Sustainable Housing Advocacy: How To Challenge Unfair Building Codes
Let's imagine the following scenario: a young family purchases an older, slightly rundown home and wants to invest in a significant retrofit in the hopes of lowering their carbon footprint, increasing the energy efficiency of their home, and saving on their monthly energy bill. First, they hire an architectural firm specializing in sustainable home renovations. Then, they develop a plan to reduce their home's energy requirements dramatically. At this point, a local building inspector informs the family that their renovation plans will run afoul of the building codes. As it turns out, the extra width of the walls needed for increased high-efficiency insulation would lower their ceilings to slightly under the required minimum. When faced with the local building code's exacting standards, the couple eventually abandons their renovation plans.
What Are The Challenges Associated With Conventional Building Codes?
Building codes are designed and put into place to protect public health, safety, and the general welfare of people who inhabit their homes. But, unfortunately, building codes are often behind the ball when it comes to staying up to date with the sustainable building industry's leaps forward.
David Eisenberg, director of the DCAT, the Development Center for Appropriate Technology, wrote recently in an article that he believes that "building codes have continuously evolved toward the use of higher levels of technology, and almost exclusively, industrially processed materials. This drives the system continually away from low-impact, local alternatives and towards high-impact, less-sustainable materials, and systems." He says that most building codes do not emphasize where resources emanate, whether they're used efficiently, or whether they can be reused or repurposed at the end of the building's useful life. Eisenberg that building codes generally ignore environmental impacts of resource extraction or depletion, transport, manufacturing processes, disposal after use, the embodied energy of materials, or any contribution to global warming.
Fortunately, recent initiatives by the United States Green Building Council, the International Green Construction Code, and local communities and projects are forcing municipal and state governments to revisit their building codes. The arrival of more sustainably focused building codes erases the barriers and obstacles that innovative green building techniques and practices have faced in the past. Moreover, green building codes in some regions of the country are helping to hasten the transition towards more energy-efficient, healthy, and sustainable buildings.
In the following sections, we will look at a few initiatives from across the United States where individuals, communities, and organizations have actively challenged outdated building codes that hindered sustainable building strategies.
Tiny Homes for Seniors Looking to Downsize
Thousands of senior citizens from around the continent are attracted to Tucson, Arizona's permanent sunny days and warm temperatures. As a result, dozens of retirement communities have popped up in Pima County (where Tucson is located). This segment of the population represents an integral part of the local economy.
Recognizing that hundreds of retirees were looking to downsize as they enter retirement, local officials and politicians in Pima County came together to alter specific segments of the building code. Specifically, changes were made to the building code and zoning laws to be friendlier toward constructing tiny homes and tiny home community development.
The Pima County building department agreed to waive particular building code minimum standards to accommodate tiny houses. The County reasoned that some minimum standards in their current code were written to abate slum housing and pertained to fire safety issues. However, since tiny homes are significantly different than slum housing, the County decided on the following code adjustments:
- Minimum dimensions on the dwelling, room, ceiling height, windows, door, fixture, accessibility do not apply.
- Ladders may replace stairways to lofts
- Lofts may have reduced fall protection
- Fewer electrical circuits are allowed to reflect lower loads
- Alternative compliance with NFPA 501(National Fire Protection Agency) for mechanical and electrical systems is recognized
These fundamental changes in the local building code opened up housing alternatives for senior citizens looking to downsize in their retirement and offers a sustainable housing option for thousands of area residents. In addition, since the square footage of a home affects the overall environmental impact, allowing smaller houses is a proven strategy to reduce our dwellings' carbon footprint.
Guerrilla Grey Water Recycling
Until recently, almost all building codes across the country failed to differentiate between greywater and black water. For definition purposes, greywater is any water exiting a home that doesn't contain human urine or feces, such as water from sinks, showers, dishwashers, and washing machines. Blackwater is the discharge from flush toilets. Building codes required both black water and grey water to be sent directly to the sewer system or septic tank.
In 1998, however, Val Little of the Water Conservation Alliance of Southern Arizona (Water CASA) found that over 13 percent of all households in her region were illegally recycling greywater. Little recognized that greywater from homes constituted a valuable resource for irrigating areas around the house in dry and drought-prone southern Arizona. Since the building codes of that time expressly prohibited reutilizing that water, she organized her community to challenge those restrictive codes. As a result of her advocacy efforts, people in southern Arizona today can follow government guidelines to install residential greywater systems without the need for permits, fees, or inspections.
The changes adopted by Arizona regarding greywater recycling were eventually followed by other dry western states such as New Mexico, Wyoming, and California, thus radically reducing the amount of water utilized for landscape irrigation.
How Can Building Codes Advance LEED Certification?
LEED is a nationally recognized building certification program run under the auspices of the US Green Building Council (USGBC). While it offers voluntary sustainability certification for residential and commercial buildings, it is also active in implementing green building codes across the County. The USGBC has aggressively supported the International Green Construction Code. This code gives the design and construction industry the best, most effective way to deliver sustainable, resilient, high-performance buildings.
A pilot program implemented by the USGBC is attempting to simplify certification. It allows homes built according to California's energy and green building codes (CALGreen) to receive pre-approval for significant streamlining of fundamental LEED requirements. So, in California, duplication of effort will be eliminated for homeowners who want to receive LEED certification and meet the CALGreen code. This pilot program reinforces the recently implemented statewide green building code by allowing Alternative Compliance Pathways (ACPs) on LEED v4 projects.
How Can Homeowners Change Building Codes?
Do you live in an area where building codes are unfriendly towards tiny homes, energy efficiency renovations, or other sustainable building aspects? If so, there are many things you can do to get involved in advocacy efforts, like:
- Educate yourself on leading certification programs such as Passive House and LEED and the society-wide benefits these building certifications offer.
- Organize neighborhood meetings to discuss how sustainable building techniques could benefit individuals, families, and the community.
- Request a meeting with your local building department to learn about the codes and zoning laws that are in place. Specifically, ask about certain aspects of the building code that you find are unfriendly towards sustainable building practices. In many cases, local building codes might be outdated. However, local officials might be open to updating those codes if there is citizen support.
- Consider working with an architect, energy advisor, or building team. These professionals can help explain how specific building code changes could reduce energy usage and provide other society-wide benefits.
Advocacy is an essential component of change. Our buildings—and our building codes—need to change to improve our health, wealth, and the planet.