All posts by Justine Lee

2016 TECHINCAL PAPER — A Strategic Approach to Reconciling Global Engineering Codes and Standards

Editor’s note: this essay is USC ASCE’s submission to the 2016 ASCE Daniel W. Mead Prize for Students. Justine Lee is current a sophomore at USC pursuing a B.S. in Environmental Engineering. Justine presented this paper at the PSWC 2016 Technical Paper Competition, winning 1st place out of 18 universities.

A Strategic Approach to Reconciling Global Engineering Codes and Standards

Justine Lee

In a rapidly globalizing world, even minute dissimilarities between available codes and regulations amplify the complexity of engineering design and decision-making. Engineering professionals are placed in or sent to foreign locations with growing frequency; even within their own countries, engineers may experience the complications of unreconciled industry standards through transnational project cooperation or international exchange of materials and technology. Engineering personnel are thus increasingly called to orient themselves effectively within the global arena, where they will need to determine the design standard that satisfies their ethical obligations for safety and quality while balancing local customs with global best practices. While project particulars prevent a catch-all solution, this paper outlines several techniques for developing a consistent strategy to address cases of criterial ambiguity: engineers should seek first to thoroughly understand and address the intent of relevant codes and standards, clearly document and communicate code interpretations and synthesis, and finally regularly review design actions.

Engineering standards and codes are related, but they have different roles. Standards are documents providing recommended specifications and procedures, and function as a reference in determining the viability and quality of similar processes, materials, products, and services (Yates, 2006, p. 163). By comparison, codes are a set of rules that often identify a minimum engineering standard. Codes become laws within a jurisdiction when formally adopted by appropriate governing authorities (National Fire Protection Association, 2016). Technical requirements determined for specific engineering projects are generally established either by law or by the standards cited and incorporated within contracts. International contracts will usually also include clauses addressing the project’s global nature, such as stating which legal system may settle disputes (Yates, 2006, p. 136). Although the details of drafting and navigating international contracts are beyond the scope of this paper,[1] engineering professionals should be familiar with the conventions that are enforced within the local jurisdiction, as code compliance is always the responsibility of the design engineer. However, some ambiguity is generated if local codes are less stringent than the standards with which the design engineer or sending organization is familiar. It is thus the responsibility of the design professional to appropriately consider the available codes and standards, and address those applicable to his or her project.

The arguably most crucial procedure when evaluating different standards and codes is to decipher the original authorial intent. Design codes are drafted as “living documents,” with clarifications or specifications amended and accrued over the years (Ching, 2012, p. IX). However, all sections begin with an author intending to solve a particular (existent or potential) problem. Therefore, when endeavoring to visually or spatially translate written codes, engineers should always ask why the code was written, and which problem(s) it attempts to solve. In a situation where engineers are confronted with foreign regulations, interpreting the reason for a code’s distinct wording might lend insight to the specific local (cultural, geologic, etc.) context. Whenever possible, local engineers and personnel should be contacted for collaborative assessment and to confirm integrity of authorial intent. This step not only enables suitably adapted designs, but also fosters multicultural engagement and working relationships crucial to project success. Engineers, too, have intent, and they create solutions according to some functional or applicational objective. Therefore, engineers should always measure their design goals against their best understanding of the code’s purpose and aim to harmonize the two intents (Ching, 2012, p. 9). In the international setting, engineers must recognize that codes employing similar language might stem from different motivations. Hence, document-specific code definitions should be consulted as much as possible to ascertain how particular terms are used; one should never assume that vocabulary carry the same meaning across documents. Where multiple codes apply, engineers should elect to address all implicitly proposed concerns. Neglecting to do so could lead to project delays and, in serious cases, not only jeopardize the engineer’s career and reputation but— more importantly— the safety, health, and welfare of society. Even when codes are prompted by the same issue, but differ only in standard or stringency level, engineers should ask the reason for the more exacting standard before deciding its applicability. These processes may be better conducted over a well-documented code analysis.

Diligent documentation is paramount when navigating and reconciling standards from multiple sources. Every engineering project, whether international or domestic, should contain within its project documents a code analysis detailing code citations and interpretations (Ching, 2012, p. 13). This document becomes expressly critical for monitoring the fulfillment of all defined requirements, while recording the dialogue and reasoning behind selections of certain standards over others. This will not only better position professionals to explain and defend the validity of their code synthesis decisions but also facilitate future conversations and plan reviews with inspecting officials or clients. In many ways, code reconciliation or synthesis may be compared to seeking code compliance via performance.[2] Both procedures could involve the introduction of new (foreign) technology, materials, or standards that cause deviation from local conventional systems. Thus, many permitting agencies may already have provisions in place for alternate compliance methods with detailed criteria by which officials may approve or reject deviations from prescribed design (Ching, 2012, p. 11). When appropriate, engineers should submit their analysis and project execution plans for review as early as possible to correct discrepancies before expending excessive amounts of time and energy on detailed design. In response to expanding global ventures, some organizations have also taken to compiling and harmonizing key design codes, creating comparison guides,[3] or drafting their own consensus-based standards. It is thus in the interest of engineers to determine if any agency has previously resolved similar code conflicts.

