Building Codes Assistance Project

Since their written origin in the Code of Hammurabi some 4,000 years ago, building codes have provided occupants and communities the basic assurance of health and safety from shoddy materials, wind, fire, flood, and earthquakes—as well as design provisions for perks such as natural light and ventilation. Data such as wind and flood maps, along with the occasional catastrophe, have informed the evolution of building codes. However, as the effects of climate change emerge each day, the reactive and prescriptive nature of codes can seem inadequate. Can they be at the forefront of resilient design that anticipates, absorbs, recovers from, and adapts to adverse events?

Ronald Piester, AIA, past president of the International Code Council (ICC) board of directors and the ICC’s current vice president of membership and certification, thinks so, but with qualifications. “It’s important to start from a baseline that building codes are resilient,” he says. “But with the advent of extreme weather events, we have to ask what the appropriate dynamic response should be.”

A series of storms led to flooding throughout San Jose, Calif., last week. The water level of Coyote Creek reached a 100-year-high, forcing residents from their homes and shutting down a major freeway.
Jeff Chiu/AP Photo A series of storms led to flooding throughout San Jose, Calif., last week. The water level of Coyote Creek reached a 100-year-high, forcing residents from their homes and shutting down a major freeway.


It isn’t just a matter of revising model codes and standards to increase their rigor. Rather, the main hang-ups to the complete implementation and enforcement of codes are often reticence and upfront costs. “Codes are a fundamental economic tool that a community can use to create a building infrastructure that lasts, is occupied, and is on the tax base,” Piester says. However, “you haven’t achieved anything if your recommendations are not economically viable or fail to win over policy makers or the construction industry.”

Energy codes, for one, have been a relatively easy sell to jurisdictions for the simple reason that builders are able to upcharge for construction with an energy-efficiency rating, such as Energy Star. Thus, the 2012 International Energy Conservation Code (IECC), which was backed by the construction industry, yields houses that are 32 percent more energy efficient on average than those that follow the 2006 IECC.

Prioritizing resilient design via the codes will likewise need a coordinated campaign of education and incentive. Consensus around the need for resilient design is growing, with members of the building community exploring ways to work within and above the codes. There have been strides forward, by both convention and invention.

Compliance map with the International Energy Conservation Code
Building Codes Assistance Project Compliance map with the International Energy Conservation Code


Map of ASHRAE Energy Standard versions referenced in the applied building code, by state
Building Codes Assistance Project Map of ASHRAE Energy Standard versions referenced in the applied building code, by state


The Standard Course: Code Development and Adoption
Every three years, since 2000, the ICC has released an edition of the International Building Code (IBC), the product of a lengthy back-and-forth process. Building professionals, industry groups, non-governmental organizations, and governmental agencies that propose revisions from the previous edition must defend them and show cost–benefit. The potential changes are also subject to a period of public review, as well as modifications while in committee. The assembled committee members issue a vote and then recommend final adoption by the full voting membership. Even after the revisions are published, they remain advisory until an individual state or local jurisdiction codifies them—on their own timetable. Some jurisdictions are using IBC versions released multiple editions ago.

This process may not seem nimble enough to encourage the state of the art in resilient design, but a means to alleviate gridlock does exist. Recognizing that codes are unevenly adopted and will always lag behind the science, the ICC encourages building professionals to integrate current research voluntarily into their best practices and evaluates new building technologies as they emerge, producing reports on their compliance with its latest standards.

For instance, in response to an explosion of interest in using cross-laminated timber (CLT) for tall wood structures, the ICC began studying CLT’s safety and environmental benefits several years ago. This, together with industry research, led to a streamlined recognition of CLT buildings in the 2015 IBC, with standards against which new material advancements are measured.


Change by Necessity: Pre-Disaster Mitigation
Big storms, landing with greater frequency, are profoundly influencing model codes and standards. Many changes in the 2015 IBC from its 2012 predecessor stemmed from the Hurricane Sandy cleanup and rebuilding. New construction in Atlantic coastal communities in New York and New Jersey, for example, often follows code amendments that require the anchoring of structures on piers or pilings above the 100-year base flood elevation, and enclosing stairways in breakaway walls. The code also requires residential buildings to withstand greater lateral loads in expanded high-wind zones and to use materials resistant to water infiltration and mold.

