Building Code Undergoing a Major Change

bba ARCHITECTS on Aug 31, 2019

BBA principal Ed Twohey AIA has been participating, along with other architects, in one of several working groups to advise the Department of Buildings in drafting the new building code. The re-write is part of the larger effort to modernize all of the city’s construction codes. Commissioner Judy Frydland along with first deputy Grant Ulrich have undertaken this highly deliberative process, which has been inclusive of major stake holders of the construction industry in Chicago. The fire department, architects, engineers, developers, and real estate professionals have all had a voice in the pending changes.

Currently, the modernization project is in phase 2, having completed the updated electrical code in a similar process last year. Phase 3, to begin next year, will be primarily concern plumbing and mechanical codes. Phase 2 is a very large piece, and is on pace to be implemented the end of 2019, with an optional crossover period in 2020. Mayor Emanuel has made this change a priority in the closing months of his administration. As of this writing, the ordinance draft is due to be sent to City Council by mid-March, with final passage expected by early May.

The Chicago building code, as well as the rehab and existing building code, from this point forward, will largely adopt the language of the International building code (IBC). In this way, Chicago can better take advantage of building technology and life safety research that has been adopted by this code, rather than having to go it alone. This should reduce redundancy, and design errors, resulting in savings. In the process of the review, many sections have been edited or added, to account for some of the unique qualities of our city. We have narrower lots than most municipalities, as well as a strong tradition of 1-3 family dwellings (3-flats). Adjustments were made to the code to keep what works in our current code, but use the language of the new code.

The biggest change for architects will be the de-coupling of fire resistance of exterior walls, and construction-type classification. Fire resistance ( 1-hour, 2-hour etc..) is now governed by the distance to an interior lot line or public way, and other factors such as percentages of unprotected openings etc. This change will allow for more efficient construction, putting the fire resistance where it is most required, and allowing more economical assemblies in areas of lower risk. Relaxed lateral load requirements for small scale residential buildings will also save money, while updated lateral and seismic requirements for tall, or essential structures such as hospitals and fire houses, will keep us safe.

We think that most architects will welcome these long overdue changes, which in most cases, allow a bit more design freedom, but most importantly, less ambiguity. It will take us all some time to learn the nuances, but at the end of the day, we will be in a better place. The department is planning to host seminars for design professionals in late fall, early winter next year to get everyone up to speed on the new code, and include an extra day in the self-cert seminars in order to get the whole community working effectively with the new rules.

On the other side of the 9th floor of city hall, it is important to note that the Zoning Ordinance Administration Division, part of The Department of Planning & Development (DPD), is a separate office from the DOB. The current bulk, height, and density requirements remain unchanged, and are not part of the Construction Code Modernization project. Although rumored for months,  The Department of Planning & Development (DPD) has not yet released the much anticipated draft plan to allow increased occupancies in basements, attics, and coach houses in some residential zones. It seems to have been delayed. We hope this plan is released soon, and allows more flexibility, especially more utilization in the rear of residential lots.