Smooth transition to IBC helping Chicago build stronger and more safely
Not long after he became first deputy commissioner of Chicago’s Department of Buildings, Matt Beaudet learned for certain that the city’s building code needed an overhaul… badly.
City officials were working on plans for the new $251 million, one-million-square-foot Malcom X College. Additionally, the City Colleges of Chicago brought in Moody Nolan, a renowned architectural firm from Atlanta that had worked on many large-scale projects throughout the country.
“They looked at our code as if it was in a different language,” said Beaudet, recently appointed by Mayor Lightfoot as Department of Buildings commissioner. “It was as if portions of our code were written in hieroglyphics, and our employees were spending valuable time translating it to the modern world.”
Small wonder: Chicago’s building code hadn’t had a major overhaul since the late 1940s. Only a few tweaks here and there, but not enough to make sense to the growing number of outside architectural and construction firms interested in building on to the City of Big Shoulders.
Twenty-six months after the groundbreaking for the new City College building, Chicago had a new city college campus and the impetus for a major reconstruction of its out-of-date building code.
Less than a year after completing the new building, Chicago launched an ambitious multi-phase plan to comprehensively update its construction requirements based on the latest national consensus codes and standards. In April 2019, the Chicago City Council voted to adopt new requirements incorporating several of the International Code Council’s International Codes.
“Updated codes were something stakeholders wanted, and it was something we wanted,” he said.
Still, the overhaul had been tried several times before, said First Deputy Commissioner Marlene Hopkins and Deputy Commissioner Grant Ullrich. But those efforts failed, they said, because the city tried to address every topic at once.
“It was impossible to succeed when there were competing interests,” Hopkins said. So, the department decided to break the project into well-defined phases, beginning with electrical.
“That helped keep us on track,” Beaudet said. “We had large group meetings with stakeholders, and we were able to focus on what they wanted.”
Plus, even in failing initially, Ullrich added, city building officials already had a lot of good information on what stakeholders wanted. “We realized that we needed to break the project down into manageable phases to build consensus, topic by topic.”
During the code development process, more than 100 industry experts participated in stakeholder meetings and technical working groups. Beaudet said they noticed many contractors and architects used codes designed and refined by the International Code Council. They reached out for help, he said, and wound up getting an enthusiastic partner in Sara Yerkes, senior vice president of government relations at the Code Council.
Beaudet said the Code Council helped them set up information meetings with stakeholders, and with staff, to make the adjustment easier. Staff, who had been trying to walk a tightrope between Chicago’s homegrown codes and designers more familiar with the International Code Council’s widely adopted International Codes, were thrilled, he added. The same went for stakeholders.
“I had been meeting with architects, contractors, all kinds of stakeholders in Chicago for about 10 years,” Yerkes said. “They were all excited about it. But we just had trouble getting going.
“Finally, Mayor Rahm Emanuel kept hearing about the International Codes every time he spoke to the building community. He finally told former Building Commissioner Judy Frydland, whom he appointed, to look into those codes.
“She and Grant Ullrich were guiding forces in setting up the meetings with stakeholders. They were just amazing. Cook County, which includes Chicago, already had adopted the International Codes. So, the city was kind of an island.”
This work led to the Chicago City Council adopting the major code modernization ordinance in April 2019, with the plan of having it fully implemented, one step at a time, by August 2020.
The code modernization ordinance incorporates the 2018 editions of the International Building Code for new construction, the International Existing Building Code for the rehab of existing buildings, the International Energy Conservation Code for energy efficiency, as well as property maintenance requirements modeled on the International Property Maintenance Code.
A significant part of revising the Chicago Building Code involved replacing the hieroglyphics with the common terminology and format used in other major U.S. jurisdictions. In addition, the new family of Chicago Construction Codes will be easier to keep up-to-date going forward as national standards are changed or refined.
The International Codes provided a flexible framework so that Chicago could both align with widely used national standards and keep local requirements that were important to them, Yerkes explained, which had been one of the stumbling blocks in earlier discussions. That, and the fact that the International Codes are updated on a regular three-year cycle, is among the strong points of the Code Council model codes.
