National Institute of Building Sciences Celebrates 40 Years

Posted by Heidi Schwartz

Forty years ago, the United States Congress authorized the establishment of the National Institute of Building Sciences when President Gerald Ford signed the Housing and Community Development Act into law on August 22, 1974.

It was a different time. President Richard Nixon had just resigned two weeks before. The United States was in an oil crisis. The Vietnam War was ongoing. Three model code organizations were developing codes.

NIBSTen years before, President Lyndon Johnson had launched a War on Poverty. In 1967, as part of that effort, he appointed the National Commission on Urban Problems to study building codes and technology, zoning and land use, federal and local taxes affecting housing and urban growth, housing codes, development standards, and ways to increase the supply of decent housing for low-income families.1 Chaired by Illinois Senator Paul Douglas, the body became known as the Douglas Commission. The resulting report was a distress signal to the nation.

The Commission reported, “…alarms sounded over the past years about the building code situation have been justified. They showed that, while the national model codes were reasonably up to date, the lack of uniformity and modernization at the local level was serious. This situation calls for a drastic overhaul, both technically and among various levels of government.”

The report’s recommendations to the President, Congress and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) identified a number of ways to address the problem areas, among them the establishment of a new body, a National Institute of Building Sciences (NIBS).

Sen. Jacob Javits (R-NY), when introducing an initial bill to establish the Institute, said, “The lack of a system of uniform building code standards increases the cost of construction and inhibits innovation in building techniques.” The Senate bill proposed a 15-man board of directors selected by the President [then Richard Nixon] from recommendations of the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Engineering.2

After many delays, Congress created the Institute through the Housing Community Development Act of 1974 (PL 93-383). In a 1969 article in Engineering News-Record, former Rep. William S. Moorhead (D-PA), one of the bill’s sponsors, explained that the legislators gave the Institute a $10-million authorization over a five-year period that would decline from year to year until the Institute was on its own. “They had to have money to get started,” Moorhead said, “but they were given no power other than the power of persuasion.”3

On August 22, during his first two weeks in office, President Ford signed the act into law and the rest, as they say, is history.

On June 14, 1984, nearly a decade after the founding of the Institute, the U.S. House of Representatives hosted a hearing to review the Institute’s legislation, past and present activities, future programs, and financial plans. “The consensus that emerged from this hearing was that NIBS has made a significant contribution to improving construction standards and building practices,” summarized Rep. Henry Gonzales, chairman of the House Subcommittee on Housing and Community Development, which hosted the hearing. That same year, following a decade of inconsistent funding, Congress terminated the Institute’s annual federal appropriation.

Since its founding in 1974, the Institute has established dozens of councils; developed numerous projects; and brought together thousands of representatives from government, the professions, industry, labor, and consumer interests to focus on the identification and resolution of problems and potential problems that hamper the construction of safe, affordable structures for housing, commerce, and industry throughout the United States.

The Institute has spearheaded many ground-breaking and well-known projects over its 40-year history. A few are highlighted here:

Seismic Safety Provisions
In 1979, the Building Seismic Safety Council (BSSC) became the Institute’s first (and now oldest) technical council. (Established to serve as a national forum to advance earthquake-resistant design and construction, BSSC has since become one of the world’s most widely recognized authorities on the subject.) In 1981, funded by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), BSSC refined tentative seismic provisions for the National Earthquake Hazard Reduction Program (NEHRP). BSSC went on to conduct trial designs of draft seismic safety provisions for FEMA, and, in 1985, published the first edition of the NEHRP Recommended Provisions for the Development of Seismic Regulations for New Buildings. Since then, BSSC has published eight updates of the NEHRP Provisions for FEMA. BSSC also has developed related training materials and educational programs for industry professionals. The next edition of the NEHRP Provisions comes out in 2015.

Asbestos Abatement
In 1983, the Indoor Air Quality Project Committee formed to address the national concern over the declining quality of the air inside buildings. The Committee commenced the process of identifying standards and regulations relating to indoor air quality. In response to a proposed Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) rulemaking, the Institute formed an Asbestos Task Force, which issued the report, Asbestos in Schools and Public Buildings, in July 1984. In 1986, the Institute came out with the Model Guide Specifications for Asbestos Abatement, followed by the publication, Asbestos O&M [Operations & Maintenance] Work Practices Manual in 1992. Over the decades, the asbestos-related guides have become some of the Institute’s most highly sought publications.

