IBC Embraces Mass Timber for Model Building Codes

by Christi Collins, ACPA Executive Director

In a stunning, but not too surprising, blow to those of us in the concrete industry, last December the International Code Council (ICC) approved 14 of the 17 tall mass timber code change proposals. The approvals pave the way for the mass timber code change proposals to be included in the 2021 International Building Code (IBC).

As it is defined, mass timber includes cross-laminated timber, structural composite lumber, glued laminated lumber and large-section sawn lumber. The code changes will now create three new types of U.S. construction, wood buildings up to 9, 12 and 18 stories tall—all sectors historically dominated by concrete.

Setting aside any concrete-related objections, the outcome was still somewhat perplexing given the strong opposition statements from the National Association of State Fire Marshals (NASFM) and the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC) who stated the code proposals were based on conclusions of “professional judgement” rather than rigorous science and test data. NASM further stated that “while NASFM doesn’t dismiss the concept out of hand, we do feel the current proposals go too far, too fast, in an area of significant and longlasting importance.”

Other key points included the lack of live fire and seismic testing, incomplete data regarding fire loading of test burn buildings, as well as concern that no “wind aided” tests were conducted. They summarized by stating there is “no scientific basis for increasing height and area limits beyond what is currently allowable in code”. Unfortunately, ICC voters never heard their comments.

Why did these impactful statements go unheard? In part because ICC guidelines limited the distribution of information during the conference and hearings prompting the National Ready Mixed Association, Portland Cement Association, Steel Framing Industry Association and Build With Strength to issue the following statement: “Under the guise of fairness, the ICC’s statement underscores their preference to shelter its membership from viewing critical materials. Given the gravity of the proposals being weighed and its impact on code policy throughout the country, the ICC should welcome, not restrict, as much information as possible so that their membership can make fully informed decisions. Human life and devastating economic consequences are at stake when combustible wooden high-rise buildings are on the table, and it deserves the highest level of care and educated consideration.”

Yet as defeating as the voter outcome was, incorporating mass timber into building code is not a foregone conclusion. As John Loyer, senior vice president of state and regulatory affairs for NRMCA pointed out recently “Building codes don’t exist until someone adopts them.” Some states such as Washington and Oregon may incorporate all or part of the IBC changes, but that doesn’t mean the other states or individual localities will follow. In fact, due to several devasting wood-framed building fires, New Jersey State Senators Brian Stack and Linda Greenstein have introduced legislation which would strengthen firewall standards in all new multi-family construction and prohibit lightweight wood construction, which uses prefabricated wood structures on buildings over three stories. Quoted from the NJ Insider website, Senator Stack said, “Protecting lives should always be our first concern. Light frame construction is not very fireproof because it is made of wood, and is not strong enough to resist major wind events such as tornadoes and hurricanes.” And following in New Jersey’s footsteps, local authorities in Philadelphia and Los Angeles are close to adopting similar code restrictions—also because of life-threatening fires in multi-level wood-framed structures.

An astounding amount of propaganda was disseminated by the wood industry to influence the ICC voter outcome, but I’m optimistic that in the end, scientific evidence and long-term data, as well as good old common sense, will ultimately prevail. NRMCA and PCA have built an outstanding team dedicated to promoting, advocating and working with developers on the benefits of building with concrete—and are achieving some real success stories.

Mass timber may have scored a major victory in this round, but clearly this fight is far from over.