Vice President of Innovation at the International Code Council, Ryan Colker, came on the Engineered Systems Magazine podcast to discuss the 2024 International Codes and the history of his organization.

He also addressed how ICC is collaborating with disparate stakeholders, from government agencies to insurers and associations, to create useful code books.

Could you start out by describing your role and ICC?

My role as vice president of innovation is I direct our center focus on energy resilience and innovation. So really looking across the organization to identify where activities are going on, where we can help address some of the challenges that the building industry is facing. And really working to coordinate a lot of those efforts. The code council is probably best known for the development of model building codes and standards. But we also provide a lot of the services and tools that really make them effective. So if we're looking at the energy code, for instance, we have education and training resources for code officials in the industry to effectively implement the code. We also have tools for jurisdictions to support permitting, plan review services, those sorts of things, to support their effectiveness. And then we also look at products within the building landscape, particularly on the innovative product side, where new products or new ways of doing things are identified. We can validate that those new products meet the requirements of the code.

So energy resiliency sounds like a big one, but what are some other segments that ICC focuses on? 

Almost any attribute that you would expect from a building. A lot of our codes and standards focus on hazard resilience. So earthquakes, hurricanes, tornadoes, wildfires – there’s definitely a lot of activity in that space. We do a lot of work around plumbing systems as well: safe and efficient use of water. Really the only area where we don't have a ton of focus is on the electrical side. We rely on the national electrical code from NFPA for a lot of our resources, but as energy systems and electrical systems get more and more interconnected, we do have some resources in that space around say energy storage systems, solar and those sorts of things.

Could you give me some history on energy code development? Do you work with groups like Sheet Metal and Air Conditioning Contractors' National Association (SMACNA)?

The Code Council was actually established in the late ‘90s, bringing together regional groups. But those regional groups developed energy codes back in the ‘70s. Those codes are updated on a three year cycle, and really through a process where any stakeholder in the building industry can propose changes. And so those changes are then debated and discussed in open forums, and allow the opportunity to bring together best practices and the latest knowledge as new standards are developed. It's really a dynamic process of as new information, new research and new technologies enter the field, and the codes can update to accommodate that. It's really sort of a push and pull of relying on expert organizations like SMACNA, ACCA and all of those specific standards developers to bring all those resources together to develop a code, which weaves them together in a way that's cohesive, makes sense and is usable by the industry.

What can you tell me about the 2024 edition?

There’s some increased focus on electric vehicle charging infrastructure and some resources around solar and energy storage. In the 21 edition, we added a zero energy appendix for jurisdictions that are looking for options on achieving zero energy buildings. So we'll see that again in the 24 addition. And then, there'll be some updates around usability of the code as well. So again, through a very collaborative process, we have some strategies to improve the usability while also significantly bump energy efficiency improvements as well.

Can you elaborate on usability? Are you talking about web apps?

Relative to web apps and resources, those are typically developed subsequent to the release of the code, but what I'm talking about is some flexibility around various different options for builders, so they can figure out what the best approach is for them. And then we've actually just reformatted the codes to be more sort of digitally accessible. Previously, the primary access was through books or PDFs, which may not be specifically conducive to reading on an iPad or whatever. So we have made some updates to how they're actually published with some QR codes to additional explanatory resources for each relevant code section, those sorts of things.

We did a Blueprint recently and got into how hydronics can play a role in energy storage. That’s sort of multi-faceted, it doesn’t fit into the code neatly. Generally speaking, how does ICC account for these kinds of innovations and products?

Our concern is for whatever technology is used, that it's used safely, that it provides a level of efficiency. If there's an approach that fits within those parameters, if there is a technology that maybe doesn't fit neatly within existing code requirements, we do have an evaluation service that will dive into a particular product, identify what tests that product could undergo to prove that it meets the intent of the code. And then based off of those tests, the evaluation service would provide a report, which would assist code officials and designers in having confidence in that in that particular product. So even if something doesn't neatly fit within the code, there are ways to work through that.

How does ICC work with insurers?

Certainly, the insurance industry participates in the code development process, recognizing the risk reduction benefits of codes, but also insurance looks to how local communities adopt and enforce codes as part of their underwriting process. It's a little bit wonky, but there's a building codes effectiveness grading scale that's done by ISO, the Insurance Services Office, where they basically go to each individual jurisdiction, ask them what code are they on? What's their enforcement process, how many personnel do they have in their code department? And they'll give the community a rating and then insurance companies will look at that rating to help decide, is this a high risk area, lower risk area, what is their potential exposure? Certainly, there are several different intersections with the insurance industry. We've broken the record for a number of billion dollar disasters in a year, so they are increasing.

