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Home > Feature Articles > Municipality Strategies for Sustainable Community Best Practices

How to Change the Housing Codes in Your Community

Sustainable cities have to change...just like we do. With new concerns about energy shortages, climate change, food security and escalating populations -- it's time to look at your local codes and see what needs to be updated. Here's HOW.

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I have a confession -- I've never changed a "code" for anything. I've fought community discriminatory policies. I've volunteered out the kazoo, I work hard every day to do my best for my readers and community. But I've never "changed codes" that matter -- such as housing codes.

Where would you, as a citizen, start?

I actually met a woman once who DID get a code changed. She rehabilitated small animals and saw that such rehab centers were left out of adequate zoning codes. She went to city hall and lobbied for a new code. She did the research. She visited the office holders and the administrative department. And the code was changed. How amazing!

Here is a list of suggestions for smart codes for building rehabilitation -- maybe it's time for citizens to examine the codes in their city and see if any of them need a better "solution."

SMART CODES in Your Community - by HUD

America’s stock of existing buildings – both residential and non-residential – continues to age. This stock represents a vital national asset that can be used to meet the demand for housing and commercial development, consistent with state and local efforts to wisely manage continued growth.

In many cases, the demand for repairs, renovation and rehabilitation of existing buildings has outpaced the ability of state and local planners to develop effective building and maintenance codes that govern these activities.

This report, Smart Codes in Your Community: A Guide to Building Rehabilitation Codes, provides a broad overview of the general regulatory environment governing the use and reuse of existing buildings. It also provides examples of state and local efforts to reduce regulatory complexity and suggests possible strategies to help spur reinvestment in the existing building infrastructure. Specifically, this report:

  • Examines aspects of the current regulatory system and identifies some areas of complexity in this system that may act to impede the rehabilitation of existing buildings;
  • Identifies some early reforms in state and local building rehabilitation regulations;
  • Reviews the major provisions of HUD’s Nationally Applicable Recommended Rehabilitation Provisions (NARRP), issued in 1997, that establish a model regulatory framework for possible adoption at the state or local level;
  • Considers recent regulatory developments since the issuance of NARRP that have contributed to increased investment in existing buildings; and
  • Suggests possible strategies for encouraging the adoption of “smart codes” at the state and local level.

Urban Development Trends

urban development in most parts of the U.S. is typified by rapid suburban growth and expansion into the open areas adjacent to cities and towns. While each community is unique——the product of its particular locale and history——chances are that your community displays some form of these symptoms:
  • An older downtown with underutilized and deteriorating buildings.
  • Commercial activity shifted from downtown to suburban hubs and malls.
  • A decreased and decreasing downtown tax base.
  • Urban and suburban sprawl at the peripheries.
  • Gridlock on roads and highways, with citizens spending increasing amounts of time commuting.

Recent policy initiatives at the federal, state and local levels have been directed at managing uncontrolled urban growth. A central feature of these initiatives is the development of methods to encourage the revival and reuse of existing neighborhoods and buildings. These policy initiatives have come to be known as “smart growth.” Your state or community may have such “smart growth” programs. “Smart growth” programs have produced an arsenal of tools to accomplish their goals. These have included:

  • Zoning that encourages urban infill and re-use of sites and buildings.
  • Enterprise zones that attract investment to inner cities.
  • “Brown-fields” development that provides for the re-use of abandoned industrial sites.
  • Mass transit and transportation planning.
  • “Smart codes.”

“Smart codes” is the term used to describe building and construction codes that encourage the alteration and reuse of existing buildings.

RESOURCE: The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) has recently published a document entitled Nationally Applicable Recommended Rehabilitation Provisions. It is referred to as the NARRP and is a model for state and local jurisdictions that want to develop “smart codes.”

Overview of Smart Codes

There are three categories of regulations that affect buildings in most communities in the U.S.:

  • Zoning regulations, which control land use and often regulate the types of buildings that can be constructed at particular locations in the community.
  • Building codes, which regulate the design and construction of buildings.
  • Building maintenance and use codes and regulations, which regulate the use of buildings.

“Smart codes” relate to the latter two categories. To understand them, though, you need some background in how all building regulations work.

What Are Building Codes?

Construction codes in a community are generally referred to as “the building code.” They include a complete family of related codes that address different parts or aspects of a building:
  • Building code
  • Plumbing code
  • Mechanical code
  • Electrical code
  • Specialty codes (boilers and pressure vessels, elevators etc.)

These codes are enforced to regulate health and safety through the issuance of construction permits and inspections. The codes’ objective is to ensure a certain level of safety, health, welfare, and property protection for building occupants and for the general public. To accomplish this, they regulate many aspects of the design and construction of buildings and the systems within them.

Changing Conditions Requiring Updated Codes

While traditionally the requirements in the codes were intended to meet goals of health, safety, welfare and property protection, they have been expanded in recent years to include other societal goals. Some of these goals are:

  • Energy conservation
  • Accessibility
  • Disaster mitigation
  • Historic preservation
  • Affordability
One result of the periodic updating and expansion of the codes is that buildings built before the current building codes were enacted are probably not in full compliance. So, communities have had to develop special codes to deal with existing buildings for general safety.

