Code Squawkers

Phoenix has long been considered a developer's paradise. But a proposal making its way quickly through City Hall would make life hell, say homebuilders, architects and other members of the development community.

As early as next month, Phoenix could become the first major city in the country to adopt a new set of building codes that critics call untested and costly.

Currently, Phoenix like many communities throughout the United States and in Arizona uses the International Building Code, a set of guidelines covering plumbing, electricity and other elements in the building process. The IBC has been around in varying forms for decades.

Last year, the National Fire Protection Association which, for decades, has written fire safety codes used in Phoenix and around the country came up with its own building code, the NFPA 5000. Phoenix City Councilman Dave Siebert (his day job is with the local plumbers union) and the Phoenix firefighters union are pushing hard for the NFPA 5000.

Trying to understand the intricacies of building codes is, as Billy Shields, vice president of the Professional Fire Fighters of Arizona, puts it, "like eating sawdust."

And pulling together the differences between these two codes is something even the city of Phoenix has been unwilling to do. To some extent it's a moving target, because if the NFPA 5000 code is adopted, it will be greatly amended, as most codes are. But generally speaking, the NFPA 5000 code is considered more safety-conscious and also more expensive for builders. For example, one provision would make stairways safer in case of a fire or other emergency.

The political subplot here is easy to understand: It's a power play between developers and unions. And right now, this reality show has a national audience, as the building community watches to see what happens here in Phoenix.

Rick Doell, a deputy director of Phoenix's Development Services Department, says, "It's turning into a really emotional issue rather than a technically based issue."

Of NFPA 5000's critics, he adds, "They're acting like I've turned myself over to the Taliban or something."

With a mayoral and council election looming in the fall, city officials are scurrying to get the NFPA 5000 code passed by the council before summer. But the truth is that this has been a done deal since 1997, when the Phoenix City Council voted to adopt only building codes created through an "open, voluntary consensus process." City attorneys say NFPA 5000 is the only code that fits that definition. That's why Shields, who says he's not actively lobbying anyone on NFPA 5000, can afford to be coy.

"This is not our Waterloo," he says. "We're not throwing all our eggs in this one. Do we support the NFPA code? Yeah. Will it destroy us if it doesn't pass? No."

And it's why the IBC folks in Washington, D.C., have been tearing around Phoenix, making last-ditch attempts to stop the process. They've tried to cover all the turf hiring both former Fife Symington blowhard turned public relations guy Chuck Coughlin and mild-mannered, left-leaning development attorney Grady Gammage to make their case.

So far, Coughlin, Gammage and the many industry people testifying in city hearings on the matter have been unable even to convince the city to make a side-by-side comparison of the IBC and NFPA 5000 codes, they say. Dan Demland, a local architect and former Phoenix City Council candidate, says he applied the NFPA 5000 code to a fictional project a supermarket and his costs increased 70 percent.

"Going to this code is going to be a very, very bad thing," he says. Of city officials, he adds, "Frankly, they don't really care about the evidence. Their attitude is that the process means everything."

The crux of the difference between the codes is ultimately in who gets to write them. Simply put, the IBC is written by building officials, with input from the public. A group of 600 officials gets a final vote. The NFPA 5000 incorporates a wide group of interested parties, including union officials and members of the development community, although a much smaller group gets a final vote.

So why wouldn't developers like the latter code, which literally invites them to the table? It's easier for them to work the building officials and let them do their dirty work, while keeping the unions out entirely, explains Mike Coletto, a lobbyist for the firefighters.

"The Homebuilders Association meets with the building inspectors every day. They bump and grind all day long. After a while you can get your way with them," Coletto says.

"It's the Saddam Hussein democracy vote," Coughlin says of the NFPA 5000 process. Sara Yerkes, vice president of public policy for the International Code Council, which publishes the IBC, says building officials write her organization's codes for a reason: "Only those with no vested financial interests should be allowed to vote."

NFPA vice president Gary Keith counters that interests are balanced in his process, with a two-thirds vote required to move forward.

The most vocal in fact, many say the only NFPA 5000 opponent on the Phoenix City Council is Councilwoman Peggy Neely, who asked an intern to work full-time analyzing the building codes. But Neely's assistant, Perry Baker, says what Neely learned is that the decision was finalized years ago, even before the NFPA 5000 was completed.

Baker says, "I don't think we're riding any particular horse in the race we're just wondering why we're in the race."

Phoenix is in the race because of Dave Siebert. The councilman will be the first to tell you that.

One person close to the process who has spoken extensively with Siebert says, "It was like trying to discuss abortion. It's like a religious issue with him."

Siebert says the whole thing started with polybutylene pipe. When Siebert, a plumber, found that such pipe was still allowed to be used under the IBC's plumbing code in 1996, he says he was irate.

Like many people close to the process, Siebert is quick to say that he's not an expert on building codes. In his case, he was upset only about the polybutylene pipe. And yes, he's right: The IBC does still allow for the use of polybutylene pipe in municipal water distribution and service.

The Uniform Plumbing Code endorsed by NFPA prohibits the use of the pipe.

That's good enough for Siebert.

"We've been known to have the best-run city in the world," he says, "and we're going to continue to."

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Amy Silverman is a two-time winner of the Arizona Press Club’s Journalist of the Year award. Her work has appeared on the radio show This American Life and in the New York Times, the Washington Post, Lenny Letter, and Brain, Child. She’s the co-curator of the live reading series Bar Flies, and a commentator for KJZZ, the NPR affiliate in Phoenix. Silverman is the author of the book My Heart Can’t Even Believe It: A Story of Science, Love, and Down Syndrome (Woodbine House 2016). Follow her on Instagram (@amysilverman), Twitter (@amysilvermanaz), and at