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Performance Based Codes - Their Effect on Fire Investigation


Code compliance is a common issue that can arise in the course of a fire investigation and can be critical to resolving liability issues. In the course of resolving a fire insurance claim, adjuster and fire investigator alike are concerned with code compliance; specifically, whether building and electrical components were code compliant upon installation and potentially identifying what upgrades would be required to the affected areas to comply with current codes.

The purpose of the fire safety aspects of building codes is to provide a minimum level of protection for life and property against the effects of fire. The extent of fire damage can be more severe if the code requirements for fire safety are not met in the building design, maintenance, and operation, resulting in liability for the parties responsible for meeting the code.

The traditional prescriptive approach to building codes provides a list of requirements that can vary depending on the design of the building. For example, sprinklers might be required in certain occupancies, or interior surfaces might be required to have a low flame spread rating. Many of these codes were added, reactively, after a major fire, sometimes with limited analytical justification or rationale.

The prescriptive codes are fairly black and white with little room for interpretation, which makes it relatively easy to determine if a building is up to code after a fire. However, the black and white approach of the prescriptive codes also limits flexibility and innovation in building design. Hence, many countries have opted for performance-based, or objective-based, codes. This process started in the UK in the mid 1980s, followed by New Zealand in 1992, and now includes Canada with the 2005 National Building Code, and Alberta with the 2006 Alberta Building Code.

To allow room for flexibility and innovative building design, performance-based codes simply lay out the performance objectives required of the building.

An example of a performance based description is
:

“To limit the probability of the spread of fire from exterior walls or openings of a building to exit facilities, which could lead to:

• delays in access to the building by emer- gency responders, which could lead to;
• fire emergency response operations being delayed or ineffective, which could lead to;
• spread of fire, which could lead to…”

The performance-based codes allow for alternative solutions, as long as the fundamental objectives of the code are met. Typically, performance-based codes also include the old, prescriptive-based code as an acceptable solution. The 2005 National Building Code of Canada is split into 3 Divisions: Division A includes the objectives and functional statements that describe the goals that the code is attempting to achieve and the functions that a building or element must be able to perform; Division B contains the prescriptive acceptable solution; and Division C addresses administration problems, which include proper documentation of alternative solutions.

Determining if an alternative solution meets the code requirements requires careful analysis and consensus among the parties involved, which can include the authority having jurisdiction (AHJ), building designer, building owner, and fire service, among others. Both experimental and computer modelling practices may be used in conjunction with statistics to assess whether an alternative solution equally meets the code objectives.

What does all of this mean for investigating code compliance after a fire? In many cases, elements of the building design will be based on the prescriptive code. There are also likely to be deviations from the prescriptive code, particularly in newer buildings. However, just because there are deviations from the acceptable solution does not necessarily mean that there has been a code violation. Adjusters should be sure that investigators are aware of the documentation requirements for alternative solutions and how to access this information. This is important to ensure that code compliance is appropriately assessed so that liability issues can be appropriately resolved.
 


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