Rachel Kapisak Jones

When the city of Seattle adopted its first building codes in the late 19th century, regulating material usage, height, and acceptable practices for city architecture, the relatively compact volume ran a neat 20 or so pages. Today’s code, which covers the minutiae and mechanics of the built environment, may contain enough heft, more than 800 pages, to be assembled into a structure itself. The sprawling saga that is the city’s municipal zoning regulations adds another 1,400 pages.

“This means architects need to be more knowledgeable on a larger variety of topics,” Seattle-based architect, urbanist, and writer Michael Eliason says of the complex code requirements of today. “But this specialized knowledge also drives up the cost and complexity of projects, so everyone does what’s prescriptive, instead of innovative.”

Building codes and regulations shape our cities in countless ways, distilling generations of development experience, best practices for safety, technological know-how, and, especially in the case of zoning laws, society’s harmful, retrograde views on equity and equality. But as Eliason and many climate advocates argue, they’re also a vital, if underappreciated, tool to drive innovation and fight climate change. Despite the size of modern building codes, there’s still much work to be done to sync them with today’s urgent climate goals.

Buildings currently represent roughly 39% of the country’s emissions. Stricter codes can force a nascent generation of new buildings to be more energy efficient, sustainable, and healthy, and more aligned with larger environmental goals, like providing distributed renewable power or supporting electrical vehicle infrastructure. Model codes like ASHRAE 90.1, which governs commercial structure, and the International Energy Conservation Code (IECC), developed by the nonprofit International Code Council (ICC) and adopted by the majority of U.S. states and localities, need to evolve, says Daniel Bresette, executive director of the Environmental and Energy Study Institute (EESI).

“Buildings aren’t just the gas stations of the future,” says Bresette, referring to the growth of home vehicle charging. “We’re increasingly going to be generating electricity on our roofs or taking advantage of geothermal resources. We’ll be using our buildings differently 10 years from now.”

Now may be an especially crucial time to advocate for and mandate a more environmentally aligned code, and not just because the increasing prevalence of extreme flooding, heat waves, building collapses, and wildfires suggests our built environment needs to be more resilient than ever.

The IECC, updated as part of a regular three-year cycle in 2021, will begin taking comments and feedback for the 2024 update this fall.

It’s imperative to lock in energy savings and evolve building practices, now. Every new building currently lasts half a century, and retrofitting a building for clean energy is much more expensive than simply incorporating the technology during construction.

Cities and states subscribe to a patchwork of building regulations, with state law sometimes preempting local rules. But for the most part, U.S. codes lightly update or directly copy models created by the ICC. FEMA research found that 10 million of the estimated 14 million U.S. buildings to be assembled between 2016 and 2040 will follow ICC codes.

The IECC update between 2018 and 2021 alone cut residential energy usage within a code-compliant building by 9%, and the sheer influence of these codes can save energy at great scale. RMI estimates that if codes mandated that 65 million newly constructed households install efficient electric heat pumps instead of gas heaters, the nation would save $27 billion annually.

“There are things that are best done at the beginning, and the time to make a home energy efficient is when you build,” Bresette says. “It’s cheapest, you get the longest lasting measures, and it’s the least invasive.”

Jacob Corvidae, principal of the Carbon-Free Buildings Program at RMI, says there’s always been fierce industry backlash toward stricter codes, due to the perception that they increase the cost of a new project (these complaints removed voluntary electrification standards from the 2021 IECC code). But if safer, healthier, and more efficient homes are the goal, sustainability, and switching to a renewable power system, should be the focus.

“There’s no more extreme threat to our homes than the extreme weather caused by climate change,” he says. “The truth is, what we need in a code most urgently is for buildings to all be electric.”