“And Chicago just jumped ahead of other major cities by adopting the newest version of the model codes,” she added.
In implementing the new codes during the 18-month phase-in period, Chicago worked closely with the Code Council to publish customized codebooks — in print and digital formats — as well as customized training materials for use with both staff and industry partners.
“We couldn’t have completed this project on such a tight schedule without the incredible professionals on ICC’s technical, publishing, training and government relations teams supporting us at every step,” Ullrich said.
In addition to further streamlining the permit process, the new code will bring down the cost of new construction by adding more flexibility and options for construction materials. The format of the new codes will also provide uniformity and consistency to the many engineers, architects, design professionals, labor groups, code enforcement professionals, construction professionals, developers and others who work both in Chicago and throughout the U.S.
More specifically, Chicago’s rewritten code will:
- Adopt specific, up-to-date requirements for a wide range of building materials such as walls, roofs and other construction that will provide guidelines and standards that are lacking in Chicago’s previous code.
- Enhance safety by requiring sprinkler systems in new construction including hotels, most apartment buildings with four or more units, places of assembly with 300-plus occupants and new office buildings greater than 70 feet tall.
- Encourage new development by allowing buildings with sprinkler systems to have greater height, number of stories and floor area per construction type.
- Allow for more cost-effective construction of single-family homes by adopting risk-based, structural design requirements so that a two-story, single-family home will not need to meet the same structural requirements as a 15-story hospital.
- Create greater opportunities for conversion of existing basements and attics as livable space without costly structural alterations by reducing minimum ceiling heights, as well as providing more options to meet light and ventilation requirements.
- Encourage the preservation of Chicago’s existing building stock, including historic buildings, by providing additional flexibility and options for rehab work. This will bring down the cost of projects like the adaptive re-use of schools, retail buildings and vacant buildings throughout the city.
- Promote energy efficiency and sustainability by making it easier to construct green buildings; ones that are durable, functional and energy-efficient.
- Enhance public safety in the event of a natural disaster by adopting seismic design requirements for critical facilities such as hospitals and fire stations and some taller buildings.
Beaudet, Ullrich and Hopkins said it was crucial to have support from Mayor Rahm Emanuel and his successor, Mayor Lori Lightfoot, who kept the momentum going to ensure the new code took effect as planned on Aug. 1, 2020.
“Once you get the mayor on your side, everything falls into place,” Beaudet said.
They also credited their staff, the stakeholders and all the help from the Code Council with the easy transition in bringing building codes for a world-class city up to date. Yerkes did as well.
“Stakeholders, staff, all did an amazing job of coming together to make this happen,” she said. “And they did this because of their amazing commitment to serving Chicago and its residents. Chicago is an iconic city, it was so refreshing to experience everyone’s appreciation and love for that city.”
Beaudet said the Code Council’s wealth of training materials and other resources also has been invaluable during the transition. “And we’re not finished yet. Under Mayor Lightfoot’s leadership, we will continue the task of modernizing our remaining codes — including plumbing, mechanical and fuel gas requirements — to provide safe, innovative, flexible and cost-effective means for new construction and renovation in all 77 communities of Chicago.”
Hopkins said working with the Code Council on adopting the new codes has made it so much easier to keep up with industry standards and changes in construction. Even in the middle of a pandemic.
Beaudet said they were lucky that in 2012, city building officials decided to go to an all-electronic permit application and processing system. That has allowed plan reviewers to work from home and keep construction work on track.
They have also added virtual inspections as an additional tool. Given the challenge of urban traffic, virtual inspections allow more inspections to be completed during work hours and reduce the cost of travel.
The smooth transition with a long-overdue update using the most modern and heavily researched codes also is a great comfort, pandemic or not.
“We were lucky that it didn’t take a major disaster to get us to rewrite the codes,” Ullrich said. “They didn’t have to be written in blood. It was just the right time and the right thing to do.”