3 Ways to Use Building Codes to Slow Climate Change 

August 10, 2020
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Most people rarely think that their homes or office buildings are major contributors to climate change, but we should not be so quick to overlook them. Our residential and commercial buildings account for about 40% of total energy consumption in the United States. 

Shifting how we design, maintain, and operate buildings is one of the most meaningful ways we can slow the effects of climate change and protect ourselves from it. The building industry plays a pivotal role and will need widespread engagement to address its impact on energy emissions. Here are three ways everyone – from architects and builders to manufacturers and inspectors – can improve energy efficiency and resiliency through building codes.

1. Educate

The International Construction Codes, also known as I-Codes, set the minimum standards for constructing safe and sustainable structures. While they are legal requirements in the U.S., compliance can be challenging, and the codes are sometimes overlooked in the field.

More states are requiring educational training for builders to obtain their licenses, which has improved compliance in recent years. Widespread education must be implemented so code compliance can become second nature. When we build with the I-Codes in mind, we create safer, more resilient buildings.

2. Enforce

The I-Codes are updated every three years. Then, each state or municipality decides to what degree they will adopt them. If the updated codes are not enforced, buildings may fall short of the required structural integrity, energy efficiency, and resiliency standards, posing serious safety and environmental concerns. 

The codes are adopted to reflect the latest in building science and weather trends of the area. The state of Florida, for example, led the country in requiring structures to comply with high-wind provisions. This was not an arbitrary law, but a practical safety measure in a state susceptible to tropical storms. These changes were adopted after Hurricane Andrew, the costliest hurricane in U.S. history when it struck in 1992, caused $25 billion in damages.

Enforcing such a code could mean the difference between a structure collapsing or protecting its occupants – and the difference in billions of dollars for governments and owners. As the climate changes, so will our building codes. When builders and inspectors collaborate to enforce them, our communities and environment will be better protected.

3. Encourage

The I-Codes have significantly improved safety and sustainability in buildings nationwide. However, we must continue to encourage the adoption of codes and standards that will further improve the built environment and ensure that our buildings and occupants are protected. 

The codes are typically based on historic, rather than forward-looking, data. If our buildings are to withstand the increasing intensity of natural disasters, our structures must be built on predictions set by environmental scientists. When possible and practical, I encourage building professionals to go beyond simply meeting building codes. When we consider the environmental challenges of the future, our buildings can be even more sustainable and resilient. 
 

Theresa Weston, Ph.D., leads building science and construction technology research for DuPont Performance Building Solutions as a DuPont Fellow. She has developed and introduced to market many new products and is an inventor of four U.S. patents. Dr. Weston is a member of the executive committee of the ASTM Committee on the Performance of Buildings and chairs the Sub-Committee on Air Leakage and Ventilation. At ASHRAE, she is the immediate-past-Chair of the Residential Buildings Committee and immediate past-Chair of the Standard for Energy Efficient Design of New Low-Rise Residential Buildings (90.2) and a past chair of the Technical Committee on Building Materials and Building Envelope Performance. Dr. Weston is active in the ICC code development process. She is also active in publishing technical papers and presenting at construction industry and building science conferences.

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