8. The International Code Council shall adopt stringent performance-based building codes.

Rapporteur: Metta Spencer

Buildings emit vast amounts of greenhouse gas and, worldwide, they account for nearly 40 percent of all energy consumption. In the U.S. in 2006, buildings used more energy than the entire country’s transportation sector.1) Clearly, the world needs more stringent rules about selecting building materials, and perhaps the best way of accomplishing that is by tightening up the building codes that all governments adopt.

Building codes were invented to protect consumers from fire and structural failures, but gradually began to cover other public health and safety issues as well. For example, in the 1920s there were many deaths from typhoid epidemics because water was being contaminated, so strict plumbing standards were added to the codes. Then in the 1970s, energy conservation was added to the list of requirements after the oil scarcity crisis.2)

The International Code council is a U.S.-based organization that sets building and energy standards for home and commercial buildings. It is also the code that some other provincial governments or local jurisdictions elsewhere adopt, rather than developing their own standards. However, there are many other such codes in use around the world, such as in Canada the National Energy Code for Buildings (NECD). This discussion will apply to them all.

In addition to building codes that are legally required and enforced by inspectors, there are a few new sets of standards that are entirely voluntary, mainly to promote “green buildings.” Those standards are generally higher than the mandatory codes maintained by governments, though they often are invoked to improve usual practices. One such voluntary code is that developed by the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE)3), but probably the best-known code is LEED, which is run by the US Green Building Council.

LEED stands for “Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design,” and it regularly updates its checklists of standards for architects and engineers working at the planning stage, before construction begins. Professional designers can apply (and pay a hefty fee) to have their plans ranked according to four levels of excellence: certified, silver, gold, and platinum. The idea is to produce buildings that “maximize occupant health and productivity, use fewer resources, reduce waste and negative environmental impacts, and decrease life cycle costs.”4) The most important goal of such “green” design is to reduce the use of energy in each planned building and thereby reduce the emission of greenhouse gases. Buildings that are certified as green often sell for a premium price and garner praise for their architects.

But it is no simple matter to construct greener buildings around the world, and actual progress has been disappointing, as The Economist pointed out in a January 2019 issue. Its article is bluntly titled, “Efforts to Make Buildings Greener Are Not Working.”5)

This shortfall even applies to the zealously committed LEED people. Their buildings are certified early – during the planning stage- and are not inspected after the construction is complete. If someone does check on the outcome later, she may see a wide disparity between the high original intentions and any real reductions in greenhouse gas emissions or the use of energy. Along the way, less expensive materials are often substituted for the ones originally specified. By now it has become evident that standards need to be tightened up globally and somehow enforced.

Sometimes the architects and engineers are themselves to blame for this discrepancy. For example, the LEED appraisal process assigns points to a proposed new building if it will reduce the use of electricity. However, the LEED accounting scheme does not include the electricity that will be drawn from wall plugs. Hence, in order to make her plan look good, an architect may plan for fewer built-in lighting fixtures and expect that lamps will be used instead. Of course, this means that there will be no real savings in the end, even if the building had been given high points for “greenness.”

But when a government enacts a building code, there will be real inspections and enforcement mechanisms, and so there is an increasing demand for tighter environmental standards to be legislatively adopted and legally enforced.

But, for two reasons, this has not helped matters much so far. First, building codes only are relevant to new buildings or to old buildings being renovated. Only about one percent of all buildings are replaced each year, so few houses and commercial buildings will be required to improve. This is no way to make quick progress worldwide.

Second, enacting legislation for tough new regulations is a political issue, and it will almost always encounter opposition. This is inevitable, since there will usually be start-up costs involved in the change, even if everyone can expect to benefit financially in the end from it. Carbon taxation is a case in point.

The best way to reduce the consumption of energy is not to change the building codes but simply to tax heavily the carbon in fuel. Unfortunately, the consumer can see the higher price every time she refills her heating oil tank or pays her gas bill. Even when governments promise to refund all the carbon tax money to households or spend it on greater services for the working class, such legislation will be opposed and maybe defeated. Voters seem more amenable to toughening up the building code and adding the extra costs onto the selling price of the building. But again, that only applies to new buildings and to old ones being refurbished.

And there is another explanation for the slow progress toward greening the world’s buildings: Banks normally only pay to upgrade one thing at a time, such as installing insulation. But it would be better to retrofit a whole house at once, including by adding digital thermostats to lower the use of energy.6)

Thus, it seems that progress has been too slow, so building codes and other basic principles have to be pushed harder. But what are the most promising changes to promote? Let’s consider, first, some basic principles and then some of the choices of building materials that matter.

