Industry experts call for more uniformity in codes and regulations and better information for officials about fabric end products.
By Barb Ernster
End product manufacturers that design and fabricate any kind of fabric structure, from awnings to large structures, are finding it necessary to know more than ever about codes and regulations affecting the products they make. Spencer Etzel, owner of the SEC Group in Wilsonville, Ore., recalls a time when codes and regulations required his attention about once a week. Now he spends as much as 50 percent of his day on code-related issues that affect tent rental dealers across the U.S. and Canada. The biggest issue, says Etzel, is trying to comply with regulations for local jurisdictions, which vary widely.
Dealers are being asked to provide engineering documents and site-specific plans in circumstances where they may not ordinarily be required. Most major manufacturers have engineering packages for their products and fire resistant certification that complies with the International Building Code (IBC) and National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), which satisfy the general requirements.
“For site-specific documents we have to go back to the engineer, review everything and draw up a plan with that local jurisdiction’s name or project name on the cover. When that happens, it’s an additional expense,” says Etzel. “At that point, we’re asking the dealer to pick it up because it’s for him. That’s causing the cost of the engineering documentation to go up. Along with that, the cost of local permits, tent permit, fire permit—every town is different.”
Etzel says increased scrutiny from local building officials is the driving factor behind these requests for additional documentation, and that’s a good thing for public safety, but the lack of uniformity increases the workload for everyone.
The biggest challenge he sees is how to establish a standardized permitting process for tent installation. The state of Kentucky is proposing to implement a statewide permit application that every city and county would follow. “That is a good idea because a tent rental dealer can have 30 to 50 entities that they work with. Some require a form; others require several forms and a giant fee. That’s so inconsistent,” says Etzel.
The fees for tent permits can sometimes relate to general construction requirements, which is not applicable to tent installation, he adds, but making the case for that—or educating code officials on the difference—is a job the industry needs to do. Some education is occurring, but it is state by state, notes Jan Schieffer, manager of IFAI’s Tent Rental Division (TRD). Arizona code officials have attended industry seminars at the University of Arizona, Phoenix. In Massachusetts, a group of tent renters is having some success getting code officials together to come up with a consistent permitting process.
It’s to everyone’s benefit to stay in touch with local code officials and know the codes, says Mike Reilly, owner of Miami Awning Co. in Miami, Fla. While it is difficult to deal with all the local entities, the positive side is that thousands of fabric structures, tents and awnings are put up every year and there are few incidents.
“The best situation is to be proactive where you have a relationship with the code officials and have a dialogue,” Reilly says. “It may seem a waste of time for a business person because it doesn’t help you make money immediately, but in the long run it does pay off. Familiarizing yourself with local codes can take that burden off your customer, which helps to build customer confidence in your work, especially for more difficult jobs. The bigger the city, the more regulation you’ll have to deal with, especially in the area of zoning laws, which are the most limiting,” says Reilly.
“We do have a big advantage in areas where codes are more difficult in that we have people working on a constant basis with code officials, and [they] know the intricacies of the codes. If a customer is proposing a certain job, we’ll know what to recommend and can tell when something is against code or a potential violation.”
Still, it often happens that you become aware of a code after a project is underway. Miami Awning was several steps into the process of putting up a retractable awning when it found out about a code that required them to install fire sprinklers inside the awning or hook it up to the building’s fire alarm. It was still not resolved after more than a year, and eventually the code officials yielded so the project could move forward, but it’s an example of strange things that can happen, says Reilly.
Code officials are driven by their own agendas, but when they don’t know what questions to ask or how to handle a situation, the industry can provide a lot of answers for them,” he says. “Educate the building officials and work with them to come to a happy medium. There’s a lack of good code language and that’s the problem. If the industry as a whole can come up with code language to educate the code officials, it would help the business. A lot of progress has been made through the PAMA [Professional Awning Manufacturers Association, a division of IFAI] code committee.”
While codes have caused a lot of frustration for Mark Welander, owner of Fabricon LLC in Missoula, Mont., he has had few major incidents. He recalls one project in Reno, Nev., in which the code official was not going to allow damp ballast fixtures to be used for a backlit awning unless they were waterproof, such as used in underwater lamps. He finally took the case to the Underwriters’ Laboratory in Washington, D.C., to get it resolved.
