The Greening of America’s Building Codes

Building codes require that buildings be designed and constructed to ensure minimum health and safety standards. These codes have developed over centuries with the primary goal of protecting against the spread of fire. But building codes may actually be contributing to the fragility of the built environment as a whole. According to architect and author Aleksandra Jaeschke, today’s codes exhibit particular economic and technological biases that undermine environmental performance. In The Greening of America’s Building Codes: Promises and Paradoxes (Princeton Architectural Press, 2022), Jaeschke reveals how our current residential codes and design standards limit progress toward the attainment of environmental health, safety, and welfare at a planetary scale.

Consider the topic of energy. Today’s codes encourage the adoption of renewable and energy-saving technologies over passive conservation strategies. The focus on products with current green guidelines is evident in the emphasis on adding solar panels to augment operational energy supply versus implementing foliage-based shading to reduce energy demand.

To highlight this point, Jaeschke analyzed the Database of State Incentives for Renewables & Efficiency. “With a single exception—daylighting and solar-passive heating [are] mentioned once—passive design methods were not subsidized,” she writes. “It is impossible to receive a rebate to pay an architect for their environmentally driven design ingenuity.”

The building products addressed in most regulatory guides are established commercial materials produced by manufacturers who have a invested interest in their safety testing. Missing are countless natural materials, vernacular building elements, and non-commercial resources that have long been used in buildings.

Take straw bales, hemp, or other plant-based insulation materials. “As of today, no manufacturer can rate, and no licensed expert can verify, the quality of vegetative insulation,” writes Jaeschke. “Unrated and unverified, vegetation, however exceptional its performance, cannot be considered a viable option when following the performance compliance path offered by the Energy Code.” There are untold numbers of healthier, environmentally preferable materials that go unused simply because no one has paid for their certification—or because they have no manufacturer or trade association representing them.

Residential building codes attempt to strike an awkward balance between requiring a minimum number of operable windows and ensuring a tightly sealed envelope that minimizes the introduction of outside air while privileging mechanically supplied ventilation. Unfortunately, this trade-off often results in suboptimal levels of fresh air. Meanwhile, vegetated walls have demonstrated success in improving indoor air quality with plants, but such systems are not recognized by codes. “When mentioned in the code by their name, plants are simply considered a hazard or a nuisance,” writes Jaeschke.

Building codes’ stipulations for wastewater management are also restrictive. “The Plumbing Code does not mention composting toilets, and waterless toilets are prohibited,” she writes. And yet, these strategies can reduce wasted clean water and relieve pressure on stressed waste treatment systems.

Energy-saving incentives such as tax credits typically do not have a direct connection to built area—meaning that a McMansion is treated similarly to a tiny house despite its much more significant energy budget. “In fact, although household appliances continue to become more efficient, houses have grown bigger and more technology dependent,” Jaeschke writes. “In the end, the paradox is that these technological artifacts and the incentives that support them make us consume, waste, and pollute more.” Given our growing knowledge about effective ecological strategies, the codes lack the sophistication required to attain significant progress toward environmental goals.

When considered at a global scale, health, safety, and welfare are all environmental imperatives—not just requirements for human occupants of buildings. Without planetary health, safety, and welfare, there is no planet. Such a concept requires a fundamental shift in the logic and intentions of building codes and regulations. After all, buildings are not separate from nature, but part of the broader planetary ecology. “The greening of an old game won’t do it,” says Jaeschke. “It is time to get away from the rules that put us humans outside of nature. The first step toward this vital shift is to recircuit our mindsets.”

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2 thoughts on “The Greening of America’s Building Codes”

    • I heartily agree with the premise of your book; on my page about building codes at I write:

      Dealing with building codes can be a major hurdle for those who want to build with natural materials, especially if there is anything experimental about the design concept or building technology. I have rassled with this issue many times in my life. I have ignored the local building authorities and either been caught or felt deceptive. I have complied with local authorities and been forced to do things that I considered either of questionable value or in opposition to my intentions. Occasionally I have been glad that the code was there to point out a safe approach to some building problem. So I approach the issue of building codes with very mixed emotions.

      Building codes tend to be extremely specific about what materials may be used where and in what way. Little is really left to the discretion of the builder. Sure, design elements can vary, but they all must fit within certain parameters that regulate every aspect of building, from the nature of the foundation, to the size and placement of windows, to what materials may be used to create the shell. The Uniform Building Code and the International Residential Code does provide for the discretion of the inspector to allow different interpretations of the code, if he feels that the intent of the code is met. In reality this is rarely done, because there is a disincentive: anything that doesn’t come straight from “the book” could possibly come back to haunt him. His supervisor may not like it, or if there were a failure at some point, somebody might try to hold him liable. This degree of micro-management can easily squelch innovation in building technologies, innovation which is vital to evolving what I would call sustainable architecture.

      We have reached a critical point in the United States, where there are very few places left without mandatory building codes. We need to express our concerns to those making the decisions through letters, phone calls or attending any meetings that are scheduled around this issue. Our future is at stake.


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