Inside Baseball No More--Why The Building Code Adoption Process Is Critical To Sustainability

A lot of attention has been paid to creating a greener building stock by incorporating green building practices into building codes.  The development of the International Green Construction Code is just one example.

However, there are two primary components to every regulation--policy and process.  Both components are critical to acheiving regulatory goals. Good laws that are not implemented and enforced might as well not exist, and bad laws which are well implemented create a different, but equally bad, outcome. 

The process for approving building codes is arcane at best and impenetrable at worst. To those interested in sustainability, code process may seem like the ultimate "inside baseball" information, like knowing what the Lou Brock's 1967 out statistic was--simply not vital to understanding baseball as a whole.  HB 377, a law signed by Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett this week demonstrates how how process changes can impact green building and energy efficiency policy. 

 Generally, the process for adopting building codes is as follows:

1.  The local or state government enacts enabling legislation requiring a building code, often incorporating the International Code Council's model code.  

2.  The International Code Council updates their model building codes on a regular basis, once every three years.

3.  The state or local government has some mechanism, either automatic or through an approval process, for updating its building code to the new version. 

Depending on what level of authority is provided to local governments with respect to their building codes, local governments may adopt additional or different changes to the building code requirements.

Pennsylvania has a state wide building code which, until this week, was an "opt-out" model.  Updates to the International Construction Code were automatically incorporated into the Pennsylvania code unless provisions were specifically rejected by a Governnor-appointed council comprised of builders, architects, code officials and so on. 

The bill enacted this week switches the code adoption to an "opt-in" model.  Any changes to the construction code must be approved by a super-majority vote by the council, otherwise the prior code remains in effect.  In addition, the law adds an additional seat to the 19 member council for:

A GENERAL CONTRACTOR FROM AN ASSOCIATION REPRESENTING THE NONRESIDENTIAL CONSTRUCTION INDUSTRY WHO HAS RECOGNIZED ABILITY AND EXPERIENCE IN THE CONSTRUCTION OF NONRESIDENTIAL BUILDINGS

Policy watchers, like Penn Future , the Delaware Valley Green Building Council, and the Northeast Energy Efficiency Partnerships , anticipate that the super-majority vote of the council will make enacting updates of the ICC very difficult, and that the extra seat for the general contractor will bias the council against upgrading the stringency of the building code. This, of course, includes code changes for greater energy efficiency requirements and incorporating green building practices.

HB 377 said nothing about energy efficiency or green building.  Nonetheless, the changes to the building code adoption process creates a potentially significant barrier to a greener building stock in Pennsylvania.  On a 20 person board, It would require 13 votes to put a code change into effect, and each change must be lobbied for separately.  

Do you know what the code adoption process is in your state or municipality?  Are there any proposed changes?  Let GBLB know what you find out.  It might surprise you.    

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Marc - April 28, 2011 12:04 PM

I've been doing a lot of research on building codes lately, and the opt-out model you described is probably the minority for state governments. Connecticut, for example, is still working from the 2005 I-codes, as is DC. I cop to not having done a survey of all of them, but states tend to operate from outdated codes until they affirmatively adopt them. Given the sclerosis at the code council level, this can mean the relevant codes go without updates for many years.

The research I've been doing relates to EV infrastructure deployment and whether building codes generally inhibit or promote it. There's a spectrum between permissiveness and promotional that I've found, but no building codes are outright prohibitive of it. The problem is that, you're right, building codes constitute one of the most inside-baseball areas of the law that I've seen. In doing research there was almost no attention paid at the academic level to them.

Thanks for making use of the term 'inside baseball' to refer to it. I'll probably add that to a powerpoint presentation I'm giving, one element of which describes the opaque nature of the building code process.

Stuart Kaplow - April 28, 2011 1:05 PM

Great blog. And you are dead on correct that matters of code and the like vary from place to place. In Maryland action was required by the state legislature to adopt the International Green Construction Codeâ„¢. It was only weeks ago that the Maryland legislature did approve the IGCCmaking Maryland the first state in the country to authorize use of the IGCC and enable local governments to adopt the IGCC for private and public construction. LEED is not dead by any means, I do think the IGCC will advance the future of green building.

Marc - April 28, 2011 1:29 PM

revising and extending: there has been plenty of academic attention paid to *energy efficiency building codes* of late. but the more mundane stuff like the NEC and non-IgCC I-codes has gotten almost no attention.

Shawn Martin - April 29, 2011 9:36 PM

I for one, am thrilled that the development of the IGCC and IECC has finally caused the sustainability community to take notice of the importance of the building codes. The term "inside baseball" is probably quite true, but I assure you it is entirely unintentional. The code development community has been attempting to reach out to other groups for years to get wider involvement, but has had little success. Thankfully this is starting to change.

With all of the interest, I'm now working on a webinar on the very basics of the codes, and the processes used to develop them. Hope to have it up in the next few weeks. Marc - I'd love to compare notes with you.

Isaac Elnecave - June 22, 2011 4:47 PM

Unfortunately, there are efforts in several states to rollback recent gains in energy codes across the country. In Michigan, there is legislation to change the code update cycle from 3 to 6 years.

http://www.legislature.mi.gov/(S(5stver55reqmru45kyevdnms))/mileg.aspx?page=getObject&objectName=2011-HB-4561

In Wisconsin, there is a budget amendment that would make updating the residential code a near impossibility as it would require an update that increases cost to build a home by $1,000 to be enacted legislatively as opposed to going through the typical administrative process.

Additional rollback efforts exist in Maine and a bullet was dodged in Montana. As long as very conservative, anti regulatory legislatures exist (particularly in the Midwest), rollbacks will be the key problem facing energy codes.

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