Deck Builders Need to Get Involved in the Code Process
I represented deck builders' interests in building code development as a volunteer with NADRA beginning in 2006. Although I have now stepped down from my volunteer position with NADRA, I want to share with Professional Deck Builder readers some insight on code development and the deck industry.
There have been a number of additions to the code in the last few years. Few of them are particularly helpful to the deck builder or the consumer. Fear mongering by media and testing facilities, and even manufacturers and trade associations, have only added to the false notion that "decks are unsafe" and need to be severely regulated.
Yes, there are millions of decks out there that need to be replaced. Yes, more will fall down. Yes, more injuries and worse will occur. However, the decks built to existing code are not the ones falling down. (I am sure someone will send in an example of one that has indeed fallen down - but that is not the norm, and even code can't stop the occasional failure from happening.)
What is in the code now already restricts what the consumer can have built. That means that a determined consumer will find a builder who agrees to go outside of what is allowed and skip the permit and inspection altogether.
For the law abiding, it means less creativity and more conventional designs. Deck builders want to be artistic. Consumers want free expression when spending their money on a deck. Code is making both of these things history.
The building of a deck involves many different industries - wood framing, wood decking, manufactured decking, concrete, light fixtures, hardware, glazing, plumbing, electrical, and the like. It is very difficult for "the deck industry" to get proper representation in the code arena since each of these industries has its own set of challenges. Bottom line - the deck builder is the last one on anybody's mind when it comes to code development.
The 2012 International Residential Code was published a few months ago. It, as well as all of the other International Code Council codes, can be viewed at http://publicecodes .citation.com. The 2012 IRC is the most restrictive and regimented version to date. Unless deck builders want to be further pigeon-holed into constructing cookie-cutter decks using a limited number of mandatory brackets and connectors, they had better start making some noise.
The code process is available to anyone. Anyone can submit a code change proposal. Anyone can testify at the code hearings. The building code process is now on a three-year cycle. The International Building Code cycle starts January 1, 2012. The IRC cycle starts January 1, 2013. Both will work toward the 2015 editions. Information on the upcoming code development cycles will become available under the code development section of the ICC website, iccsafe.org.
Understandably, writing code change proposals, offering public comments, and testifying at public hearings are probably more of a time and money investment than most builders are able to make on their own. However, just as important is what you can do at the local level with the building officials you know and work with every day.
Work the relationships you have with the code officials. Keep up on the code development process by using the ICC website, and express your concerns and ideas. Code officials meet regularly at their local ICC chapter meetings. They discuss code and the upcoming changes, and they get to vote on code changes.
Don't forget to do the same thing with the manufacturers that line up to get your business, and the trade associations that want your money. They need to be reminded that the deck builder's success is their livelihood. Product representatives won't have jobs if you can't sell decks. Builder loyalty programs won't mean squat to manufacturers if you can't sell decks. Any trade association you belong to, whether local or national, won't have a reason for existence if you can't sell decks. What happens in code therefore matters just as much to them as it does to you.
I wish the deck industry would come together and work for what is best for our industry as a whole. Conflicting interests and politics have kept that from happening thus far. In the meantime, the more of you who speak up, the louder the cry will be for a reasonable building code. It is your livelihood that is at stake; don't take it lying down.
Andy Engel, editor, provides some background on tightening deck codes: In February 2005, PDB's sister publication, JLC, published "Strong Rail Post Connections for Wooden Decks." In that article (parts of which were reprinted in PDB's May/June 2007 issue), researchers at Virginia Tech argued that the IRC-specified 200-pound loading requirement for rails was subject to a 250 percent safety factor, meaning that railings had to withstand a 500-pound load. In their testing, no standard deck post connection survived the heavier load.
The idea of a de facto 500-pound load requirement for rail posts is not universally accepted within the code community. However, it paved the way for manufacturers to develop hardware that allows posts to meet that requirement. And while the IRC hasn't changed as a result of this research, deck posts began to receive greater scrutiny from building inspectors, with some jurisdictions requiring engineered post attachments or the use of the new hardware (PDB, May/June 2011). This line of thought has spread to other rail components as well, raising the question of whether site-built railings require engineering.
Also in 2005, the same Virginia Tech researchers, aided by colleagues at Washington State University, tested deck ledger connections, and published the results in JLC in November of that year. Based on this research, the 2007 Supplement to the IRC contains Table R502.2.2.1, specifying allowable ledger bolting schedules, as reported in PDB's July/August 2007 issue. This is perhaps the least controversial of the code changes, as the clarity it brought to the issue was welcomed by many deck builders and building officials.
The 2009 IRC surprised many deck builders with Section R502.2.2.3, a lateral attachment requirement for ledgers meant to prevent deck collapses caused by ledgers detaching from the house (PDB, November 2009). The code-change cycle is three years long. This requirement was added during the public comment period about six weeks before the final vote on the 2009 code, causing some to cry foul over its late inclusion. Although that section of the code wasn't clearly written, it was often interpreted to require that ledgers of decks attached to houses be tied into the home's floor framing using the same hardware as used for deck post connections. Many in the industry question the necessity of R502.2.2.3, arguing there's little evidence that decks whose ledgers are properly bolted and flashed to their houses are the ones collapsing.
In answer to the complaints about the questions arising from Section R502.2.2.3, the ICC has reportedly clarified that section in the 2012 IRC.