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Chicago's New Building Code Avoids Speed Bumps And Is Set To Keep Rolling Forward

Even though the coronavirus disturbed much of the economy in 2020, municipal and private-sector leaders say it hasn’t derailed this year’s implementation of the city of Chicago’s new building code, which was finally overhauled after decades of fruitless talk and aborted plans.

“The mayor is determined to move forward, as is the private sector,” Chicago Department of Buildings Commissioner Matthew Beaudet said last week during Bisnow’s Chicago Deep Dish: Building Codes webinar.

“It failed in the past because we tried to do it all at once,” Beaudet added.

McDonald's wood-frame flagship at 600 North Clark St., designed by Ross Barney Architects.

This time, former Buildings Commissioner Judy Frydland, who stepped down in the summer after a five-year tenure, broke the transformation of Chicago’s archaic code into pieces, he said.    

As the department’s first deputy, Beaudet began leading the $251M construction of the new Malcolm X College in 2013. He quickly saw how the existing code hampered cooperation with builders and designers from outside Chicago.  

“We had to translate it for them,” he said. “It was like they were from a different country. That was an eye-opener for me that our code was really outdated and needed to change.”

Beaudet praised Frydland and Chicago Department of Buildings Deputy Commissioner Grant Ullrich for tackling the overhaul section by section, an effort guided by hundreds of private-sector experts. They went over the 70-year-old code, bringing it in line with the International Building Code.

“Grant was our secret weapon in this whole process,” he said. “Everyone pitched in and we got there. And we’re not done yet.”

Ullrich said the first phase was overhauling the rules governing electrical work, elevators and escalators, followed by the transformation of the bulk of the building code. The City Council approved Phase 2 in April 2019, and the new code took effect on Aug. 1 this year.  

The department also reformed building rehabilitation standards and the permitting process, Ullrich added, and in the near future will do likewise for the standards for plumbing, mechanical systems and fire code updates.

“They were on the plate for this year, but with COVID, they have drifted a bit into 2021,” he said. “The fire department is still having conversations about what to do with requirements for hazardous uses and occupancies in a modernized fire code.”

Clockwise from top left: Cyclone Energy Group's Benjamin Skelton, Chicago Department of Buildings' Grant Ullrich, Chicago Department of Buildings' Matthew Beaudet, MAPS' Heather Morrison, and Klein & Hoffman's Jason Wilen

But regardless of the pandemic, the overhaul will continue, Beaudet said, and so far, the construction community has largely given positive feedback on the ongoing implementation.

“Once the electrical code went in, it was seamless, so I think that bought a lot of goodwill, and the private sector understood that this is not the end of the world, it’s not going to turn everything upside down.”

Beaudet said the new code streamlines the construction process, making it more efficient and lowering building costs. It has also changed Chicago’s reputation among out-of-town builders, drawing them to new city projects, which may not have happened under the old code.

“The new code actually matches the modern building systems that people are using and designing around the country,” MAP Strategies President Heather Morrison said.

Her firm helped run a volunteer stakeholders’ group that managed the years-long code revamp.

Penciling in affordable housing projects has also become easier, she added, as builders can now make more use of wood-frame construction, along with cold-formed metal framing.

“To have that toolkit in the overall design process is extremely helpful, especially with COVID,” she said.

“The real test is with contractors, and they tend not to be shy with their opinions,” according to Klein & Hoffman senior associate Jason Wilen.

But Wilen and other architects have heard from builders that the permitting process has been smooth. That’s true even in the restoration work Wilen specializes in, which frequently contains surprises and unknowns.  

“There was no speed bump. It just kind of rolled out seamlessly,” he said.