5 Building Code Changes That Absolutely Cannot Wait Until 2030

code of hammurabi images

The Building Code of Hammurabi, 3700 years old via

For at least 3700 years, since the code of Hammurabi, builders of houses have had building codes, a government minimum standard intended to protect the health and safety of its citizens. Possibly in all that time, the majority of builders have considered it the maximum as well- don't do any more or build any better than you have to.

Now it looks like builders might actually have to build better, as building codes move beyond health and safety and get serious about energy efficiency. Everybody loves to talk about increasing the efficiency of cars, but buildings are boring. Even though Edward Mazria and Architecture 2030 tell us that buildings are responsible for almost half of our energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions, and over three quarters of our electricity consumption, radical and significant measures have not been taken. Yet.

But there is action on two fronts: the Waxman Markey Bill "establishes enforceable "national energy effficiency building codes," and the New Buildings Institute and the American Institute of Architects are proposing big changes to International Code Council.

But they both do too little, too late, and too slow.

passivhaus detail image

The Passivhaus standard beats 2030 code standards right now.

Joe Romm's Climate Progress has good coverage from a guest blogger and explains:

States and local governments will be required to adopt the new national codes, or codes that achieve equal or better energy savings. Noncompliance will result in loss of significant funding. If they still do not do so, the Federal government itself will step in and enforce the national energy efficiency building codes. (Nobody actually wants that to happen, but you have to be willing to do it to enforce compliance.)

The proposal has some significant reductions in it, looking for a 30% reduction from 2006 standards, or "baseline", by around 2012, up to 75% by 2029.

More in Climate Progress.

Meanwhile, the AIA/NBI proposals look for a 25% increase by 2012.

"it was our intention to make sure that the new energy codes would be stringent enough to advance our stated goal of achieving carbon neutrality in buildings by 2030," said Christine McEntee, Executive Vice President / CEO of the American Institute of Architects. "We feel it is important for the private sector to take a leadership position on this important issue that relates to the built environment."

Right. But buildings built now, unlike cars, will most probably still be around in 2030 and a few years after that. Aiming for carbon neutrality by 2030 is way too late, especially since we know how to do it now.

If you are going to do something serious about buildings, you have to go beyond the building code, and you have to do it now.

Five Ideas for Fixing the Building Codes


Net Zero houses in the UK right now.

1) Bite the Bullet and Be like Britain

They are bringing in codes that will look for 25% improvement in energy by 2010, 44% by 2013 and to be energy/carbon neutral by 2016. That is a tough schedule.

exurban development photo

Now where is the nearest milk store? image source k.obscura

2) Recognize that buildings are only one part of the issue. Policies for planning neighborhoods and communities are also essential.

Building a house is not an isolated event, it happens in a framework of land development and urban planning. Increasing the efficiency of a house by 20% doesn't do much in the larger scheme of things if you build 5,000 square feet an hour's commute from work, and if getting a quart of milk requires a 20 minute drive. It is all a bigger picture- the design of the community, the frontage of the lots, the ability to walk to school or to a decent transit system, these are the things that really influence energy use. Let's have a building code that sets a minimum density for development to reduce the amount of land lost and fuel used for transport.


The Healthy House

3) It isn't just about energy; Health is important too.

Sealing houses up tight as a drum without worrying about air quality is going to lead to big problems. Let's have a building code that insists on healthy materials, and gets rid of formaldehyde, vinyl and VOC laden finishes. Healthy houses should be the building code standard.

house energy consumption

4) Everything is relative. But it shouldn't be.

Through the energy crises of the 70's to today, energy efficiency standards kept going up, but the amount of energy used in a house went up faster because they just keep getting larger. Yet the code changes all propose relative standards. Instead, why not change our building codes to permit a specific amount of energy consumption, period. If you want to build a house twice as big as, say the design consumption of a 2000 footer, you have to double the insulation in the walls or cover the roof with photovoltaics. If you want a six burner professional stove, add some more insulation still.

This shouldn't affect the rich; they can afford the insulation. It will help the poor; small houses, properly built, don't need a lot of energy at existing standards. It may hurt the middle-of-the road suburban McMansions, but they are dinosaurs anyways.

get to work poster image


5) Do it now.

The housing industry and the financial industry that supported it bear much responsibility for the current Great Recession, and any complaints that they have about these changes "affecting affordability" should be thrown right back in their face. They had all the time in the world to build affordable, efficient houses but didn't give a damn. Nor did building a freestanding house in the burbs for anyone who wanted one turn out to be such a great idea.

So lets make sure that when we start building again, we do it right, and now, not in 2030.

This is an update of a post I wrote earlier: Big Steps in Building: Change our Building Codes from Relative to Absolute
More big steps in Building:
Big Steps in Building: Ban Demolition
Big Steps In Building: Ban Formaldehyde
Big Steps in Building: Put Solar Hot Water Heaters on Every Roof
Big Steps In Building: Make Natural Ventilation Mandatory
Big Steps in Building: Install Gray Water Recovery Everywhere
Big Steps in Building: Ban Minimum Floor Areas
Big Steps In Building: Survival, Not Suburbs
Big Steps in Building: Plant a Tree

5 Building Code Changes That Absolutely Cannot Wait Until 2030
For at least 3700 years, since the code of Hammurabi, builders of houses have had building codes, a government minimum standard intended to protect the health and safety of its citizens. Possibly in

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