Opinion: The Greater Good of Building Codes

Opinion: The Greater Good of Building Codes

The International Energy Conservation Code sets the benchmark for constructing better buildings. Recent trade industry influence is trying to remove the public’s voice from the process.

Over the past 30 years, the International Code Council (ICC) has become the de facto gatekeeper for all widespread advancements in standard building construction. They manage the Residential, Building (Commercial), Fire, and Energy standards (IRC, IBC, IFC, and the IECC, respectively), among others.  This also encompasses a responsibility to weigh a multitude of public, industry, and climate-related interests. In the ICC’s own words

  • The principles of the IRC are based on the protection of public health, safety, and welfare.
  • The IRC results in efficient designs that provide flexibility for the code official, designer, engineer, and architect.
  • Provisions of the code encourage the use of new and smarter technological advances.
  • The IRC emphasizes both prescriptive and engineered solutions and allows the use of time-tested methods.
  • The IRC references nationally developed consensus standards.

Interpreted more loosely: it’s the ICC’s job to keep ratcheting up the bare minimum level of construction methods for a built structure in an incremental, slow-moving (read: “time-tested”) way, and allow for builders to avoid getting stuck in the lurch between code mandates. Thankfully for late adopters, it’s up to State and Local jurisdictions to interpret and adopt the ICC codes – most states are lagging 10 years behind the most current revisions to the IECC. And a whopping 20% of states haven’t even adopted them in ANY FORM. 

Now that 2021 is upon us, the ICC’s triennial energy code update is just around the bend (it also coincides with updates to the IBC/IRC too). However, a hidden alliance with the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) puts its true priorities into question as the updates go to committee. In a 2019 NY Times article, it is revealed that the NAHB leveraged its influence to tilt the balance of code committee seats in their favor, in exchange for their industry support in implementing code changes. Benign back-scratching? Perhaps. But it is worth both shedding light on whose interests are actually being served in this arrangement, while also acknowledging the economic factors at play, in the code-making process. 

New construction and the needs of an ever-increasing populace with an ever-decreasing amount of financial cushion create an alignment of need for buildings to be built more energy-efficiently and more cost-effectively. These two things ‘better’ and ‘cheap’ are almost always at odds with each other, though the tenets of a capitalistic society profess that the market will find a way to bridge this gap.

Witnessing the deleterious effects of this winter’s nationwide, arctic chill on infrastructure and homes alike further highlights the power of these code-minimum standards, and the importance of impartiality and climate-change acceptance on the part of everyone with a vote in the ICC committees. 

The construction industry, in the U.S. at least, has been defined by a fairly conservative, slow-to-change archetype. “This is how we’ve always done it so that’s what we’re going to keep doing” is a pretty good way to build a log cabin and admittedly many currently IRC-average homes. Does the construction industry need to continue being defined by this slow-to-change, methodical identity? Is this identity actually indicative of the majority of builders out there, or has it been unduly influenced by the tippy-toed pace of code advancement? Did I listen to pop music because I was miserable or am I miserable because I listen to pop music? 

By the ICC subtly tilting the inputs in favor of the home-building (and gas) industries, it reduces the egalitarian feedback from non-industry parties (municipalities, school districts, utilities, designers). It makes the code evolution process less well-rounded and less capable of serving the marginalized, lower-income segments of the population who are ultimately affected by code minimums. 

If anything is to come out of this NAHB/ICC arrangement, it can be the realization that the local and regional scale makes the process better and that we all can participate. 

Now that you know about the code development process, follow the upcoming code path and chime in during the public comment period. Learn about codes being proposed, and find partners to propose your own updates. Become an ICC member and cast a vote. 

And remember that codes only limit the lowest common denominator — that is, the code-police won’t stop you from building a BETTER, more energy-efficient, or durable building (well, as long as it meets other safety, accessibility, municipal, and utility codes). Create change on whatever scale you have influence: build better, support industry partners who share your vision, and share what you do with others!

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of SIGA or any of its holdings or affiliates.
Avatar for Nicholas Holbus

Nicholas Holbus

Nick is a designer and building envelope specialist at a multidisciplinary architecture studio in Northwest Arkansas. When he isn't busy shepherding a project to completion, he's likely chasing either the multitude of local flow lines, his gifted 3-year-old, or one of his lovely partner's 11 chickens.

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