Code consulting and code enforcement certainly are not activities that are strictly limited to the arena of fire protection engineering. However, these two practices are more prominent in fire protection engineering than they are in other engineering disciplines. Indeed, many fire protection engineering firms include code consultants in their company’s names or taglines. What exactly is code consulting and how is it executed in practice? How does this relate to code enforcement? Is there any crossover between the two activities? How about private companies performing code enforcement services? This article explores these questions and more.
The term “code consulting” is somewhat vague and potentially misleading. Which code is being consulted on? It could be more accurately termed “building code consulting,” but even that could lead to misinterpretation. As commonly understood, at a minimum, the building code is comprised of the building, electrical, existing building, fire, mechanical, plumbing, and accessibility subcodes. That is, when someone says “building code” they could be referring to the totality of all these subcodes together or merely the building code subpart. This misleading terminology may seem trivial to those experienced in the industry; however, confusion on projects often occurs because of this. An architect may employ a fire protection engineer as a code consultant for a particular project. The architect will identify this individual as such to the rest of the project team. While the code consultant may be retained to advise on only certain chapters of the building and/or fire code, some members of the project team may think the role is more expansive and may ask the code consultant questions about various other codes (e.g., mechanical, accessibility, electrical). To avoid this confusion, someone introducing a code consultant to a project team should introduce them as the “fire and life safety” code consultant or something similar to this.
Misleading terminology aside, what is code consulting? There is no accepted definition, but an attempt would read something like code consulting is:
A series of professional activities associated with engineering and architecture with the goal of helping a client achieve code compliance in specified codes or sections of codes while maintaining or considering other secondary goals such as cost or aesthetics.
The important part of this definition is “…in specified codes of sections of codes.” An organization would be very bold to offer services that cover the entire gamut of code compliance, given how expansive the codes are and the range of expertise required to apply all of them.
Code consulting usually applies to specified chapters of building or fire codes. A common service is to offer code consulting with respect to Chapters 3 through 10 of the International Building Code (1), or its local equivalent. This delineation is often made because these chapters of the building code capture most of the fire protection and life safety requirements of typical projects. Further examples of code consulting services would be to offer code consulting with respect to achieving compliance with NFPA 30 (2), specified chapters of the International Fire Code (3), chapters 1 through 10 of the Life Safety Code (4), or any other specified scope agreed to by both parties. The code consulting scope details are not as important as a defining characteristic as the fact that services are delivered over specified sections or chapters of fire and/or building codes. The scope is as agreed to between the client and code consultant, whether this is agreed to before or during the project. Often, a code requirement will be pointed out by the code consultant and this can lead to services not originally agreed to in the contract. For example, it might be determined that a smoke control system is required, then the code consultant may offer code consulting related to the delivery of that smoke control system to the mechanical contractor, indirectly through the client.
There is no standard way in which code consulting services are delivered through a project, but some common elements may apply. Again, the how the services are delivered is specified and agreed to in the professional contract between the client and consultant. Most of these contracts specify open ended consulting, which is essentially an open ended window of service for the client to contact the consultant for advice concerning code compliance and associated design options. Open ended consulting is typically delivered through telephone conversations, impromptu review meetings, and email correspondence. In addition to open ended consulting, code consulting reviews are normally specified for certain phases of the project, such as schematic design review, design development review and construction document review. The deliverables of these reviews are normally presented through comments, with detailed explanations and commentary concerning possible options to achieve compliance, keeping in mind the client’s project goals (cost, aesthetics, environmental compliance, etc.).
It is the expectation that when the client submits the construction documents to the AHJ, code issues for the scope of code consulting services will be minimized or even nonexistent. Indeed, this is the primary goal of procuring code consulting services. Nevertheless, code compliance issues from the code enforcement official are still possible. When this is the case, the client will again involve the code consultant in resolving these issues. Sometimes the code consultant will convince the code official to see a code issue in a way different from their initial review, in a way advantageous to the client. Other times, the code consultant and code official will not be able to come to an agreement and the code consultant can facilitate an official code interpretation from a higher jurisdictional authority, such as the state’s office of state fire marshal or equivalent governmental body. During the entire process the code consultant acts on behalf of the client, keeping their project goals in mind.
