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Chicago Official Calls for New Standards to Address Porch Construction Failure

Alderman seeks modification to Chicago building code

New York, Jul 25, 2003

In late June, tragedy struck Chicago when the third-floor porch of a three-story apartment building collapsed under the weight of young party-goers. Thirteen people died and 56 others were injured when the structure flattened to the ground. The incident left residents and city officials alike questioning the cause of the accident – and the safety of larger porches.

The addition of sizeable porches in place of small ones has become a common strategy used by Chicago real estate developers to make urban apartments more appealing to renters. The year-old addition in the city’s Lincoln Park neighborhood measured 13 feet by 20 feet, whereas most original porches only extend about six feet from a building. These larger porches induce residents to unknowingly use them for purposes for which they are not well equipped—such as a large party. As one resident told the Chicago Sun-Times, “Everyone’s got a porch. You wouldn’t think twice about, ‘Is this porch safe?’ You think that everything’s safe. You wouldn’t even question the number of people on the porch.”

City officials are now recommending weight limits on porches, a simple step that some landlords have already taken. Illinois state lawmakers have gotten involved by proposing the Porch Protection Act. The Act would apply across the state and require municipalities to post notices of the maximum capacities of porches, similar to current maximum capacity requirements for elevators.

Many lawmakers, though, feel that this Act is not enough. Just as important to them is reviewing Chicago building codes and their enforcement.

Alderman Bernard Stone, chairman of the City Council Committee on Buildings, is urging the Council to consider creating two classes of porches in the Chicago building code. The proposed code would use construction standards to specifically address the different needs of the two classes, one of which will be the recreational use that led to the June 29 porch collapse. According to a story by Fran Spielman of the Sun-Times, the new standards could require building owners to retrofit existing porches “if they want to continue to market them to tenants as entertainment amenities.” Ald. Stone’s office told ANSI that the proposed ordnance is currently being drafted, with the earliest possible introduction being at the Council meeting on July 29th.

While the City of Chicago has a history of writing its own building codes, several ANSI members and accredited standards developers have published diverse sets of building codes that most state and local governments across the country have adopted into their laws. By incorporating voluntary consensus standards developed with both private and public sector input, governments reap the benefits of having quality codes based on the expert knowledge of top professionals, without incurring the expense that would be entailed in writing a comparable code from scratch.

Related article: For information about how the standards community contributed to improved public safety after the unfortunate nightclub fires this winter in West Warwick, Rhode Island and Chicago, see ANSI News item “NFPA Technical Committee Holds Meeting to Address Code Writing Concerns .”

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