I was at the Metal Construction Association meeting, and they were talking about how metal roof panels might have a lower lifecycle emissions footprint than regular roofs, but at the same time, replacement cost are higher. And then also, lifecycle cycle emission reductions get erased if you have to replace a metal roof, whenever there's a significant hail event. Where does ICC land on life cycle emissions and represent them as embodied carbon metrics for products?

That’s actually one of those other areas that we're working to address. A lot of attention has been paid to how much energy a building uses and its operations. And as we continue to get closer and closer to net-zero energy buildings, as the energy grid moves to cleaner sources of energy, the actual embodied energy of the materials that we use is becoming an increasingly larger portion of a building's impact. The challenge has been that we haven't had really a good way of balancing material choice versus operational energy and being able to talk about that balance in a cohesive way. We're actually working with ASHRAE on developing a standard to support the evaluation of greenhouse gases across the entire lifecycle of a building. Being able to have that big picture, being able to make those sorts of decisions, if I go with a metal roof, is it going to be more durable to a lot of the hazards, but what is the trade off with the potential embodied? Being able to have that discussion from a grounded space is important. It's really about the measurement process. So in addition to standards development, we're also an EPD program operator through our evaluation service. So, again, we’re able to quantify the impact of different materials and processes.

It’s in the name, International. But are there particular regions that might use you guys more or might request more updates?

There are certainly a few regions where we work more directly. We do have a presence in the Middle East. The Saudi Arabian building code, for instance, is based off of our International Building Code. There are other activities throughout the Middle East. Pakistan has adopted our energy code. They're working on adopting our green code. Our plumbing code is used in Colombia. The energy code, there was actually a version created for the Caribbean to support multiple different countries. We’re establishing an energy code in the Caribbean, we have a presence in Australia and New Zealand as well. So yeah, we’ve got activities across the world,

Where does resilience factor into building codes?

Energy is what most folks gravitate to: cost savings or greenhouse gas emission reductions. But we're also seeing an increased focus on the resilience benefits that energy codes provide. The U.S. Department of Energy recently completed a study looking at the ability for buildings to remain habitable, in extreme heat or extreme cold events and found that having the most up to date codes in place increases folks ability to stay in their homes significantly. And so, seeing reduced hospital visits or even reduced deaths in extreme heat or cold events is another wrinkle to the importance of things like energy codes.

So you work with U.S. Department of Energy a lot. Do you work with NIST, National Institute of Standards and Technology?

We do. So we have great collaborations with a lot of federal agencies, certainly DOE through our energy code activities. NIST does a lot of post disaster research, which ultimately gets fed into our code development process. Following September 11, NIST did an investigation into some of the reasons behind the collapse of the World Trade Center, and that fed into some code change proposals, which found their way into our code. We also work a lot with FEMA on both code implementation, but also, post disaster findings. In June of 2022, the White House announced a national initiative to advance building codes across the federal government, identifying strategies and tools that they can leverage to help support the adoption and use of codes. Ultimately, post disaster, a lot of the recovery falls to federal agencies, like FEMA, and if we can reduce those impacts, that reduces the need for recovery dollars. So yes, we have a pretty a whole-of-government approach and support for code.

Do you work with certain states that have established more stringent protocols, like I know with Florida and the Surfside condo collapse, they have newer, stricter standards for condos than they had before, do you have anything to speak to about that?

With the Surfside building collapse, we were able to bring together stakeholders relatively quickly identify not the direct root cause of the collapse, that certainly takes some time. But identifying, what are some of the tools or resources that could have helped identify any of the weaknesses? So we developed an existing building inspection guide for, initially, the state of Florida, but are now looking to incorporate that into our International Property Maintenance code, to provide that resource to jurisdictions that may be interested in using those sorts of tools.

Could you describe the labs you have at your disposal?

Each company will do their internal testing to f hone in on the specific parameters of their product. But then we have testing facilities for specific standards to help support the verification of compliance with codes and standards. We have a building material’s lab in Indiana, so they can do structural tests, they can do sort of durability tests on virtually any building material. We have a plumbing lab as well, which can test new plumbing products for compliance with flow rates and those sorts of things. And then we have a fire testing lab in Texas that can do full scale, panel testing for fire ratings. And we do have a process for accrediting laboratories as well, to ensure that they meet the requirements for the tests that they're providing.