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City, Stakeholders, Working on Building Code Re-Write

Does it even need to be said? Building codes are boring. So, it should come as no surprise that the current effort to re-write them has gotten little attention.

Even now that the process is well underway and Phase 1 is complete, no ribbon-cuttings have been scheduled. Media attention has been limited. And the public’s reaction to this effort? Suffice it to say that short attention spans do not have a lot of band-width for the technicalities and complexities of arcane rules and regulations, much less how they change.

This is all a shame, and for one very simple reason: there are few things currently happening in Chicago that will have a larger economic impact on property owners and developers than the changes that have been made, or that are being considered, to the city’s building codes. For as long as anyone can remember, Chicago has been one of the most difficult places in the country to build. Some of this is due to the heavy hand of bureaucracy and regulation. But much of this is due to antiquated requirements that reflect the priorities of contractors over common sense and consumers.

Theoretically, an effective re-write of the building codes will reduce red-tape and rationalize construction requirements. In turn, these changes will make buildings less expensive to build – therefore less expensive to buy or rent. If this all works out as planned, Chicago will become more competitive locally, nationally and internationally and will be better positioned to retain and attract the people and companies the city needs to thrive in the 21st Century.

Building codes are boring. So, it should come as no surprise that the current effort to re-write them has gotten little attention.

This being Chicago, such changes and rationalizations do not come without a fight. The different sides at the negotiating table have very different goals and priorities. The City wants to maintain control over what and how builders build to insure that the final product is safe and sound. Contractors and their unions want to retain building regulations that will maximize employment and profit for their industry. Builders and property owners want less regulation and lower costs so that they can build with less hassle and lower marginal costs. To state the obvious, these priorities do not always align. In fact, they are often starkly opposed.

But, even in Chicago, entrenched interests do not always prevail in the face of changing technologies and ever-shifting political landscapes. Indeed, it is the convergence of new technologies and new political realities that have brought these interest groups to the negotiating table to modernize and rationalize building codes. For too long, these codes have reflected the priorities of the moneyed interests that benefit from having them in place. If the current effort is successful, those priorities will shift away from the bureaucrats and construction trades in favor of the people who ultimately pay their salaries – the millions of people who live, work, shop and play within city limits.

In the Beginning

Chicago is a peculiar city in many ways. As the leading metropolis between the two coasts, Chicago has always considered itself a little different from, and maybe just a little better than, every other city not next to salt water. Some of our superiority complex is justified. The city and its people have accomplished great things. But some of it leads to complacency and an attitude that we have nothing to learn from anyone who does not already live here. This can have lots of negative consequences, even in such mundane areas as building codes.

Some legitimately terrible things have happened in Chicago over its nearly 200-year history that created our current set of building code regulations. Let’s start with the 1871 fire that burned a third of the city to the ground, including the entire downtown area. Although much smaller in scale, the tragic fires at the Iroquois Theater in 1903 and Our Lady of the Angels in 1958 provided additional impetus to alter the City’s building codes. Put these events in the category of learning the hard way or, pardon the pun, trial by fire. The damage and senseless loss of life that resulted from these events can be put, at least in part, to lax building code regulations. The flip side of this argument is that the building codes we have today reflect many legitimate efforts to make our buildings better and safer.

What might have made sense in 1871, 1903 or 1958 did not necessarily still make sense ten, or fifty or 100 years later.

But not all of these changes were always better than what they replaced. Furthermore, what might have made sense in 1871, 1903 or 1958 did not necessarily still make sense ten, or fifty or 100 years later. This is especially true as technological advances and lifestyles shifted. So it was that, by 2015, Chicago had inherited a set of building code regulations that were often cumbersome to enforce, expensive to implement, and of dubious benefit to its citizens. At worst, these building codes piled needless red tape and costs on builders that only benefitted government bureaucrats and the construction trades.

Over time, it became clear that something needed to be done, but the political will was not there to do it. That changed in 2011 with the election of Mayor Rahm Emanuel. A primary goal of the new administration was to improve the City’s efficiency and responsiveness to its citizens. Rationalizing building codes was a daunting but important step in this direction.

Commissioner Frydland

Thus, in 2015, under the auspices of Building Commissioner Judith Frydland, the City of Chicago began the formidable process of overhauling the city’s building code requirements. This process brought all the major stakeholders together, including the building trades, construction unions, city officials, public utilities, property owners, developers and the Building Owners and Managers Association (BOMA).

The stated goal of this effort was “to better align the City of Chicago’s construction requirements with up-to-date model codes and standard used in other major US jurisdictions while maintaining longstanding local requirements that are adapted to unique conditions in Chicago.”