New construction in Atlantic City, N.J.
Structures of Coastal Resileance New construction in Atlantic City, N.J.


Because of the frequency of storms, the question arises of whether the federal government—or more specifically, taxpayers—can continue to fund communities that are more susceptible to natural disasters and that have no minimum construction standards in place locally, says Cindy Davis, deputy director of building and fire regulations for the Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development. “Many communities are willing to roll the dice after a disaster, or wait on a bailout,” Davis says. These practices, she notes, are “not sustainable.” As a result, FEMA and other federal agencies have become major advocates for strengthening and promoting resilient code adoption at the local level.

A 2005 study by the Multihazard Mitigation Council finds that for every $1 spent on building for resiliency, society is saved $4 in post-disaster cleanup and rebuilding. Clearly, it makes economic sense to focus on prevention through codes, and to create a robust and productive building infrastructure. But there’s a human aspect too. “Codes aren’t just for the first owner, but for future generations,” Davis says. “Consumers should be able to expect a minimum level of safety for their major life investment. They may assume that there is a minimum legal requirement [when in fact] the locality does not adopt one.”


Closing a Gap: Code Adoption
Fourteen states currently lack full adoption of some edition of the IBC. Some states allow municipalities to opt out while several home-rule states, including Kansas and Delaware, devolve adoption to local jurisdictions.

Large cities generally have a robust code and enforcement, while small cities and rural areas may have little to nothing. However, perhaps inevitably, the concept of building above code has gained traction with jurisdictions most often in harm’s way.

Hit by five huge tornadoes in five years, Moore, Okla., rebuilt with the country’s toughest building codes after the fourth twister flattened the town in 2013. In Alabama’s hard-hit hurricane zone, the Insurance Institute for Business & Home Safety’s Fortified Home-Hurricane verification program has gained considerable traction with jurisdictions and builders starting in 2015. The state attached significant home-insurance savings to residences adopting this set of resilient construction standards.


However, these one-off, above-code examples do not make up for one of the biggest deficiencies in the pursuit of resiliency: the failure to stay current with the code. “We are seeing a trend where jurisdictions are skipping a cycle or more in the revised codes,” says Tim Ryan, code administrator for the City of Overland Park, Kan., and longtime board member of Building Officials and Code Administrators International. “If you miss more than a couple editions, you’ll have trouble keeping up with technology and the training curve. We need to encourage timely adoption, and we need to spend more time on enforcement.”


A Promising Path: Education and Incentives
The Alliance for National and Community Resilience (ANCR, pronounced “anchor”), a new initiative by the ICC, aims to arm community stakeholders with incentives and a toolkit to apply the tenets of resilient design to more types of infrastructure. This means providing means of physical protection, social capital, and financial interconnectivity so that cities and towns can continue to function during and after a disaster.

ANCR is partnering with industry groups, governmental agencies, and corporations to create the first nationally recognized, whole community consensus benchmark that will provide educational resources and clear targets to civic leaders and design professionals to pursue resilience better. Lenders, insurers, and taxing bodies are playing a role too, through efforts to incentivize higher standards of design.

Wind maps
Hint.fm Wind maps

Mapping a vision for achieving resiliency, analyzing the growing body of data, and deploying the appropriate technology are each monumental tasks for communities, Piester acknowledges. However, they are all necessary in order to frame progressive code change as an essential tool for economic development on the road to resiliency.

March 1, 2017, update: Listen to our ArchitectChats podcast, ep. 11: Dissecting the Code, Part 1 - Raising Expectations for a discussion on whether the rigor of codes and standards should increase to improve our minimum expectations for buildings.

March 20, 2017, update: Read about local initiatives to build resilient infrastructure in communities across the U.S. in our follow-up article, "Resilient Design in Action: Diverse Approaches in a Complex Landscape."

Editor's note: This story has been updated since first publication to state that the first edition of the International Building Code was released in 2000.