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Notes

1) Center for Clean Energy Policy, “Success Stories in Building Energy Efficiency”

2) Steve Kemp and John Straube, in a video “Building Codes” in the series by Project Save the World. Also available as a podcast on iTunes.

3) https://www.ashrae.org/

4) ASHRAE and the Green Building Council also offer training exams leading to professional certification. Members are then involved in appraising other proposals for new buildings. See https://new.usgbc.org/credentials

5) “Efforts to Make Buildings Greener are not Working,” The Economist, Jan 5, 2019.

6) The Economist, op.cit.

7) United Nations Population Division 2009, “World Urbanization Prospects: The 2009 revision.”

8) Our World in Data, “Extreme Poverty is Falling: How is Poverty Changing for Higher Poverty Lines?”

9) International Monetary Fund, //Finance and Development//, Sept. 2007. Vol. 44, No. 3. The connection between affluence and urbanization is explored in Doug Saunders, Arrival City: The Final Migration and Our Next World (Random House, 2010).

10) World Bank, World Development Report 2010: Development and Climate Change. The World Bank, Washington, D.C., 417 pages.

11) United Nations Climate Action Summit 2019, “Cities and Pollution Contribute to Climate Change”.

12) World Bank, Cities and Climate Change: An Urgent Agenda (Washington, D.C. 2010); see also International Energy Agency (IEA) 2008, World Energy Outlook, Paris, 2008; 569 pages).

13) David Owen, Green Metropolis: Why Living Smaller, Living Closer, and Driving Less Are the Keys to Sustainability (New York: Penguin, 2010).

14) A. Ramaswami, T Hillman, B, Janson, M. Reiner and G. Thomas,”A Demand-centred, Hybrid Lifecycle Methodology for City-scale Greenhouse Gas Inventories,” Environmental Science and Technology, vol. 42, No.17, pp. 6455-6461.

15) Daniel Hoornweg, Lorraine Sugar, and Claudia Lorena Trejos Gomez, “Cities and Greenhouse Gas Emissions: Moving Forward.” Sage Publications, Environment and Urbanization 2011, Vol. 23 (1): 207-227.

16) T. R. Oke, “Urban Climates and Global Environmental Change,” in R.D Thompson, and A. Perry (eds.) Applied Climatology: Principles & Practices, New York: Routledge, 1997, pp. 273-287.

17) T.R. Oke, Boundary Layer Climates, New York, Routledge, 1987.

18) “Atlanta is Home to Largest Permeable Pavers Project in US”, news.wabe.org, 2015

19) Michael Pooler in IJMuiden, “Cleaning up Steel is Key to Tackling Climate Change”, Financial Times series on climate control, Jan 1, 2019.

20) ibid.

21) Paul Dowsett in his video conversation with Metta Spencer, “Sustainable Buildings”, April 15, 2019.

22) David Moore, US Dep. of the Interior, Bureau of Reclamation, Upper Colorado Region “The Riddle of Ancient Roman Concrete”, Feb. 1993.

23) Lucy Rodgers, “Climate Change: The Massive CO2 emitter You May not Know About.” BBC Science and Environment, Dec. 17, 2018

24) Doug Pelton, “One Ton of Portland Cement Produces a Ton of CO2 Emissions; Can Alternatives Reduce That by 97 Percent?” Earth Maven, Aug. 20, 2014.

25) Juan Rodriguez, “Uses, Benefits, and Drawbacks of Fly Ash in Construction”, The Balance Small Business, Feb. 17, 2019.

26) Paul Hawken, ed. Drawdown: The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming, New York: Penguin, 2017, pp 162-63. See also http://a.co/dZCBPIM

27) Britt Faulstick, Drexel University, Engineers Develop Cement With 97 Percent Smaller Carbon Dioxide and Energy Footprint

28) Pilkington Architects, UK and Ireland. “Glass and the Environment”.

29) “Curtain Wall Versus Window Wall: What’s the Difference?” Lenmak Architecture Design Advice. See also the video discussion with Paul Dowsett and Michael Yorke, “Sustainable Buildings,” op. cit.

30) Naturally:Wood, https://www.naturallywood.com/emerging-trends/mass-timber

31) Paul Dowsett and Michael Yorke, “Sustainable Buildings,” op cit.

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