Code consulting requires a deep understanding of the associated code(s), the intent of the code(s), a solid design background, and a wide field of creativity and latitude to assist the client in meeting their project goals and achieving code compliance. It also requires exceptional communication skills and tact in conveying code requirements, suggesting code interpretations to the client or AHJ, and in interacting with the AHJ on behalf of the client.
While the primary purpose of code consulting is to help the client achieve its project goals and code compliance simultaneously, the purpose of code enforcement is to strictly enforce the provisions of the local or state building code with the tendency to err on the side of caution. Again, code enforcement is a general, blanket term, and it really means enforcement of all requirements of all subcodes that comprise the building code. Code enforcement is performed in two phases: during plan review for permitting and multiple, phased inspections during construction.
The construction professionals that perform plan review can be the same or different than the ones who perform on site construction inspections. The background of the individuals performing code enforcement varies more than the individuals who perform code consulting services. Code consulting is normally performed by a design professional, someone who is familiar with working in architecture or engineering, and these services are delivered to another design professional or owner. On the other hand, code enforcement officials may have originated from working in one or multiple building trades, as a general contractor, or as an architect or engineer. Inspectors typically begin as tradesmen then become inspectors later in their careers. They will initially inspect work related to the trade they have experience in and later expand to learn other trades and inspect them as well. A veteran inspector will sometimes begin to perform plan reviews in addition to, or in place of on site inspections. At the state level of code enforcement, or those assigned to review large, complex projects at local levels, the plan reviews are normally performed by an official who is also a design professional or by someone with significant experience in design. The background of code enforcement officers is an important consideration for the code consultant when interacting with them. They are both knowledgeable professionals but may not speak the same language or see code requirements in the same way. To bridge this potential disconnect, the code consultant should become as knowledgeable as possible in construction practices and the code official should learn some aspects of design and engineering.
Unlike code consulting, the individuals who perform code enforcement services have to be formally certified by examination, verification of experience, verification of education, professional licenses or a combination of these. Also, the code enforcement officer has to be vested with some type of statutory authority directly through a local or state government, or acting on behalf of a local or state government. Third party code enforcement by non governmental agencies is possible in some states, but this authority still has to be delegated from some form of government.
For large projects, code enforcement via plan examination is normally delegated to separate individuals who each have expertise in that building trade. Building, electrical, mechanical, plumbing, and fire protection reviewers examine plans separately and combine code compliance issues into a single package. Sometimes, the fire protection code issues come from individuals within the building department, but in other cases they may be derived separately from the fire prevention division or even from the fire department itself. In contrast to code consulting review comments, code enforcement review comments are brief and straightforward—they are only permitted to illustrate code deficiencies. Code enforcement comments should not suggest any arbitrary design options, preferences, or the like to achieve compliance.
It should be noted that some code enforcement officials serve as de facto code consultants but this is different than how code consulting is delivered by private consultants. Some of the duties of code enforcement officers may be to simply answer questions and “consult” concerning code compliance. While this could accurately be described as “code consulting” as well, this interaction is limited and takes a different form than private sector code consulting. While the code enforcement officer will offer help and clarification concerning code compliance, their help is limited and will only go so far in suggesting design options. Any designer that has extensive code consulting questions and issues should retain a code consultant and not rely on the code enforcement officer for such services.
Some states have their own certification programs for code enforcement officials. One such example is the NC Code Officials Qualification Board (NCCOQB), which is part of the NC Office of State Fire Marshal. Every municipal, county, and state code official that enforces codes in NC must become certified through the NCCOQB. The NCCOQB licenses each trade of code enforcement (building, electrical, fire, mechanical and plumbing) at three levels: I, II & III. A certain level in each trade is required to perform code enforcement for construction projects. The levels are determined by occupancy classification, square feet, stories, and special uses. Assuming employment by a governmental entity that performs code enforcement, certification requires three steps (5):
- Review of candidate’s education, experience, and professional licenses.
- Attending an approved course in Building Code Law and Administration as well as passing the course’s examination.
- Attending an approved technical course in that particular trade at a level equal to or higher than the certification level requested as well as passing the course’s examination.
- Passing that trade’s technical state examination at the level of certification desired.
