only within a few feet of sinks and other water sources.
• Indoor fire sprinklers still won’t be required in most new homes, but the requirement is in place for most new commercial buildings, just as before.
• The new fire code would have barred live cut Christmas trees in all commercial buildings. However, fire officials changed it so that it applies only to hospitals and nursing homes.
"By and large, we think this newer version of codes is far less restrictive, which is very unusual as far as building codes go," Williams said.
Generally, building codes are written by people in the construction industry, but Mesa officials spent 18 months choosing a "model" code and tailoring it to local needs.
Mesa sidestepped controversy throughout the process — unlike Phoenix and California, where efforts to write a new code became mired in charges of partisanship and undue influence by special interests.
Mesa adopted the International Code Council’s model. It is used by most communities in the United States.
Mesa rejected the National Fire Protection Association’s model code. It is preferred by some plumbing and other trade unions and firefighter groups. City officials said it would have cost more to adopt.
Last year, Phoenix drew criticism from the news media and some construction industry groups when it tried to adopt the National Fire Protection Association’s building code. Critics said the code, which has stricter fire safety requirements, would have substantially raised construction costs.
Phoenix has since changed course and is working to establish the international codes. The change occurred after Phoenix Mayor Phil Gordon took office in January and formed a committee to look at the issue.
California officials have also come under criticism for choosing the National Fire Protection Association’s codes, which the organization says is the only building code to address firefighter safety. Critics said the commission that made the decision was biased. They claim that when Gray Davis, a Democrat, was governor, he loaded the commission with people who favor those codes, including many from the plumbing industry. The plumbing industry made large contributions to Davis’ 2002 re-election campaign.
The Mesa City Council will vote on the codes at its regular meeting 5:45 p.m. Aug. 16 in the City Council Chambers, 57 E. First St. If passed, the new codes will become official Sept. 18. Permits taken out before that date will be subject to the old codes. The city will also offer a 90-day grace period in some cases.