The larger political challenges of updating building codes via standard-making bodies is well illustrated by the difficulty in protecting against the increasingly long and dangerous wildfire season. Kelly Pohl, an associate director and researcher at Headwaters Economics who has studied the structural damage caused by western wildfires, says climate-fueled disasters are already much worse than the pre–climate change standard, with multiple billion-dollar fires and weeks of poor air quality affecting the Western U.S. each year. Yet communities aren’t codifying strategies to protect themselves via building codes that harden homes (replacing standard building materials with asphalt shingles and fiber-cement siding) and land-use regulations that discourage or ban construction in the most threatened areas.

A few misplaced assumptions stand in the way of these changes: There’s a gut reaction that code mandates harm the personal liberty of property owners; there’s a misperception about the cost of increased regulations; and hardening structures against future blazes; and finally, there’s the perception that smaller local governments in rural areas don’t have the capacity, budget, and manpower to properly enforce new rules.

Many communities start with voluntary measures, Pohl says, giving out checklists and providing free home assessments to help property owners prepare for the worst. But the challenge of wildfire risk—and the larger climate risks we all face from inaction around cutting emissions—suggests collective action is the only true solution.

"If one home hardens and others don’t, the ones that don’t become hazards and great sources of embers and radiant heat,” says Pohl. “Individual action isn’t enough to protect communities; we need collective action that can only be accomplished through regulation.”

While regulation often gets stereotyped as manifesting itself in the form of delays, cost overruns, and hassle, it actually adds safety, stability, and certainty to building markets, Pohl says. Laying out clear rules of the road, such as materials, building strategies, and methodologies—as well as resiliency measures—gives builders, insurers, and communities more certainty around budgets and risk and makes it easier to recover when the worst disasters happen.

Advocates for rewriting codes to reflect the latest innovations in resiliency and energy efficiency also say that adding these kinds of rules can actually push the industry forward.

“There’s a real push to say that we don’t want things to change fast, but that attitude is holding back the evolution of architecture and development,” says RMI’s Corvidae. “McKinsey did a study that showed the construction industry has had basically flat productivity for 70 years; it’s crazy that we simply haven’t gotten better at building in this country.”

Eliason, who spent years working on residential design overseas in Germany, agrees and often points out the wildly creative, diverse, and livable architecture coming out of Europe, which has much stricter energy mandates and building regulations than the United States does.

“The building process in the U.S. doesn’t push innovation at all,” he says. “The whole ecosystem of how we do things in the U.S. is backwards.”

Copenhagen, now considered an exemplar of bicycle-friendly infrastructure, was once a ’60s city filled with car traffic and gridlock. In fact, many European cities and countries have rapidly upgraded their building codes and building stock in the last decade or so to reflect better building practices. Brussels, among the worst in the European Union in terms of building energy performance in 2010, used a carrot-and-stick approach of regulations and incentives to become a continental leader in energy-saving passive house construction within a decade.

“They started encouraging this type of building, and very importantly, trained city staff and local contractors so they’d know how to build to these new standards, and now they’re building more passive house floor area than any other place on the globe except for China,” Eliason says.

Corvidae says the larger landscape for code evolution rests not only in updating international standards via the ICC but also in pushing for more progressive climate-focused codes and code amendments on the state level. RMI recently launched the Codes for Climate Initiative with the New Buildings Institute to provide a toolkit for local lawmakers to center carbon mitigation into new regulatory updates. California’s update to its own code in 2022 might mandate electrification statewide for all new buildings.

At a crucial moment when infrastructure investment is a key topic in Congress, climate-fueled natural disasters are on the rise, and building codes are set to be updated, EESI’s Bresette says that one of the best ways to push things forward is to boost training for code officials and inspectors. It’s one thing to have a great code, he says, another thing to have homes built to code, and even more importantly, to have those rules enforced.

The push for mandating building electrification, which has met fierce resistance from the fossil fuel industry, shows how hard entrenched interests may fight to prevent these changes. Corvidae says that pushback makes it all the more imperative that those in the building industry who understand these issues make it a priority to advocate for sustainable, and ultimately safer, homes.

“If we value providing not just a house but a home for people, then we’re failing in that duty if we’re not preparing for a ravaging sea of extreme weather events,” he says.