When working on a project with some global aspect, engineers may decide to adhere to widely accepted international standards; a few advantages and disadvantages of this strategy are briefly offered for consideration here. The most prevalent standards developing organization is the globally acknowledged International Organization for Standardization (ISO[4]), founded in 1947 at the Institute of Civil Engineers in London as an independent, non-governmental entity. ISO’s membership comprises 162 national standards bodies representing their countries, and ISO international standards cover almost every industry from food-safety to technology (ISO, 2012). The advantages of implementing international standards are: globally competitive and compatible designs, facilitation of communication and mutual technical understanding, and straightforward exchanges of technology. Major disadvantages include: additional internal costs for revision and modification of customary procedures and, if local personnel are unfamiliar with these standards, disruptions in project timeline or employee morale (Yates, 2006, p. 178). The added hassle of auditing and registration procedures might also deter engineers from adoption. However, a global movement towards wider usage of these standards would increase accessibility and simplify procedures over time; therefore, engineers and design firms might view international compliance as a long-term investment towards easier global trade. Currently, it would be up to the stakeholders to weigh associated benefits and setbacks to decide level of adherence.

During and after the code reconciliation process, engineers should regularly self-review with a few simple decision analysis tools to ensure continued integrity and satisfaction of ethical obligations as a professional. The first such tool, proposed by Noreen M. Surgrue and Timothy G. McCarthy, is called superposition of norms (2015). This method is especially useful when the norms of engineering design, local customs, or the sending organization are in conflict. The tool asks engineers to imagine a character who is equally biased[5] (and thus unbiased) towards all parties, and who is tasked to systematically consider the ideal solution from each perspective. In this way, the rationalized compromise maximizes the interests of all stakeholders.[6] Other quicker, simpler tests might include, but are by no means limited to: 1) Sleep Test, 2) Mirror Test, and 3) Newspaper Test (Chang, 2010, p. 466). Namely, engineers may ask themselves the following questions: Would this design decision keep me awake at night? How would I feel looking into the mirror? How would this look on the front page of the newspaper? These easy checks all have a similar basis— to provide an initial diagnosis of potentially regretful decisions— and can be conducted as often as desired. While failure of any of these tests should immediately encourage action and reorientation, engineers must ultimately recall that focus should not be given to merely meeting minimum threshold, but aspiring to safer and more effective designs.

In the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) code of ethics, the first listed fundamental canon reads that “engineers shall hold paramount the safety, health and welfare of the public and shall strive to comply with the principles of sustainable development in the performance of their professional duties” (emphasis added). Rather than reluctantly fulfilling obligations, engineers should stake personal interest in the dependability and excellence of their design. Although codes and standards may appear tedious or even daunting, they enable engineering professionals to shape and advance their fields. Instead of reacting passively to written rules, engineers should adopt a proactive stance, becoming familiarized— and involved, when possible— with code and standard drafting processes, actively anticipating potential decision or design conflicts, and engaging in the global dialogue surrounding their profession. Through discourse and personal ownership, engineers may begin to resolve these issues on a consistent basis: global solutions require a corresponding ubiquitous sense of global citizenship and cooperation.

[1] For some useful resources pertinent to international contracting, see the standard formats for international contracts published by the International Federation of Consulting Engineers (FIDIC) and the Legal Guide for Drawing Up International Contracts for the Construction of Industrial Work published by the United Nations Commission on International Trade and Law (UNCITRAL).

[2] This is as opposed to the traditional prescriptive method of code compliance. The majority of codes, especially in civil engineering, are prescriptive— identified problems are assigned approved responses. On the other hand, performance codes, also called objective-based requirements, define only the problem and allow engineers to imagine their own solutions. An example is fall prevention codes; while prescriptive codes may specify minimum dimensions for guardrails, performance codes afford engineers the freedom to innovate new safety precautions such as installing elevated garden-boxes (Ching, 2012, p. 8). It may be argued that performance codes compel engineers to more critically consider the consequences of their design decisions and the intent of written regulations.

[3] An example of this is the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME), who in collaboration with other international standards development organizations, created a comparison of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s (NRC) boiler and pressure vessel rules (section III) alongside foreign regulatory codes (Terao, 2013).

[4] Since “International Organization for Standardization” would have different acronyms in other languages, the organization name is instead abbreviated as ISO, derived from the Greek isos, which means “equal” (ISO).

[5] This is achieved by establishing that the character is a composite member of one stakeholder group without knowing which, but with equal probability of it being any one group (Surgrue & McCarthy, 2015). While hypothetical in nature, this technique introduces a measure of objectivity to ethically ambiguous situations; for issues of code interpretation, designers might be motivated to heed otherwise unconsidered precautions.

[6] To illustrate this strategy in practice, Surgrue and McCarthy examine a case study in which the proposed site for a clean water project conflicts with local norms, as its proximity would disturb a site of religious significance during construction. The matter is resolved by building the project in an alternate location; although the engineering design was somewhat compromised, and the commissioning organization would have to account for additional costs, it is the only course of action that would not severely violate the major values or needs of any stakeholder group (2015).



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Chang, C. M. (2010). Service systems management and engineering: Creating strategic differentiation and operational excellence. John Wiley & Sons.

Ching, F. D., & Winkel, S. R. (2012). Building Codes Illustrated, Volume 6 : Building Codes

Illustrated : A Guide to Understanding the 2012 International Building Code (4th Edition). Somerset, NJ, USA: John Wiley & Sons.

International Organization of Standardization. (2012). The ISO Story. Retrieved from

National Fire Protection Agency. (2016). A Reporter’s Guide to Fire and the NFPA (About Codes and Standards). Retrieved from

Surgrue, N. M., & McCarthy, T. G. (2015). Engineering Decisions in a Global Context and

Social Choice. In C. Murphy, P. Gardoni, H. Bashir, C. E. Harris, Jr., E. Masad (Eds.),

Engineering Ethics for a Globalized World (pp. 79-90). Switzerland: Springer International Publishing.

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Canonico, A. L. Guzman, P. F. Nelson, M. Webster, & S. Weinman (Eds.), ASME

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