Massachusetts Building Code Updates’ Impact on Local Development
Recently, the state Department of Public Safety (DPS) announced that it had concluded public hearings on a proposed new edition of the state building code. Over the past several weeks, residents and local professionals from across the state weighed in on proposed changes, creating the ground rules for developers, homeowners, architects and property managers to abide for the foreseeable future. And now, the feedback from hearings and over 200 pages of public amendments has been reviewed by the Board of Building Regulations and Standards (BBRS). Once filed with the Secretary of State, projects will be expected to comply with the ninth edition code effective January 2, 2018.
While the new building code may not generate big headlines, updating the code is a critical public service, and essential to any community’s growth and development. Almost always, these updates are intended to improve standards for important issues such as the structural integrity of buildings, the quality of water systems, and the required levels of energy conservation. For anyone working or living in Massachusetts, a build code has quiet imprints on our quality of life.
Building codes also offer a unique perspective regarding a region’s development. One glance at the skyline underscores the obvious: the Boston development community is in the midst of one of its’ largest building booms. From examples like Fenway’s Pierce Boston to the upcoming General Electric headquarters at Innovation Point, the latest iteration of the state building code aims to sustain the current growth, while ensuring safety will continue to be prioritized.
Today, the International Building Code (IBC) is in use or adopted in all 50 states, setting basic guidelines to protect buildings, people and property from fire, storms, earthquakes, and other natural disasters. Nevertheless, most states produce their own codes to complement the IBC. And, generally, the ninth edition reflects a consensus that – increasingly – there are fewer occasions to supplement the IBC. Still, there are a few pending examples where the latest local code updates should make life easier for developers and Massachusetts construction industry.
Coastal A zones are areas designated as special flood hazards. The Seaport – with its close proximity to the Boston waterfront – is an example. Previously, the higher likelihood of wind and storm activity limited the options for development in Coastal A zones. The updated code reassesses that, tapering the code’s previous caution and making it more palpable for development.
The new state code will now also reflect the IBC’s cues on podium construction, as well as tall wood structures. Podium construction—or pedestal/platform construction—refers to multiple levels of light-frame construction over a level of fire resistant base. (Think of parking garages or retail.) In Massachusetts the current code is based on an older version of IBC and does not allow two story podiums. Recent changes in the IBC code allow six and seven story structures to be constructed in wood, as opposed to strictly concrete.
Likewise, recent advancements in fire prevention and technology have enabled heavy timber to be used over steel and concrete frames, a welcome change for builders who often favor wood because it is lighter, stronger, and less expensive. The Massachusetts building code will now follow the guidelines set in the 2015 edition of the IBC, to maximize the number of stories, and – hopefully – lower construction costs.
Boston’s recent building surge is unique for several reasons, including the growing, statewide emphasis on sustainability. The adoption of the state’s “stretch energy code in 2009, for instance, helped set the bar for large commercial buildings applying for LEED energy certification. The results are clear, in part leading to the current emphasis on energy efficiency in major urban projects. Last year, Massachusetts was named the most energy efficient state in the nation for the sixth consecutive year, and during this time the state had 136 properties spanning 24.4 million square feet that were LEED certified, including the recently completed Serenity Apartments overlooking Olmsted Park. With an updated building code, Boston should anticipate higher standards for sustainability.
BBRS members have now convened inside One Ashburton Place in downtown Boston to approve final contents of the state’s building code. With a new code now firmly in place for 2018 and beyond, it should provide a helpful set of guidelines that promoter innovation and growth in our state without losing sight of the need to promote public safety.