Update on Building Codes

Early next year the International Code Council will roll out the first fully vetted version of the International Green Construction Code.

November 01, 2011
November/December 2011
A version of this article appears in the November/December 2011 issue of Home Energy Magazine.
Click here to read more articles about Codes and Standards

I have been involved with building codes and standards for the past 17 years, and am now the executive director at the Development Center for Appropriate Technology (DCAT) in Tucson, Arizona. When I look back over those years, it's clear to me that much has changed, and the rate of change is accelerating. Keeping up with the changes in codes and standards is difficult at best. It isn't only codes and standards that are changing but also rating systems, some of which aim far higher than code minimums (see Figure 1).

Building Code Spectrum
Building Code Spectrum Figure 1. Codes and standards are minimum requirements — anything less than those minimums is illegal. Codes, standards, and rating systems range from what is barely legal to restorative or regenerative built projects.

My goal in this article is to provide background on building codes, to share a few insights about codes and the whole building regulatory process that I have gained over the years, to report on some of the recent changes in codes, and finally, to encourage you to consider bringing your knowledge, experience, and ideas to the ongoing process of code development. (For a bit of history, see "My Road to Codes.")

Today many excellent organizations are engaged in codes work (see the end of this article for a list). Our focus on sustainability and codes, which when we at DCAT began, seemed far out on the fringe, is now central to much of the current discussion and changes taking place in the codes world. The analogy I've been using lately is that it's like building your house way out in the country and one day going outside and finding that you're in the middle of town — but not because you've moved. We're most grateful for all the good neighbors.

RISK — The Bigger Picture
RISK-The Bigger Picture Figure A . Building codes focus on a particular set of hazards attributable to the built environment. Looking at buildings through the lens of only those hazards obscures the existence of a much larger set of hazards and risks, also attributable to the built environment. We need to balance and address both.

It's much easier today, when nearly everyone has at least heard of peak oil and related national security issues, climate change, and the range of durability and indoor environmental issues that can be simultaneously resolved by designing and building much more energy-efficient buildings. But there is still work to be done.

A coalition of organizations led by the New Buildings Institute, including the American Institute of Architects (AIA) and the National Trust for Historic Preservation's Preservation Green Lab, among others, is promoting a new energy code compliance framework based on actual postconstruction performance in new and existing buildings. Outcome-based energy codes have the potential both to increase enforcement and to enable retrofitters and remodelers to meet the code-related challenges of upgrading existing buildings. They may also make builders more accountable for the actual energy performance of new buildings. For existing buildings, outcome-based codes would give owners great flexibility in choosing appropriate strategies in order to meet code. They would be required to meet an efficiency target and to report actual annual energy consumption. The New Buildings Institute link is a good place to learn more about outcome-based energy codes.

My Road to Codes

I blame straw-bale construction for pushing me out onto the slippery slope of building codes. In the early 1990s, after more than a dozen years of mostly conventional building experience, I cofounded a Tucson, Arizona — based nonprofit, the Development Center for Appropriate Technology (DCAT). Almost immediately I found myself engaged with the early leaders of the straw-bale construction revival, many of whom were based in southern Arizona and New Mexico. My experience in conventional construction turned out to be a useful addition to the mix, since most of those early leaders were not professional builders or designers. I began teaching straw-bale workshops, got involved helping with the design of straw-bale testing, and along the way coauthored a book on the subject.

People who wanted to build with bales faced a persistent challenge: getting a building permit. Knowing how the permitting process worked, and how to increase the odds of getting alternative materials approved, I wrote an article for The Last Straw about straw-bale construction and building codes. I joke that had I known that article would get me dubbed "the straw-bale codes guy," and eventually "the sustainability and codes guy," I might not have written it. Working with many others, I helped to write the first-in-the-nation load-bearing straw-bale code for Tucson and Pima counties, Arizona. That code was adopted by the state of California in the mid-1990s.

My involvement in code development for alternatives revealed a broader, deeper problem in the building regulatory realm — one that went far beyond the challenges faced by people trying to build with alternative building materials or systems. I realized that codes had evolved over time in a way that excluded from consideration an enormous range of hazards associated with the built environment. These hazards typically occurred far from the building site, in a time frame beginning long before construction and extending well beyond the life of the building.

