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sustainable design vs building codes

Sustainable Design vs Building Codes: A Difficult Relationship? 

By Tobias RobertsRise Writer
Oct 2, 2018

Building codes exist to help make our homes safe, secure and protected from the outside environment. So what’s the problem? 

First, codes might seem inflexible and offer nothing more than an endless list of regulatory challenges to your building project. 

Second, building codes are almost always confusing. The overlapping and intersecting layers of regulation often make it difficult to know whether or not your home improvement is following code or not. For example, while your municipal building code might allow for residential solar panels, the homeowners’ association of your neighborhood might have restrictions against solar panels and how they affect the “aesthetics” of the neighborhood. 

Another problem with building codes is related to differing standards across the layers of regulation. The ICC 700-2012 National Green Building Standard is a rating and certification system approved by the American National Standards Institute. While this standard encourages increased environmental and health performance for residential buildings across the country, it often does not fall into line with local, county, and state building codes. This means that while there might be a national standard that promotes and consents to your building vision, you might actually be breaking code on a state or local or state level. 

This lack of clarity and ambiguous codes often leads to a grey area, where many sustainable building projects simply try to stay off the radar of local building regulators who might give them trouble. In the worst cases, local building codes are often completely outdated and haven’t been restructured or renovated to take into account more sustainable technologies that are gradually becoming mainstream in the construction industry. 

For example, ten states in the country, including New York and Minnesota, have building codes that continue to treat greywater as septic (see related story on greywater). This essentially means that greywater cannot legally be recycled by homes looking to increase the efficiency of their water use. In this case, the building code actively prohibits sustainable building techniques from being implemented. 

While the EPA has published a Sustainable Design and Green Building Toolkit for Local Governments, the adoption of green building standards across the thousands of local building codes is still proving to be a slow process. 

Building codes across the country often only encourages homeowners and contractors to implement only the minimum standard. For example, while many building codes will require standards for some level of energy efficiency of home appliances, very few of those building standards will require new appliances to meet the Energy Star standards, which are at the forefront of energy efficiency ratings. 

As sustainable construction has increased in popularity, the good news is that local, regional, and statewide building codes are starting to reflect the growth in homeowner demand for more sustainable and healthy homes. Change at the building code level is slow, but it has the potential to drive people towards more healthy and sustainable homes. Below, we look at three examples of building codes that have done just that. 

Solar Panels in California

In the spring of 2018, the California Energy Commission passed a resolution that makes solar panels obligatory for all new home construction. The 5-0 unanimous vote means that every new home built after January 1st, 2020 will require solar panels. This example of a state building code that actively pushes for the adoption of sustainable building standards in the form of renewable residential energy, which will be mandatory for single-family homes and apartments and condominium complexes of three stories or less. 

This building code, far from creating an extra financial burden for homeowners, will actually save them money. The California authorities found that solar power is cost-effective across all climate zones in the state. The state estimates that while a solar panel system will add $40 per month to a 30-year mortgage, the homeowner will save an average of $80 per month on utility bills. 

Bullitt Centre in Seattle, Washington

In Seattle, Washington, The Bullitt Centre is one of the most energy-efficient and sustainable office buildings in the world. It is equipped with solar panels, a green roof, passive solar design, and composting toilets. One of the most unique aspects of this building, however, is much of the surface of the building is covered with floor-to-ceiling windows that automatically close and open to regulate the indoor temperature of the building. 

While the local building codes of Seattle have restrictions on the maximum permitted height for each floor, the builders and architects were able to advocate for more flexibility from local regulatory agents. Eventually, the building was allowed to add up to three feet for each floor in order to increase the passive solar heating capabilities of the building, while also allowing for more natural light and thus reduce the need for electrical lighting. 

While the Bullitt Centre is not a residential building, the flexibility allowed by local regulators to permit sustainable design elements to be incorporated into the construction process offers guidance for how local building codes can allow for sustainable construction to become more mainstream.

Green Building Ordinance in Gainesville, Florida

Way back in 2002, a Gainesville, Florida building code was passed by the local government to “promote energy-efficient construction and design practices through incentive-based rewards for private sector developers and mandatory compliance for city-owned facilities.” The Gainesville building code is unique in that it includes several economic incentives for homeowners to opt for sustainable, healthy, and energy-efficient construction methods. 

Specifically, the city government offers fast-track permitting, along with a 50% reduction in the building permit fee, for building permits that meet sustainable building codes. While the green standards in the building code are not mandatory, the extra-economic incentives and the fast-track permitting have led to significant growth in energy-efficient projects being built in the region—so much so that a 2009 case study reported that, “Green building is evolving from a niche market into a national norm.” Incentivizing the adoption of sustainable building projects is a proven strategy to increase the adoption of more sustainable building techniques. 

So What Does This Mean for Homeowners? 

Not a lot: homeowners typically do not have to deal with building codes, unless you are pushing the limits on conventional building standards with things like composting toilets. We can only encourage building codes to improve and imagine a day when all design and construction is sustainable because it simply makes sense. For home professionals, it’s important to be familiar with local buildings codes, and even use your influence to help improve them when the time comes. 

Disclaimer: This article does not constitute a product endorsement however Rise does reserve the right to recommend relevant products based on the articles content to provide a more comprehensive experience for the reader.Last Modified: 2021-07-09T10:42:38+0000
Tobias Roberts

Article by:

Tobias Roberts

Tobias runs an agroecology farm and a natural building collective in the mountains of El Salvador. He specializes in earthen construction methods and uses permaculture design methods to integrate structures into the sustainability of the landscape.