ICC® Committee Disapproves Change to Recognize Structural Fire Engineering Design Method

RaCERS Faculty Lead Effort to Incorporate Performance-Based Design, Real-World Impacts on Responders into Building Code

Despite strong support from an unprecedented coalition of fire service and fire protection engineering interests, the ICC® Fire Safety Committee voted 12-1 to disapprove a code change (FS107-21) that would have recognized realistic, performance-based structural fire engineering methods. The code change reflected more than two years of work by a committee representing engineers, fire service groups, and others.

Current code requirements rely heavily on prescriptive methods based on fire tests developed over a century ago. The application of these tests overlooks many important features of fire safe design and results in buildings with unpredictable or at least unquantifiable levels of structural performance under fire conditions. Firefighters have increasingly questioned the value of such tests and design methods based on them due to fire-related building collapses that have injured or killed firefighters.

Structural engineers and fire protection engineers familiar with the proposed design alternative, ASCE/SEI 7—2016, Appendix E have worked diligently over more than two decades to develop better methods of predicting building performance under a combination of live loads and fire conditions. These calculation methods are supported by rigorous international fire testing at large scale and provide better means of assessing the integrity of connections, joints, and other aspects of fire resistance not readily derived from legacy tests.

Opponents who testified against the code change included representatives of the National Fireproofing Contractors Association and the American Iron and Steel Institute. They indicated support performance-based design methods but see no place for them in the prescriptive building code. The opponents argued such a reference is more appropriate for inclusion in the International Performance Code for Buildings and Facilities, which few jurisdictions have recognized much less adopted.

Opponents also indicated instead their preference of holding to existing language in the International Building Code that grants wide discretion to designers and building officials to use other means and methods, including techniques unsupported by rigorous scientific testing and technical consensus. Alternative proposals sought to protect the status quo by granting equivalent status to much more limited design methods or applying limits to the application of ASCE/SEI 7—2016 that would have required benchmarking to legacy fire performance only.

In voting to disapprove the code change, committee members referenced opponent testimony and expressed concern that referencing ASCE/SEI 7—2016 would limit the application of other alternatives. This, they suggested, could require code officials to accept designs based on ASCE/SEI 7—2016 as opposed to other design standards. In addition, they expressed concern that many building departments, even those in metropolitan jurisdictions lack the expertise to review and approve such sophisticated designs.

Mark Chubb, RaCERS Affiliated Faculty and an Adjunct at the College, also offered testimony in favor of the change. That testimony can be viewed here.

The recommended committee action on the code change is now subject to public review and comment before a final vote on its fate by ICC® members in the fall. John Jay College Professor Glenn Corbett, reflecting on the result said, “Despite the unfortunate outcome at today’s vote, I know that history will show that we were correct to challenge the 100-year-old status quo of outdated fire testing.”

— Mark Chubb

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