Building codes offer a fundamental baseline of protection in architecture, requiring that buildings be designed and constructed to ensure minimum health and safety standards. Developed over centuries with the primary goal of protecting human settlements from the spread of fire, building codes have a proven track record of success. This demonstrated benefit is particularly important today, given the increased frequency and intensity of natural disasters.
Despite advantages at the local scale, building codes may be contributing to the fragility of the built environment as a whole. According to architect Aleksandra Jaeschke, today's codes exhibit particular economic and technological biases that undermine the broader pursuit of systemic environmental performance. In The Greening of America's Building Codes: Promises and Paradoxes (Princeton Architectural Press, 2022), Jaeschke reveals how our current residential codes and sustainable design standards limit progress toward the attainment of environmental health, safety, and welfare at a planetary scale—and, therefore, must be fundamentally reconceived.
Consider the topic of energy. Today's codes privilege more versus less, encouraging the adoption of renewable and energy-saving technologies over passive conservation strategies. The product focus of current green guidelines is evident in the emphasis on adding solar panels to augment operational energy supply versus implementing foliage-based shading to reduce energy demand.
To highlight this point, Jaeschke analyzed the Database of State Incentives for Renewables & Efficiency (DSIRE), regarded as the most comprehensive source of national building energy-related data, to elucidate which strategies are incentivized. "With a single exception—daylighting and solar-passive heating [are] mentioned once—passive design methods were not subsidized," she writes. "It is impossible to receive a rebate to pay an architect for their environmentally driven design ingenuity."
Codes are lexicons of material inequity. The building products addressed in most regulatory guides are established commercial materials produced by manufacturers who have invested in their safety testing. Missing are countless natural materials, vernacular building elements (think: thatch roofs), and non-commercial resources—even ones that have long been used in buildings.
Take straw bales, hemp, or other plant-based insulation materials. "As of today, no manufacturer can rate, and no licensed expert can verify, the quality of vegetative insulation," writes Jaeschke. "Unrated and unverified, vegetation, however exceptional its performance, cannot be considered a viable option when following the performance compliance path offered by the Energy Code." In other words, building regulation is a pay-to-play arena. There are untold numbers of healthier, environmentally preferable materials that go unused simply because no one has paid for their certification—or because they have no manufacturer or trade association representing them.
If the COVID-19 pandemic taught us one thing about building design, it is the fundamental importance of air quality. Residential building codes attempt to strike an awkward balance between requiring a minimum number of operable windows and ensuring a tightly sealed façade that minimizes the introduction of outside air while privileging mechanically supplied ventilation. Unfortunately, this trade-off often results in suboptimal levels of fresh air. Meanwhile, vegetated walls (so-called phyto-purification systems) have demonstrated success in improving indoor air quality with plants, but such systems are not recognized by codes. "When mentioned in the code by their name, plants are simply considered a hazard or a nuisance," writes Jaeschke. She further explains that since vegetated systems are not compliance options, they do not come with a MERV (Minimum Efficiency Reporting Values) rating and, therefore, cannot be used to obtain a HERS (Home Energy Rating System) certificate—a requirement for Energy Code adoption.
Building codes' stipulations for wastewater management are also restrictive. For example, while scrutinizing the California Plumbing Code, Jaeschke reveals that required water closets must be connected to a drainage system. "The Plumbing Code does not mention composting toilets, and waterless toilets are prohibited," she writes. And yet, these strategies can provide significant benefits in reducing wasted clean water and relieving pressure on stressed waste treatment systems. In a conversation with Matthew Lippincott, an expert in alternative sanitation approaches, Jaeschke discusses the many hurdles that current building regulations and policies create for these more sustainable wastewater management strategies.
As The Greening of America's Building Codes reveals, the additive, "privileged product" basis for regulation is particularly problematic given the increasing average home size. Energy-saving incentives such as tax credits, for example, typically do not have a direct connection to built area—meaning that a McMansion is treated similarly to a tiny house despite its much more significant energy budget. "In fact, although household appliances continue to become more efficient, houses have grown bigger and more technology dependent," Jaeschke writes. "In the end, the paradox is that these technological artifacts and the incentives that support them make us consume, waste, and pollute more."
Impressive in its detail and sobering in its message, Jaeschke's book addresses crucial content that has too long been overlooked. Architects often prefer to focus on design rather than regulation, but building codes function as the predesign of architectural projects, Jaeschke writes. These codes have evolved to ensure human safety and improve some aspects of environmental performance at the building scale. However, sustainability measures are typically introduced as added layers to older, outdated content. Furthermore, given our growing knowledge about effective ecological strategies, the codes lack the sophistication required to attain significant progress toward environmental goals.
So, how to move forward? It is not enough to add green enhancements to current building regulations that maintain a part-to-whole perspective. Rather, we must adopt a whole-to-part understanding of how individual design choices affect the bigger picture. After all, when considered at a global scale, health, safety, and welfare are all environmental imperatives—not just requirements for human occupants of buildings.
In other words, without planetary health, safety, and welfare, there is no planet. Such a concept requires a fundamental shift in the logic and intentions of building codes and regulations. After all, buildings are not separate from nature, but part of the broader planetary ecology. "The greening of an old game won't do it," says Jaeschke. "It is time to get away from the rules that put us humans outside of nature. The first step toward this vital shift is to recircuit our mindsets."
The views and conclusions from this author are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine or of The American Institute of Architects.
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