Plumbing & Mechanical recently had the chance to interview International Code Council CEO Dominic Sims about the current landscape for codes and standards and the plumbing industry overall. Sims has led ICC since 2012 and is responsible for overall activities and financial performance of the organization.
PM: What has been your biggest accomplishment as ICC’s CEO?
DS: I’m most proud of the fact that in the almost eight years we have built an exceptional senior team that has positioned the organization for financial success and have strengthened our relationships with key building safety industry partners, including plumbers, engineers, architects, designers and manufacturers. As the developer of the International Codes (I-Codes), which are a complete set of modern, correlated building safety codes, we understand the importance of having input from all those that play a role in ensuring safety. We rely on these industry partners to help us continue to put forth the most widely used and highly regarded set of building safety codes in the world.
In return, most recently, we’ve been working hand-in-hand with our industry partners to show local governments that building safety is essential to the pandemic response. Combined, we wrote to at least 50 different governors about the importance of updated plumbing and HVAC systems in keeping society safe. Additionally, we have also been doing what we can to help local governments and building departments navigate through the new normal. Our team created our Coronavirus Response Center with resources like free webinars, tips and best practices for adopting a virtual strategy, as well as survey results highlighting the impact of COVID-19 on building departments.
PM: Where do you see the greatest opportunities for growth for ICC in the next five years?
DS: One of our biggest areas for growth is international growth. In March, we opened a new office in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. This was a great milestone for us, as the Code Council has been involved in projects in the region for more than 25 years and several jurisdictions use our I-Codes as the basis for their building safety regulations. The establishment of our Dubai office was one of the first in our larger effort to increase our presence in the international marketplace.
While the pandemic has certainly forced us to take a step back and reevaluate immediate actions, we are still committed to our international growth with a focus on building safety worldwide. As part of this focus, we are gathering the brightest minds across the building industry for a taskforce that will look to address COVID-19 concerns and advise on tips and best practices. The knowledge stemming from the taskforce will also be considered for future editions of the I-Codes.
PM: What positive attributes of the International Plumbing Code (IPC) and International Mechanical Code (IMC) distinguish them from other model codes?
DS: Most industry professionals are familiar with the I-Codes and the rigorous development process in which each edition of the codes is created — the same holds true for the IPC and IMC. Adopted in 36 states, the District of Columbia, Guam and Puerto Rico, the IPC and IMC establish the minimum requirements for plumbing and mechanical systems using prescriptive and performance-related provisions. Along with being a trusted building standard, other positive attributes include:
- The uniformity of plumbing/mechanical regulations across jurisdictional lines. Having a consistent and correlated system of regulations that designers, builders and regulators can rely on, across city, county or state lines reduces construction costs and promotes consistent application of the codes.
- Embracing new technologies and their safe implementation. As building professionals create new methods and processes to continue advancing the overall industry, IPC and IMC review and adapt the core of the method or process as part of the code standard. This eliminates potential issues involving proprietary knowledge or product competitiveness. By being willing to adopt new technologies, methods or processes, each edition of the IPC and IMC contains the most modern building codes.
- The prescriptive approach. The I-Codes follow assures reliable and easy to understand installation practices from start to finish, including all the necessary details in between. From the selection of materials to the many options and methods provided for plumbing and mechanical applications, the I-Codes ensure a safe end-use operation and longevity of the overall systems.
- Mandatory provisions that include objectivity from any bias. All methods and materials are presented equally with no discrimination from one product to another or any method preferred over another. The provisions are clearly laid out to enable a vast selection of products and installation methods that allow building owners, contractors and designers full-range flexibility to determine what systems will work best for them and their projects.
PM: What are two items at the top of your to-do list at ICC?
DS: For the past several years now, the top item on my to-do list has been to transform the Code Council into a digital-first organization. In fact, this focus has worked in our favor since we launched our initial transition last year and have a great foundation in place, which has been critical in today’s landscape. As we continue to navigate through the pandemic and working at home has become the norm, building professionals across the country are finding it necessary to reimagine their workflow by expanding resources and capabilities with new technologies. However, according to results from a survey we conducted in March, while the majority of code departments surveyed (93%) were still performing inspections, either remotely or in-person; six in 10 respondents did not have the capability to remotely carry out critical aspects of their work. This put us in a unique position to help advise building departments who might be new to adopting digital technology. We have provided as many resources as possible for building departments including an entire section devoted to “going virtual” in our Coronavirus Response Center. This section includes links to free webinars and jurisdictions that have developed guidelines for virtual inspections.