For example, a licensed fire protection engineer with high rise design experience, would be eligible, upon passing the examinations and completing the courses above for Building Inspection Level III, for certification as Building Inspector Level III. This individual would be permitted to perform code enforcement, inspection and plan review, for all buildings in the state. If the individual needed to perform code enforcement for a separate trade, they would need to obtain certification in that trade separately.
Some state’s code enforcement officer certification requirements are more straightforward. In Pennsylvania, for instance, all that is required for certification as a code enforcement officer is to pass examinations approved by PA’s Department of Labor and Industry (PA Dept. of LI), which includes ICC examinations, state exams, and exams similar to these examinations (6). Certain combinations of exams are required for each certification. Instead of dictating levels as NC, PA specifies categories as Residential or Commercial and has Plans Examination as a separate enforcement category.
Also offered in Pennsylvania, as in other states, there are opportunities for individuals, or third party agencies, to perform code enforcement services, on behalf of a county or state government. The requirements are that the individuals performing the services are properly certified by PA Dept. of LI and that the agency is properly certified (7). There is a process for an agency to become certified, including an evaluation and an application fee. The most onerous aspect of evaluation is that the third party agency must possess proper insurance that will cover damages associated with any code enforcement deficiencies or errors.
One building industry that relies heavily upon third party code enforcement services is the modular building industry. While constructed off-site, modular houses or buildings still must meet the requirements of the state building code where they will eventually be sited. Many states contract a majority of the modular code enforcement, inspection, and plan review to certified third party inspection agencies. These agencies are certified by the home state to perform code enforcement for modular buildings. Other states (e.g., Tennessee) perform all such services themselves.
The major as yet to be discussed difference between code consulting and code enforcement are the legal liabilities resulting from each. Code enforcement is always performed on any project where code consulting has been performed and the ultimate responsibility for building safety resides with the entity that certified the building as code compliant. While any designer or architect aims for code compliance during a project, code consulting is an optional activity. In most cases, code consulting does not require the design professional to seal designs and take responsibility for design. The potential legal liability from code enforcement deficiencies vary widely from state to state to an extent that generalizations cannot be made (8). However, code enforcement mistakes can lead to severe legal ramifications, which is one of the reasons why code enforcement interpretations and reviews are so conservatively applied.
Code consultants and code enforcement officials work together on projects. Understanding the differences between these two activities is important in delivering any construction project, regardless of whether code consulting services are maintained. Table 1 summarizes the difference between code consulting and code enforcement.
Table 1: Summary of Code Consulting and Code Enforcement Differences
|Code Consulting||Code Enforcement|
|Scope||As agreed in professional services contract with client, during design phase||Entire Building Code (all subcodes), enforced by multiple professionals during plan review and construction|
|Maintains Secondary Project Goals||Yes||No|
|Background of Individuals Performing||Normally design professionals||Former tradesmen, general contractors, design professionals|
|Individuals Performing Require Certification||No||Yes, requirements vary by state|
|Suggests design options to achieve compliance||Yes||No, should never|
|Code Interpretations||Can suggest, must be approved by authority||Formal interpretations normally originate from the state level,|
|Legal liability||Limited||Varies by state|
-John P. Stoppi Jr., PE, FPE, MCP is certified in building code enforcement and has considerable experience in building code consulting
- International Code Council. The 2012 International Building Code. Country Club Hills : International Code Council, Inc., 2012.
- The National Fire Protection Association. Flammable and Combustible Liquids Code. Quincy : NFPA, 2012.
- The International Code Council. The International Fire Code. Country Club Hills : The International Code Council, Inc., 2012.
- The National Fire Protection Association. NFPA 101: Life Safety Code. Quincy : NFPA, 2012.
- NC Code Officials Qualifications Board. NCCOQB Rules. [Online] NC Office of State Fire Marshal, 2012. http://www.ncdoi.com/OSFM/Engineering_and_Codes/Documents/COQB_Documents/COQB%20Board%20Rules.pdf.
- Industry, PA Department of Labor and. UCC Certification Booklet. [Online] 2012. http://www.portal.state.pa.us/portal/server.pt?open=18&objID=439540&mode=2.
- Industry, PA Dept of Labor and. UCC TPA Certification. [Online] http://www.portal.state.pa.us/portal/server.pt?open=18&objID=439544&mode=2.
- C. Barrett Graham, Esq. Email Correspondence Concerning Code Enforcement Officer Liability. 2012.