Wanted: trained fabric engineers
Fabricon manufactures tensile structures, awnings and canopies for use all over the world. Most jurisdictions follow the IBC, which offers some consistency in the industry, but there’s often a glitch with local codes, and city hall may not know the answer.
“Sometimes asking the code official is less productive than going to a local engineer or architect who is aware of the codes for the area you’re working,” says Welander. “It costs, but if you do it on your own you can go through hours of red tape while waiting for permit approval. That can be frustrating as well as costly. … An engineer who is familiar with the codes is a big advantage.”
Fabric engineers are in short supply, but Welander’s company works with several who are members of IFAI and the Fabric Structures Association (FSA) and have a good grasp of the issues.
“Fabric is the one area that is the most unclear because most offices or jurisdictions don’t understand or are not familiar with fabrics. There’s no formal fabric engineering here,” says Welander. “We’re working through FSA to get schools to open up to fabric, such as architectural schools, which is a tough nut to crack. It’s not big in U.S. schools.”
Exceeding the minimum
Fabric structures are growing in use and in size, notes Wayne Rendely, a structural engineer and independent consultant with expertise in fabric structures. But he has seen engineers stamp and approve plans without really understanding fabric structures.
“As a general rule, the codes that are in place are the barest minimum. You should try to exceed the code to be safer,” says Rendely. Chapter 31 of the IBC addresses the specific requirements for membrane structure construction. Most structures erected as semi-permanent or permanent are considered Type II B, and those membrane materials refer to the NFPA 701 flame-resistant standards.
He has been working with others in the fabric structure industry to come up with standards for both rigid and air-supported fabric structures. The minimum standards set by the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) for wind, snow, quake and rain loads are not as high for fabric structures as they are for other structures, but that does not absolve anyone if the load should be higher. “You can use the codes and standards as a guide for what the minimum should be, but it’s possible it may have to be more depending on the surrounding terrain, the use, the climate,” says Rendely.
Engineer David Nickerson, president of Rubb International A/S in Sanford, Maine, which designs and manufactures membrane structures, says that in most jurisdictions it’s enough to provide a code official with professional engineer-approved plans, along with evidence of compliance with the NFPA 701 and IBC Chapter 31. Some of the larger cities in the U.S., such as Los Angeles, Calif., will often have additional local code requirements for roof coverings that can make it more difficult for fabric structures to obtain permitting approval. However, in many cases approval can be granted based on use of alternative materials and/or methods that meet the spirit of the code if not the exact letter of it.
Nickerson says that Rubb also runs into additional code requirements for wind load along the Gulf Coast and Florida where the fabric must show that it can handle severe positive and negative pressure cycles as well as impact tests. Rubb has passed the stringent Miami-Dade [counties] product approval process.
Canada has recently revised its building codes, now requiring specific certification from the Canadian Standards Association before buildings in many jurisdictions can be permitted. The CSA audits a company’s quality control systems and engineering practices, and requires steel welders to be approved to standards set by the Canadian Welding Bureau.
It’s a good thing
In general, Nickerson believes this greater attention to the design and fabrication of membrane-clad structures by those who determine building codes is a good thing. “What’s happened in our industry is that we have had some suppliers who haven’t taken the practice of structural engineering as seriously as they needed to, and when that happens, it can make everybody look bad.
“Partly in response to this, there’s been a concerted effort among a large number of structural engineers in the membrane structure industry to reach a consensus about design standards, and one notable result is the now-published ASCE 55-10 standard. Hopefully that standard will be adopted by the IBC. That’s a big one.”
More recently, the membership of FSA drafted two short position papers this year that confirm the general agreement among the members regarding many design practices. Nickerson adds, “It’s trying to get everybody to play by the rules, follow the building codes and interpret them correctly. If that is done, the chances are greatly improved that buildings are going to be safe.”
The number one reason for codes is safety, agrees Welander. He advises, “Have a good handle on what’s going to be required before bidding.”