The second item at the top of my list is about housing costs. According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, an estimated 12 million renter and homeowner households now pay more than 50% of their annual incomes for housing. Knowing this, part of our mission is focused on sustainable and affordable housing by ensuring building codes are safe and cost-effective. For code development, we are the only standard developer that accommodates cost. However, in order to be effective, the feedback from our constituents, especially plumbing and mechanical professionals, is critical so that we can update the codes accordingly.
PM: What legislative/regulatory issues should plumbing industry pros be concerned with in 2020?
DS: On a national level, our main concern is focused on the increased scrutiny from the federal government on the EPA’s WaterSense program. The current administration has requested a review, evaluation and analysis of the program and while end-user feedback options are being explored, determinations are not yet complete. Since its inception in 2006, WaterSense has helped Americans save a cumulative 3.4 trillion gallons of water and more than $84.2 billion in water and energy bills, according to the EPA. Additionally, the use of WaterSense labeled products saved 462.5 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity. As we potentially face a worldwide water crisis, this will be a concern for the plumbing industry, as well as all of society.
Another concern we see for plumbing industry professionals is specific to manufacturing that is facing more stringent requirements for lower lead content products and lower flow rates for products like faucets and shower heads. While this is more widespread from national to state regulation on the west coast, it is an issue we are following closely.
While in a similar thread, we advise plumbing industry professionals to be aware of the increase in counterfeit plumbing products being produced that do not meet any standards let alone the required standards. This is a real threat to the reputable industry companies and needs to be monitored closely. There are processes in place on what to do when professionals encounter such a product in order to minimize widespread exposure.
PM: How has the COVID-19 pandemic impacted the plumbing and construction industries?
DS: The impact of COVID-19 is both far reaching and deep, especially for the building industry, which has been permanently changed as a result. Since being declared an essential industry by the Department of Homeland Security, code officials and those in related fields, have needed to quickly adapt to a “new normal” in order to fulfill responsibilities, such as ensuring that temporary structures like field hospitals are safe for use. The industry as a whole had to become more adaptive and nimble by incorporating modern technologies. Responsibilities like virtual inspections with an inspector safely at home watching and directing the camera person, being more flexible with jobsite safety and stricter safety measures are gaining traction. While some companies were already using protective gear such as rubber gloves and shoe coverings, now all personnel are utilizing them on a consistent basis as part of their standard operational procedures.
However, it is the plumbing and mechanical service technicians who have had to adapt the quickest. As they have responsibilities in both commercial and residential buildings, oftentimes they engage in a project not knowing whether there will be occupants in the building, what the air quality is like or whether the systems like HVAC they are working on have been infected. This has resulted in an exponentially more stressful environment.
Lastly, plumbing and electrical professionals are learning to cope with significant delays in product deliveries as it has become more challenging to obtain products as quickly as in the past. This has caused a financial impact on many levels.
PM: What has been ICC’s biggest concern during this time?
DS: Our biggest concern, first and foremost, is the health and safety of our employees. As Code Council employees work tirelessly to ensure building departments around the country have the support and resources they need to provide essential services to their regions, it is my responsibility to ensure our workers are as safe as possible doing it. In fact, we have incorporated every precaution and measure released by healthcare professionals and the CDC into our workflow so that our employees are as protected as can be.
On a broader scale, while COVID -19 is most certainly a big concern for us, it is not the only one top of mind. As we are approaching the peak of the Atlantic hurricane season, we have been coordinating with FEMA and officials from regions that are impacted by high winds regarding severe weather preparations. After all, one of the best ways for communities to prepare for disasters like tornados and hurricanes is to build to the most up-to-date, modern building codes. Unlike previous years, the lead up to preparing for hurricane season has been overtaken with the pandemic response, so it is vital that we do not let this fall from people’s radar.
PM: If you had one message to give plumbing and mechanical contractors, what would it be?
DS: Be open to new options in materials and methods available in the plumbing and mechanical industry. For example, next time you connect by Bluetooth, just look at the electrical industry and imagine where we would be today if we were resistant to wireless technology. Newer plumbing and mechanical technology is no different. I challenge the PMG code users to take a look at the IMC, IPC and IFGC themselves and make their own assessment by asking if the provisions are: clearly written; easy to understand; offer more options than they are used to; fair to the entire industry; provide a level playing field; are better for the environment; and are more cost efficient and trend setting for the future. These attributes create a better working environment for contractors and enable them to be more competitive while maintaining a safety-first approach to public health and welfare.