Construction Criteria Base®/WBDG Whole Building Design Guide®
In 1986, the Institute developed an automated facilities engineering information system, called the Construction Criteria Base® (CCB), to assist a number of federal agencies with managing and coordinating their criteria documents. Compiled initially on diskette and, later, on compact disc, CCB was first mailed out to subscribers. In 1998, CCB went live on the World Wide Web, evolving into the WBDG Whole Building Design Guide®. In 2000, WBDG received a recommendation from the Secretary of the DOE that all federal agencies use the sustainable building design information available on the WBDG website. In 2003, the U.S. Department of Defense, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Naval Facilities Engineering Command, and U.S. Air Force all selected WBDG to be their “Sole Portal.” WBDG launched the ProductGuide™ and Building Envelope Design Guide (BEDG) in 2005; continuing education courses in 2007; the Mechanical Insulation Design Guide (MIDG) in 2008; and Beyond Green™ case studies in 2009. By 2013, WBDG had reached 600,000 visitors and seven million downloads per month.

In 1992, the Institute began developing a geographic information system (GIS)-based software program for FEMA. Hazards U.S. (Hazus) employs state-of-the-art technology to estimate damage and loss from potential earthquake, flood, hurricane, and coastal surge events. For more than a decade, the Institute developed the models to support the software, which emergency planners use as a forecasting tool to assess emergency mitigation strategies before a disaster occurs. The Institute continued to develop updates for the software until 2009. Since then, the Institute has provided FEMA with independent development validation and verification (IV&V) for Hazus Multi-Hazard (MH) as needed, directing oversight committees responsible for evaluating the development of the various Hazus-MH tools.

Hazard Mitigation Study
In 1997, the Institute established the Multihazard Mitigation Council (MMC). In 1999, MMC began a national survey of FEMA’s National Pre-Disaster Mitigation Plan and initiated the Hazard Mitigation Planning Fellowship Program with FEMA. In 2005, the MMC published its landmark study, Natural Hazard Mitigation Saves: An Independent Study to Assess the Future Savings from Mitigation Activities. The report, which was requested by Congress and funded by FEMA, showed the effectiveness of FEMA’s natural hazard grant mitigation program in reducing future losses and documented how every $1 spent on mitigation saves society an average of $4. The study, which looked solely at the economic benefits of federal public-sector investments, has since been quoted by media, industry experts, and members of Congress. In honor of the report’s 10-year anniversary, MMC is looking to fund a new, expanded study on the value of private-sector investment in mitigation.

U.S. National CAD Standard®
In 1997, key building design and construction industry organizations with an interest in the development of a national standard for computer aided design (CAD), including the Institute, American Institute of Architects (AIA), Construction Specifications Institute (CSI), U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) CAD/BIM Technology Center, Sheet Metal and Air Conditioning Contractors’ National Association (SMACNA), U.S. Coast Guard (USCG), and U.S. General Services Administration (GSA), signed a memorandum of understanding to collaborate on development of a CAD standard. Those who already had CAD related-documents, including AIA, CSI, DOD, and USCG, agreed to contribute their documents to a consensus process facilitated and financed by the Institute. In 1999, the Institute began publishing the United States National CAD Standard® (NCS), which standardizes how CAD users sort, organize and deliver electronic building design data. In 2000, the U.S. Navy began requiring use of the NCS. By 2006, the NCS had taken broad steps toward industry-wide acceptance. In 2013, the Institute began developing NCS Version 6, which will be released in 2014.

National BIM Standard-United States®
In 2002, the Institute assumed oversight of the International Alliance for Interoperability North American Chapter (IAI-NA), which launched Industry Foundation Classes (IFC), Edition 2 a year later. In 2004, GSA contracted the Institute to support IFC building information models (BIMs). In 2006, the Institute received a grant to develop a precast concrete BIM standard and cooperated with the Associated General Contractors of America (AGC) to develop standard industry schemas for exchanging electronic data, known as AGCxml. The Institute formed the buildingSMART alliance (bSa), and sunset the IAI-NA in 2007. The same year, Part 1 of the National Building Information Modeling Standard (NBIMS) was published. bSa and partnering organizations began developing several information exchange standards, including the Construction Operation Building information exchange (COBie). In 2012, bSa released the National BIM Standard-United States™ (NBIMS-US™) Version 2, which references COBie and other standards, and began working on NBIMS-US™ Version 3. NBIMS-US™ Version 3 is expected to be released at the end of 2014.

1 Keith, Nathaniel, Housing America’s Low-and Moderate-Income Families: Progress and Problems Under Past Programs; Prospects Under Federal Act of 1968. Prepared for the Consideration of the National Commission on Urban Problems, Research Report No. 7. Washington, DC, 1968.
2 “Building Institute Proposed.” Engineering News-Record. June 26, 1969.
3 “Building institute spurs reg reform: NIBS tackles big issues and cites results.” Engineering News-Record. March 26, 1981.