Certain that others were already working on sustainability and codes, I went looking for them, expecting to tap into their efforts. I searched for a year, but found little. But by then, to my surprise, people were calling us, hoping we had created the resources we had been looking for. Reluctantly accepting the pioneering nature of the work, I entered the Why me? phase, not attracted in the least to the idea of working on building codes- — I was a builder, a doer. But eventually I came to see how significantly codes and standards influence what gets designed and built — and I realized what a high-leverage place this was, if I was going to intervene in the system.

We wanted everything that they wanted, and more — an early insight that helped us to work effectively with the codes community. The last thing that the codes community wanted was to have people putting up unsafe buildings. But we were looking at the full-risk profile of the built environment, and it was much larger than what the current codes dealt with, spanning the whole life cycle of the building (see Figure A). Thus, though we were surrounded by people who viewed our work as adversarial — and doing battle with the codes and code officials — we built our engagement with the codes community around what we saw as a shared purpose.

A useful image came to me at the time. I saw codes and code officials as a train on a track, running in a certain direction. I envisioned our work as flying in the same direction, but at a higher altitude with a much wider field of view, including being able to see the bridge out, up ahead. The work became inviting those code officials up to see what we were seeing. We were able to develop some extraordinary relationships with leaders of code organizations, and many members of the codes community. That led to an invitation to write articles on green building, alternative materials, and sustainability in magazines published by those organizations, and later, a regular column, Building Codes for a Small Planet, in both Building Standards magazine and Building Safety Journal.

Positive Developments

As I write this article, many important changes are being made in the residential codes. For instance, early next year the International Code Council (ICC) will roll out the first fully vetted version of the International Green Construction Code (IGCC), as part of the family of 2012 I-Codes. Although the IGCC was developed as a nonresidential code, there have been continuing efforts to incorporate residential provisions into it.

The results of those efforts won't be known until the ICC board of directors rules on the code after the IGCC final action hearings are completed. The hearings will be held in Phoenix in early November, after this issue is published

In a related matter, the first draft of the IGCC referenced the residential ICC 700 (also known as the National Green Building Standard, or NGBS) for high-rise residential buildings and the residential portions of mixed-use buildings. The ICC boards eliminated that reference in the second public version of the IGCC in response to public comments regarding scoping conflicts with other I-Codes. Thus, we probably won't know how residential green building will be regulated through the I-Codes until early 2012.

Early next year the International Code Council will roll out the first fully vetted version of the International Green Construction Code.

Meanwhile, through a completely separate process, the 2012 NGBS is also being revised. The first NGBS was published in 2008. The 2012 version won't be finalized until after a public comment period scheduled for August - September 2011, followed by a meeting of the NGBS development committee, scheduled for December, and perhaps a further process.

The current draft of the 2012 NGBS references the 2009 International Energy Conservation Code (IECC) as the baseline energy standards, rather than the more stringent 2012 IECC. This may change in response to public comment and because the committee had not had an opportunity to study the final version ofthe 2012 IECC before it made this decision. For current information, check the 2012 National Green Building Standard Update web site.

I don't have space to cover state and local energy codes in this article, but it's worth stating that despite long-standing efforts to create uniformity in building codes across the country, code adoptions remain a patchwork, and enforcement varies even more. The Building Codes Assistance Project is an excellent source of current information about energy codes, including which communities have adopted which codes.

Right Image Building codes are typically developed through open committee processes in which anyone can submit code change proposals and testify for or against proposed changes. (David Eisenberg)

The stipulations accompanying acceptance of State Energy Program (SEP) block grants in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) include adoption of an energy code that meets or exceeds the most recently published version of the IECC, and a plan for achieving 90% compliance with that code by the year 2017. All 50 states accepted SEP funds, so in theory, energy codes in all the states should be more uniform by 2017, at least in terms of the level of energy efficiency required. That said, most states have a lot of work to do to come anywhere near that level of compliance.

Let's have a brief look at what's changed for residential buildings from the 2006 IECC to the 2009 and 2012 versions. The 2009 IECC improved energy efficiency over the 2006 IECC by approximately 15%. It did so in large part by setting new requirements increasing building envelope tightness (but without requiring that tightness be tested); introducing mandatory duct leakage testing and new lighting efficiency requirements; and eliminating the trade-offs between building envelope efficiency and high-efficiency equipment in earlier versions of the IECC and the International Residential Code (IRC).