The City outlined six results that they wanted to see from this effort: (1) streamline the permitting process; (2) reduce barriers to cost-effective construction; (3) enhance public safety; (4) promote energy efficiency; (5) facilitate innovated design and construction; and (6) benefit from national code development efforts.

To achieve these goals, the process was divided into three Phases: Phase 1 would focus on electrical; Phase 2a on core construction, energy conservation, property maintenance, renovation and the administrative process; Phase 2b on fire prevention; and Phase 3 on fuel gas, mechanical systems, energy conservation and plumbing. This effort began in earnest in 2016 and is not anticipated to be completed until 2021.

Phase 1

To date, the first phase of the building code project has been completed. The City began this process by reinstating the Electrical Commission after a period of 14 years of inactivity, comprised of electricians, contractors and engineers, as well as representatives from ComEd and the Fire Department. The Commission also worked with representatives from the elevator industry.

The result of this collaboration was a set of recommendations that were formally introduced to the City Council and adopted on September 6, 2017. The new electric codes will make Chicago one of the first major cities to conform with the 2017 National Electrical Code and represents a significant step in the long process of bringing the City up to contemporary building code standards. Among its many accomplishments, the new Electrical Code will bring new lighting technologies into use that can reduce lighting design loads by up to 83%; enable significant reductions in the cost of electrical installations and electrical consumption; and allow the use of more sustainable technologies, including solar and other renewable energy sources.

Phase 2 and 3

It is perhaps no accident that plumbing codes will be the last to be revised.

Phase 2 is just getting underway. The initial meeting of the Stakeholder Working Group, comprised of representatives of the Chicago Fire Department, design professionals, contractors, etc., was scheduled for December 3, 2018. The goal is to get recommendations to City Council by early 2019, begin accepting permit applications under the new regulations by late 2019, and completely implement the new codes by 2020. Phase 2 will be divided into two parts – a and b. Construction, energy, maintenance and renovation will be addressed in Phase 2a. Phase 2b will turn to highly-regulated hazardous uses and fire safety planning and operations. This work is anticipated to occur later in 2019.

Phase 3 will focus on mechanical systems, fuel gas, energy conservation and plumbing, but may also include updating and streamlining construction trade licensing provisions and regulations of signs. Presumably, this work will follow Phase 2 quickly, as the entire code rewriting process is expected to be completed by 2021.

It is perhaps no accident that plumbing codes will be the last to be revised. For years, builders and property owners have complained that the plumbing trades, with the full support of current building code requirements, mandate the use of expensive copper piping when PVC would do just as well at a much lower cost. This issue is sure to be contentious once Phase 3 gets underway.

Not everyone is aware that, even before negotiations about plumbing code revisions begin, the Department of Building (DOB) is already granting “administrative relief” for the use of PVC piping for drainage and venting. The DOB program is known as the Alternative Plumbing Materials Pilot Program and it has been extended through the end of 2019. Applications can be made on the City of Chicago’s “Alternative Code Approval” webpage:

Administrative relief is being granted on a case-by-case basis. According to a recent DOB press release, there have already been more than 300 cases where such relief has been approved at a savings of $9 million for building owners and developers. CIC has played an important role in encouraging the DOB to allow this relief, citing mounting evidence that PVC piping is just as safe, reliable and effective as copper, but at a fraction of the cost.

To qualify for administrative relief, buildings cannot be more than four stories in height. New construction relief will only be considered for residential structures. Existing buildings may be either residential or non-residential. Even mixed-use properties, previously ineligible for this type of administrative relief, can now apply.

Whether the as-of-right use of PVC piping is ultimately approved under the city’s revised building codes remains to be seen. Clearly, builders and property owners are pushing hard for this change. Equally clearly, the plumbing trades will do everything they can to resist since they make a lot more money installing copper piping than PVC. Property owners can support this effort by sending contractor bids to Stacie Young at CIC (This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.) for copper versus PVC work. The more evidence we can provide to the city through CIC to demonstrate the significant cost savings between these two options, the more likely we are to see PVC approved for use in the revised building codes. This is a change that builders and property owners should strongly support.

The Department of Building is already granting “administrative relief” for the use of PVC piping for drainage and venting.

The End-Game

Without question, the successful completion of Phase 1 is a good omen for the realization of the entire building code re-writing project. The City has committed to seeing this process through to completion and implementing code revisions as they are adopted. We will continue to monitor progress in future Newsletter articles as this process moves forward. We applaud this effort and eagerly anticipate the many benefits this work will bring about. With the adoption of the new electric code regulations, these results are already becoming evident. Much more will follow in the months and years ahead.




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