Let’s Build Better Sooner Rather Than Later

Todd Deger

Associate Editor

Loyola University Chicago School of Law, JD 2023

“A building is only built once.”

So writes Ellen Vaughan, Policy Director at the Environmental and Energy Study Institute (“EESI”), and Jim Turner, former Chief Counsel at the EESI. The consequences of new construction can last for the entire life of that building and beyond. Just how and with what materials a building is constructed impacts energy, environment, resilience, and safety as well as cost effectiveness, functionality, accessibility, productivity, and overall sustainability. The how of building is an incredibly important part of the life of residential and commercial builds which can only be affected prior to the start of the entire process.

The Whole Building Design Guide, is an online design resource for a wide range of building-related design guidance, criteria, and technology. The Federal Energy Management Program (“FEMP”) views it as one of the primary resources for anyone attempting to build in compliance with the FEMP. In their 2013 report, “The Value and Impact of Building Codes”, Vaughan and Turner lay out the history of building codes, their existence as living documents, and current challenges and opportunities that face the code community.

Building codes are part of human civilization

Vaughan and Turner point out that the Code of Hammurabi is the world’s first recognizable building code (see §§ 228–235). This code was simply a criminal statute that could result in death for poor craftmanship that harmed others. Several tragic events throughout history such as the fires in Rome (64 CE), London (1666 CE), Chicago (1871 CE), and Boston (1872 CE) have each inspired leaders, designers, and builders to search for new regulations. Whenever human civilization responds to a preventable accident, there is an opportunity for new codes and regulations that will prevent the further loss of human life.

Although automatic fire safety sprinkler systems have existed since the 1870’s thanks to the work of Philip Pratt, the National Fire Protection Association (“NFPA”) and their published Codes did not require automatic sprinkler systems until 2006. Between creation and wholesale adoption, over a century of fires, big and small, happened across the country. While “moving at the speed of government” is a somewhat well-known phrase, isn’t thirteen decades a little long when we’re talking about the health and safety of creatures that live for a century at best?

Why don’t we regulate more, faster?

Vaughan and Turner write that there is significant personal and political sentiment against the intrusion of government into the private sector. This includes matters of health and safety. Private sector builders do not have a personal vendetta against their neighbors leading safe lives, however there is an apparent regulatory burden felt by contractors whenever an organization such as the Federal Energy Management Program or a newly published version of a Code from the NFPA attempts to change how builders would otherwise construct a building. No one enjoys someone peeking over their shoulder while they are at work.

While this sentiment is a valid one, builders are in an interesting position in our society. Their work is what makes society possible for the rest of us. Buildings are a bedrock foundation on which our lives are built and what constitutes a proper “building” is constantly changing. These changes include not only basic structural and safety requirements, but energy efficiency as well. To that point, in a 2012 Consumers Union survey done jointly with the Building Codes Assistance Project, an overwhelming percentage of respondents placed a high value on strong building codes. Eighty-two percent of homeowners surveyed felt they have a right to a home that meets minimum energy standards. At the same time, seventy-four percent felt that codes add to the purchase price of a new home. However, seventy-nine percent said that they would rather pay slightly more for a new home and have the affordable, predictable operating costs and energy bills that come with a home built up to the modern standards of building and energy codes.

Making code compliance and high performance building profitable for all parties

Since their report in 2013, the Safe Building Code Incentive Act of 2015 (“the Act”) has been enacted. This legislation increases the maximum contributions for a major disaster to an amount equal to four percent of the estimated amount of grants under the Act. This would allow Code requirements to be used more prolifically in rebuilding homes in locations where people already live after their homes are damaged or destroyed in some disaster that occurs there. Jimi Grande, chairman of the BuildStrong Coalition and senior vice president of federal and political affairs for the National Association of Mutual Insurance Companies, said that the legislation is intended to encourage state lawmakers throughout the entire United States to put the power of modern building science to work for both homeowners and business owners, such as the contractors building the homes they live in.

While many builders work diligently to meet the Code, not all do so. Vaughan and Turner suggest a systemic plan review and well-trained inspectors that can detect unintentional lapses caused by a lack of knowledge or mistakes by either the designer or the builders. It is important to have a budget and a plan to keep the numerous jurisdictions’ building permitting and inspection process up to the level of the most recent code. Budgeting is the key issue here, as building and energy codes have already been enacted and simply require the resources to enforce them.

The building codes community must think about its history, where it is now, and where it wants to be in the future. Vaughan and Turner place high importance on the creative imaginings of time travelers. If someone were to move forward twenty or thirty years, it is their hope that codes have led to dramatic improvements that help solve our current problems. This hope stands in defiance to the slow implementation of things such as automatic fire sprinklers.