Chicago’s first building code overhaul in 70 years could boost housing market: experts

Changes to the city’s building rules could make development cheaper and easier — and boost affordable housing

Buildings Department Commissioner Judy Frydland (Credit: iStock; illustration by Kevin Rebong for The Real Deal)
Buildings Department Commissioner Judy Frydland (Credit: iStock; illustration by Kevin Rebong for The Real Deal)

The City Council’s recent move to update Chicago’s building code for the first time in 70 years could be a boon for the real estate industry, which long has pushed for changes to make development cheaper and easier.

The new code adopts a lot of the standards in the 2018 International Building Code, which architects and designers are billing as a huge win for the industry. For one, architects will have to spend less time becoming acquainted with Chicago’s byzantine code.

“It will help standardize how architects complete projects, so Chicago is not as peculiar as it used to be,” said Zurich Esposito, executive vice president of the American Institute of Architects’ Chicago branch.

Some of the big changes in the new building codes include requiring sprinkler systems in residential buildings with four or more units, reducing the minimum ceiling requirements in basement and attic spaces to boost ancillary dwelling units, and requiring seismic design features for the first time in the city’s history.

Development, particularly of high-rise multifamily and office buildings, still flourished under the previous code. But that doesn’t mean the process wasn’t onerous.

Modern building techniques and materials have been allowed in Chicago’s new developments, but using them often required a special approval, which ate up time and resources for the city and developers, city Buildings Department Commissioner Judy Frydland said.

“It gives our code a flexibility,” said Frydland, who spearheaded the overhaul.

For example, glass as a structural element in buildings was permissable only if the builder secured a special permit, since the previous rules did not specifically allow it. Now developers wanting to use glass in such a way won’t need to seek special permission, said Chris Chwedyk, a licensed architect who also works as a building code consultant.

The same goes for new materials used in roof repairs and the use of plastics in certain home projects, he said.

The new code will also allow for the use of the “performative method,” which allows for greater flexibility in rehab projects, said Ken DeMuth, partner at Pappageorge Haymes Partners who was co-chairman of the committee charged with reviewing the city’s renovation codes. Previously, rehabbers and developers followed the “prescriptive” method, which required them to stick to the letter of the building code.

“It gives you more approaches to use,” DeMuth said. “Especially in rehabs, not everything fits in a nice, neat box.”

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While the changes will impact high-rise construction, the new code will particularly be a boon to single-family and small-scale development, said Paul Colgan, government affairs director for the Home Builders Association of Greater Chicago.

“We’re building a lot of multifamily but not a lot of single-family or two flats,” Colgan said. “These could help construct some of the housing types that are needed in the neighborhood.”

Streamlining the permitting process and allowing for new construction methods and materials could make housing development cheaper, therefore reducing housing prices for residents, said Brian Bernardoni, local government affairs director for the Illinois Association of Realtors.

“We won’t have an affordable city until we have an affordable building code,” he said. “We’re making strides in that direction.”

In overhauling the code, Frydland said an emphasis was placed on making home improvements and historical rehabs easier and more affordable. A pilot program that allowed the use of new techniques and materials in plumbing worked saved Chicago homeowners and landlords $15 million, Frydand said.

Real estate advocates did not get everything they wanted in the overhaul. The industry lobbied for allowing more extensive use of plastic piping in some housing development, but it did not make the final cut.

And requiring sprinkler systems in new residential construction of four or more units will increase costs for developers. Coglan said he’d have liked to have seen a higher threshold for sprinklers, but that “staying away from single family, two- and three-flats is crucial.” To help with the cost of sprinklers, the city will now allow developers greater height and density in some buildings, according to the city.

The city will gradually phase in the new code, to allow for the working out of any kinks that should arise, Frydland said.

The new building code book will be published in October, at which point the city will have an invitation-only pilot program that will allow developers to use the new rules. Frydland said developments of all sizes will hopefully participate in the pilot to determine how the new codes impact building projects.

The new regulations will become mandatory by August 2020.

“There’s still a lot of work to be done,” Frydland said.