Changes in the 2012 IECC will break more new ground. The 2012 version will be 30% more efficient than the 2006 IECC. Significantly, the 2012 IRC will reference the residential provisions in the IECC, dropping the historically weaker, separate energy requirements in the IRC.

Key changes in the 2012 IECC include thermal envelope improvements through higher insulation requirements for ceilings, walls, and basements and crawl spaces in many climate zones. Window and skylight U-factors have been upgraded, as have changes to window solar heat gain coefficients. This code also requires all homes to have substantially lower air leakage — demonstrated through actual testing! Blower door testing finally makes it into the code. This change should have a real impact on the actual performance of buildings, not just their modeled performance. Air leakage may not exceed 5 ACH50 for climate zones 1 and 2 (hot), and 3 ACH50 for all other climate zones.

learn more

Contact the author at: strawnet@gmail.com.

Bainbridge, David; Bill and Athena Steen; and David Eisenberg. The Straw Bale House. White River Junction, Vermont: Chelsea Green Publishers, 1994.

Eisenberg, David. "Sustainability and the Building Codes." The Last Straw, no. 24 (Winter, 1999).

Here are some web sites where you can learn more about codes and standards for energy-efficient buildings:

Building Codes and Standards Organizations
International Code Council (ICC) and
ICC Code Development and
International Green Construction Code (IGCC)
and IGCC Development Schedule
National Association of Home Builders Research Center (NAHBRC) NAHBRC is the ANSI-approved standard developer for the National Green Building Standard 2012 Update Process: www.nahbrc.com/ technical/standards/ns2012aspx and www.nahbrc.com/technical/ standards/ngbs/schedule.aspx

Nonprofit and Advocacy Organizations
Alliance to Save Energy (ASE)
American Institute of Architects (AIA) Codes Advocacy www.aia.org and www.aia.org/advocacy/AIAB086653 and www.aia.org/advocacy/AIAB086655#P43_2537
Building Codes Assistance Project (BCAP) and its Online Code Environment and Advocacy Network (BCAP-OCEAN) and an informative page about who is involved: The Energy Codes Universe
Development Center for Appropriate Technology (DCAT)
New Buildings Institute and Outcome Based Codes and stretch codes information
Responsible Energy Codes Alliance

In addition to requiring whole-house air leakage testing, the 2012 IECC maintains the 2009 requirements for for mandatory duct leakage testing while lowering allowable leakage limits. Building cavities can no longer be used as plenums or ducts, and new frame construction requirements include insulating headers and corners, and sealing top plates and sill plates. Fifty to 75% of lamps are now required to be high efficiency. And there are new provisions to limit energy loss from domestic hot water piping.

Regardless of how well written, rigorous, and easy to use energy codes may be, they are meaningless if they are not enforced. Though many building officials, reviewers, and inspectors believe that energy codes are important, and are committed to enforcing them, others see it differently. They see energy codes as unrelated to their primary responsibility — which is keeping people safe. Many of them believe that energy codes been forced on them through the political process, to make buildings more affordable or to protect the environment — not to make the buildings safer for occupants — and they view the codes as a complicated, time-consuming hindrance, one that interferes with their ability to do their job. The harder energy codes were pushed, and the more complex they became, the more this group resisted them, and the deeper their resistance grew.

How to Be Part of the Solution

Finally, if you have ever cursed some aspect of the code, thought code officials and standards-setting bodies had something wrong, or had a better idea about how something could be regulated, allow me to suggest that you bring your experience and insights to the codes and standards development process. Or if, like me, you see the need for big changes and feel an urgent and passionate call to engage, I encourage you to pursue it. Attending countless code development hearings, serving on code and standards committees, and participating in many different kinds of process over the years has made absolutely clear to me the critical need for participation on the part of people with practical, hands-on experience.

There are so many opportunities to engage in the codes and standards development process. If you aren't sure where to start, have a look at the organizations listed at the end of this article. If you are a member of a national, regional, or local organization that deals with residential energy issues, volunteer for one of its advocacy or technical committees. If you have a particular area of expertise, ask yourself where you could do the most good by sharing it.

Trust me on this one — you don't have to be an expert on codes to have something of value to contribute. What I know after all these years of working in this realm is this: What matters is that you care about something that you know needs to be improved, and you are willing to work to improve it. The biggest difference between those who make a real difference and those who don't is their willingness to act, to find a place to begin, and to begin.

David Eisenberg is the executive director at the Development Center for Appropriate Technology in Tucson, Arizona.

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