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Codes With a Side of Climate

Posted by Sara Gutterman

Dec 12, 2018 2:29:28 PM

Codes are designed to keep homeowners and building occupants safe and protected. They also play a critical role in protecting the environment.

Codes With A Side of ClimateThe connection between codes and the climate may, at first blush, seem oblique. However, the two are intricately connected. Codes are designed to make homes and buildings stronger, safer, healthier and more durable. They’re designed to improve performance and energy savings. And in so doing, codes play a pivotal role not just in protecting lives, but the planet as well.

Buildings have a dramatic impact on the environment: They consume almost 40 percent of the energy produced in the U.S., and they release nearly half of our nation’s carbon emissions. After vehicles, buildings are the second largest source of ozone-depleting chemicals like volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and nitrogen oxides (NOx).

According to the Salt Lake Tribune, “About a third of pollutiongenerating chemicals come from buildings, including older, less insulated homes with inefficient furnaces and water heaters. Changing building codes won’t force older homes to be more efficient, but it will make new homes—homes that will be around for another 50 years or more—adhere to 21st century clean technology. The added cost is marginal, and homebuyers want cleaner homes.”

Enhanced energy codes go a long way in reducing the environmental footprint of homes and buildings. The 2012 International Energy Conservation Code (IECC) represents a 30 percent increase in building efficiency in comparison to the 2006 code, resulting in decreased carbon emissions and resource use. Subsequent versions of the code make incremental increases beyond the 2012 code.

While it’s important to celebrate the recent advancements in energy code, the codes that address air quality remain sorely inadequate.
Toxins and pollutants from buildings adversely affect the air we breathe—both inside and outside. According to the EPA, indoor air is often two to five times more contaminated than the air outside, which is particularly important since we spend, on average, 90 percent of our time inside. And emissions from buildings have contributed to a sharp decline in outdoor air quality in cities across the country, causing a spectrum of health ailments from watery eyes to searing headaches to fatal heart attacks.

Unfortunately, special interests and building professionals whose only concern is lowest upfront cost have hijacked the code process for too long, with the quest for profit trumping the fundamental purpose of codes: to protect the health and safety of people. This obtuse mentality, which has been the bane of the building industry for decades, must change immediately if we have even a remote chance of addressing the realities of our changing climate.

When it comes to code development, we must expeditiously apply a new assessment methodology that certainly considers upfront cost but also incorporates environmental impact, resource use and emissions. If the damage caused to homes and buildings by the intensification of extreme temperatures, catastrophic weather events and wildfire hasn’t convinced us yet that we need stronger codes, then perhaps the sharp rise in childhood cancer rates and other terminal illnesses will.

Codes are the fundamental building blocks for our future. “Building to code” can no longer represent what is simply enough to “get by.” If the purpose of codes is to provide protection for inhabitants, shouldn’t those of us in the codes arena feel the obligation to raise the bar high enough to adequately address issues of health, resiliency, resource use and environmental impact?

Ultimately, it will be up to us to set our priorities: Will we continue to make decisions about codes that pad the coffers of the builders, or will we leverage them for their fundamental purpose of protecting the people and places that we love the most? 

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