Building performance is a term applied to the functioning of a structure over time. Building code compliance is typically thought of as a static condition. This is largely due to the evolution of codes as prescriptive in nature. However, there is also a performance approach to code compliance, used frequently in meeting energy conservation requirements, and also available as the basis for approval of alternative means of design. Revising our understanding of code compliance in terms of building performance can provide advantages including greater flexibility, enhanced quality control, and financial savings.
A performance-based approach to building codes begins with the articulation of goals. This is also often the first step in commissioning for other systems in a building. Commissioning is in fact the process by which targeted outcomes are verified, therefore the establishment of targeted outcomes is the first step in commissioning.
However even prescriptive code requirements can be “commissioned”. Such an approach begins with a description of relevant code requirements, careful plan review, and documentation. While current code consulting practice often stops there, the process can be supplemented through field verification. Life safety commissioning can include verification of all fire-resistance and fire protection systems installations, confirmation of dimensional accuracy, accessibility compliance, visibility of exit signage and multiple other code matters. By proactively evaluating code compliance delays such as failed inspections can be avoided.
And then there is the matter of liability. Regardless of the number of inspections, approvals, and certificates of occupancy a building receives, the owners will always remain liable for any noncompliance. An accident resulting in injury and caused by a code violation, or noncompliance with accessibility requirements can lead to substantial claims. From this perspective Life Safety Commissioning can be viewed as a form of insurance.
A simple example will make this clear. An accessible water closet is required to be installed 18” from the centerline of the fixture to the nearest wall. There is no dimensional tolerance associated with this requirement. Even a 1/4” discrepancy can be cited as a violation. Yet the sequence of construction and the multiple trades involved makes precise installation problematic. Location of the waste pipe is likely to happen long before walls are constructed. Chalk line partition layouts typically refer to face of stud, not finished wall surface. And the plumbing contractor who establishes the waste pipe location is unlikely to know the thickness of the wall finish specified, or even whether the finish is tile or wallboard.
Just as a commissioning process for HVAC systems will verify proper installation of equipment, code commissioning can include site visits and proactive field verification. Doing so adds a level of quality control that can save time and money during and after the construction process. Code commissioning is likely to become standard operating procedure in the future, especially as the use of performance-based designs increases. In the meantime it is an efficient method for reducing risk and staying on schedule through the critical path of inspections and punch lists.
A. Vernon Woodworth FAIA
Life Safety & Code Consultant Group Leader