Fire-rated codes update

Glazing faces road blocks in 2007-2008 cycle
By Thom Zaremba
February 1, 2009
COMMERCIAL : CODES & STANDARDS

The 2007-2008 code development cycle was one of the busiest, and certainly one of the strangest, I’ve ever experienced. One morning, the final action hearings started at 7 and didn’t end until well after 1 am the next morning. Meetings started up, again, a mere six hours later, at 7 a.m. sharp.

It also was strange because the final action hearings are usually unbiased proceedings where only government officials with no monetary stake in the outcome of code change proposals are allowed to vote. This year, however, several groups, including the International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives and the Midwest Energy Efficiency Alliance, had specific code change proposals in mind and gave government officials money in the form of scholarships to vote at the Final Action Hearings. This resulted in the casting of many more votes than ordinarily expected  on some proposals, and unleashed an outcry of complaints to the International Code Council board of directors from code officials and stakeholders. At least one appeal challenging this practice has been filed.

The 2009 edition of the model building codes will be radically different from earlier versions. They will be about 20 percent more energy efficient and mandate installation of sprinkler systems in all residential occupancies, unless that change is overturned on appeal.

However, when it comes to fire-rated glazing, the biblical passage that “many are called, but few are chosen” comes to mind. Numerous proposals to change the rules governing the use of fire-rated glazing were made, but none adopted.

The greatest challenge to the fire rated glazing industry today is the use of “trade-offs,” that is, where the building code “trades-off” the use of fire rated construction materials in favor of the use of sprinkler systems in a building. Several proposals to restore the “balance” between the use of fire rated construction materials and sprinklers came very close to passage, but ultimately failed, in the last code development cycle.

Many fire-rated change proposals died at the committee level. For example, the Fire Safety Development Committee recommended disapproval (FS7-07/08) of a proposal that would have effectively eliminated the use of all fire-rated glazing in two-hour or higher-rated walls. Since no public comment was filed challenging the committee recommendation, it was disapproved without debate at the final action hearings.

Several proposals to rewrite the system currently used to mark fire-rated glazing died at the committee level (FS12, FS13 and FS119), as did a proposal that would have mandated third-party testing, and the addition of an “S” to the label of all fire-rated “safety” glazing (FS124). Since proposals like these have appeared in every code change cycle following the adoption of the marking system, the ICC Board of Directors, authorized the Code Technology Committee to examine the issue and propose any needed changes. In turn, the CTC appointed a task group consisting of several primary fire-rated glazing manufacturers; a fire-rated frame manufacturer; a representative of the State Fire Marshalls’ Association; several building code officials; an architect; and a representative from Underwriters Laboratory to study the issue. The task group is currently scheduled to hold its first task group meeting by phone on January 5, 2009.

FS134 proposed that the concept of a “minimum” building code be turned upside down. It proposed changing Table 715.5 from “minimum” ratings for fire window assemblies to “maximum” ratings. However, the Fire Safety Committee did not want to outlaw the use of fire protection rated windows whose ratings exceeded the minimum ratings currently specified, and recommended disapproval. The perennial assortment of proposals to change code provisions governing the use of wired glass also failed to muster committee support (FS130 and FS131).

A relatively large number of proposals attempted to change when, or whether, fire-rated glazing should be tested using the hose stream. Some proposals would have eliminated the hose stream test altogether, while others proposed new tests to replace it. One proposal would have replaced the hose stream test for glazing used in sidelites or transoms, with a test for heat flux. It also proposed setting a maximum heat flux of 12 kilowatts of energy per square meter for 20 minutes (FS122). Other proposals would have done away with the hose stream test for all fire protection rated glazing used in one-hour corridors if it could meet that same heat flux limitation for 45 minutes (FS127 and FS128). Still other proposals would have eliminated the hose test altogether for all glazing used in fire windows anywhere in one-hour corridors (FS126). None of these proposals found support from the Fire Safety Committee and died at the final action hearings.

Another class of proposed changes failed to garner committee support but, since public comments were filed, their committee recommendations were debated at the final action hearings. These proposals were all related to a movement in the code development community that calls for a greater balance between the use of active (sprinklers) and passive (fire-rated materials) fire safety features. 

Currently, for example, if a school (Group E Occupancy) is sprinklered, the required fire-resistance rating of its exit corridors goes to 0. This means that if sprinklered, the exit corridors of our schools can be built with no fire-resistance rating. E117 was proposed to change this rule to require, instead, one-hour fire-resistance rated exit corridors in all school buildings, whether sprinklered or not. After significant debate, E117 was defeated by a single vote at the Means of Egress Development Committee hearing. Several public comments were filed and the committee’s recommendation was debated before about 175 government officials at the final action hearings. Although the standing motion to approve the committee’s recommendation was defeated by a vote of 79 in favor to 97 against, the proposal failed to gain the 2/3 vote needed for adoption over the committee’s negative recommendation.

Other balanced fire protection proposals that would have affected fire-rated glazing met a similar fate. The committee recommendation to disapprove E118, a proposal to increase the fire-resistance rating of corridors in sprinklered Group R occupancies (residential structures) from a 1/2-hour to one-hour, was overturned by a vote of 68 in favor to 90 against. However, it too, failed to garner the 2/3 vote to secure passage over an adverse committee recommendation. Finally, E119, a proposal to require one-hour fire resistance rated corridors in sprinklered Group I-2 (hospital and nursing) and Group I-4 (child care) occupancies, also failed to secure passage over an adverse Committee recommendation. 

The cycle did present some good news for the fire-rated glazing industry. E120 proposed reducing the fire-resistance rating of corridors in Group I-3 Occupancies (prisons) from one-hour to “0.” The proponents urged adoption of this proposal on the basis that sprinklers are mandatory in all I-3 Occupancies and that sprinklers alone offered an adequate level of fire safety for those incarcerated. The committee disapproved this proposed reduction in life safety and the ICC membership voted to support that recommendation at the final action hearings.

The author is an industry consultant and partner for Roetzel & Andress, Toledo, and can be reached at TZaremba@RALaw.com.

  • 2007-2008 cycle scorecard
    • Failed. A proposal to eliminate the use of virtually all fire-rated glazing in two-hour or higher-rated walls.
    • Failed. Proposals to rewrite the system to mark fire-rated glazing.
    • Failed. A proposal to mandate third-party testing, and add an “S” to the label of all fire-rated “safety” glazing.
    • Failed. A proposal to change “minimum” ratings for fire window assemblies to “maximum” ratings.
    • Failed. Proposals to change code provisions for wired glass. 
    • Failed. Proposals to change when or whether the hose stream test is required. 
    • Failed. Proposals to push for greater balance between active and passive fire safety measures.
    • Failed. A proposal to reduce fire-resistance rating of corridors in prisons.