What Are Building Maintenance and Use Codes?

  • Housing code, or property maintenance code
  • Fire prevention code
  • Health regulations
  • Hazard abatement code
  • Retroactive regulations

Construction Work in Existing Buildings

  • Repairs
  • Alterations
  • Additions
  • Change of occupancy

The Uniform Code for Building Conservation (UCBC)

The UCBC was first developed by ICBO (see sidebar on page 5) in 1985. It was intended to be a model code for design and construction in existing buildings and to reduce the previously prevalent arbitrariness in the enforcement of the UBC’s provisions applicable to existing building. The UCBC has been updated periodically, with the last update occurring in the year 2000, but it has not been widely adopted by states or local jurisdictions. The major innovation of the UCBC over Massachusetts Article 22 was the recognition that hazards in buildings are multi-dimensional, and that they can best be addressed by multiple hazard scales, rather than the single scale used in Massachusetts.

Categories of Work

the model codes currently address work in existing buildings under four categories:
  • Repair
  • Alteration
  • Addition
  • Change of occupancy

    Following New Jersey, the NARRP expand “alteration” into three further categories, resulting in the following six categories:

    • Repair
    • Renovation—defined, as in New Jersey, as work involving no reconfiguration of spaces in the building
    • Alteration—defined, as in New Jersey, as work involving reconfiguration of spaces or extension of plumbing, mechanical, or electrical systems
    • Reconstruction—defined, unlike in New Jersey, as work involving reconfiguration of spaces including corridors and exits
    • Addition
    • Change of occupancy

    Hazard Category Scales in NARRP

    • Life Safety and Exits (five hazard categories)
    • Heights and Areas (four hazard categories)
    • Exposure of Exterior Walls (four hazard categories)
    • Seismic (six hazard categories)

    What Can You Do About Smart Growth / Smart Codes

    If you are concerned about “smart growth,” if there is a stock of under-utilized older buildings in your community, and if you have reason to believe that the building regulatory system in your community is contributing to the under-investment in these buildings, you should consider the development of a “smart code,” a rehabilitation code based on the NARRP.

    Here are some specific steps you should take:

    1. Stakeholders committee——Create a committee of stakeholders who think this might be a problem, and want to do something about it. Be sure to include potential critics or opponents of a rehabilitation code. The committee should include building officials, fire officials, housing advocates, private-sector building owners or the associations representing them, historic preservationists, accessibility advocates, architects and engineers, contractors, environmentalists, etc. The committee should articulate the problems that exist with the current regulatory approach relative to existing buildings and the objectives of a new “smart code.”

    2. Exploration of options——Review all of the different options and models that exist, including HUD’s publications on building rehabilitation codes. Familiarize yourself with these so that you know which options suit your community best, and which are most feasible politically. Request that HUD provide your stakeholders committee with an expert presentation on the NARRP, the UCEB, the New Jersey Rehabilitation Subcode, and other related initiatives. Following the presentation there should be an open discussion of options available to you. These may include anything from the development of legislation and the drafting of a rehabilitation code (as in Maryland) to a decision to wait for the development of the International Existing Building Code or NFPA 5000 and to adopt one of them when it becomes available.

    3. Comparative analysis——If you make the decision to move forward with the development of a rehabilitation code, then you should initiate a study that involves detailed comparison of the provisions of the NARRP (or the UCEB, or the New Jersey code) with all current regulations in your state and community that may have impact on existing buildings. Such a study will lay the groundwork for the orderly development of the rehabilitation code that will mesh with the current regulatory system. Be sure to include your local building department and/or redevelopment agency in this analysis as well as inform the city council or relevant legislative bodies that you are considering various options. Have information on these options ready to present to any concerned citizens or public officials.

    4. Develop or adopt a rehabilitation code——Use the comparative analysis study as the basis for development of your rehabilitation code. The stakeholders committee, or a similar body, should be involved in this process. Enlist the support of these stakeholders so that the process by which you propose code changes becomes easier and more productive.

    5. Establish follow-up mechanisms——Consider developing the following activities to ensure the effectiveness of your new rehabilitation code:
      • Developing a training curriculum and program intended for code enforcement officials, architects and engineers, and others who will use the new code.
      • Creating an administrative body responsible for periodically reviewing and updating your rehabilitation code, including the option of adopting the International Existing Building Code or the NFPA 5000 when they become available. 18
      • Evaluating the code’s success (i.e., testing to see whether more existing buildings are being rehabilitated and re-used since the adoption) to gauge whether changes are needed.
      • Spreading the word about your code adoption and of its use to other municipalities, other groups interested in existing building rehabilitation, and government agencies like HUD.

      You now have the tools to consider advocating and developing a “smart code” in your own community. The benefits of the code for local builders, housing and commercial developers of all kinds and all target audiences, and for the maintenance and physical development of your whole community are clear. By drafting guides and model codes, HUD and the model code groups are making the adoption of the codes easier, too. As with all changes in local regulations and with local community interests, though, the first steps lie with interested citizens and governments like you.

      SOURCE: Download the entire reportSmart Codes in Your Community: A Guide to Building Rehabilitation Codes



      Edited by Carolyn Allen, owner/editor of California Green Solutions
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