More Resilient Buildings Will Save Lives and Money
The Inflation Reduction Act includes $1 billion to help states implement modern building codes. The CEO of the International Code Council outlines both obvious and underappreciated reasons they are essential.
The movement to create the most efficient, safe and resilient built environment got a big push from the inclusion of $1 billion in the Inflation Reduction Act to help state and local governments implement and adopt modern codes. Applications for the first $400 million opened in September.
The federal investment matters because, on average, Americans spend 90 percent of their time indoors. The safety of the buildings they live and work in is determined by how they were built, but not every community enforces the same standards for construction. Even at a time of increased attention on energy conservation, indoor air quality and climate impacts, some jurisdictions have no building codes or enforcement at all.
In the European Union, Eurocodes set standards for the design and construction of buildings in all member countries, but there is no such federal authority in the U.S. Instead, building codes are adopted at local or state levels. These are almost always based on models developed by private organizations.
Advocacy for code requirements relating to energy efficiency and other “green building” strategies has met pushback from the construction industry, and some in government, on the basis of increased cost. This concern has been amplified by a shortage of skilled workers and higher interest rates and material costs.
The earliest code efforts came from the insurance industry early in the 20th century, with the aim of making buildings more fireproof. Over time, three regional organizations came into existence, each with their own model code. In 1994, they came together to form the International Code Council (ICC). The ICC has developed 18 model standards that are the basis for codes in jurisdictions throughout the U.S. and 100 countries around the world.
Dominic Sims, the council's CEO, has been with ICC for 20 of its 30 years. In a Governing interview, he talks about both the short- and long-term benefits of updated building codes.
Governing: How do state and local governments use your model codes and recommended safety standards?
Dominic Sims: States have the authority to adopt and enforce building codes. It's not really a federal power. Where there is a patchwork of codes across the country, it makes it very, very challenging for folks to build with any type of consistency.
We ask state and local governments to adopt our codes and standards as their local building regulations. That helps develop a degree of consistency from place to place and also ensures that lessons we learn in one community are shared with other communities in other states.
Governing: How important is the billion dollars in the Inflation Reduction Act allocated to help assist in the implementation of modern codes?
Dominic Sims: In my lifetime, I've never seen anything quite as valuable that could help a community that needs to update their codes and develop the infrastructure to apply those codes. It will help offset the cost of both adoption and implementing them.
There are many incentives to building better and building in accordance with current codes and standards. [Beyond insurance premiums,] it's also valuable from a risk reduction perspective, from a health perspective. If there's a presidential declaration for a disaster, the federal government will increase a community's reimbursement if you've adopted the latest international codes.
If you build it better, it's going to last longer. A study by the National Institute of Building Sciences demonstrates that for every dollar that's invested in building codes a community could save up to $11 in damage repairs.
After [Hurricane] Andrew, Florida enacted a new code, the Florida Building Code. Since that time, thousands of homes have been built under the newer codes. The University of Florida recently did a study that compared homes built before the new code to those that were built after, and the difference in survivability and damage between older Florida homes and newer Florida homes is just remarkable.
Other considerations aside, a worker shortage must be overcome to bring more buildings up to 21st-century standards.
Governing: When you started, there were states that didn't have building codes at all. How has that changed?
Dominic Sims: Every state in the nation now uses some form of the international codes as their model codes, but there are still places in the U.S. at the local level that don't apply or enforce building codes. What we’re focusing on now is trying to get every community covered by modern building codes.
Governing: What about existing buildings?
Dominic Sims: Existing buildings are tough. Businesses and people have made investments and oftentimes they're not anticipating making changes to those buildings unless it's routine maintenance.
What we're learning, though, is that as our building stock in the United States ages we have to pay more attention. There was a partial building collapse [less than a month ago] in New York City. The horrific building collapse [in 2021] in Surfside, Fla., underscored the need to build more awareness about existing buildings. There’s a lot of discussion about how communities can incentivize retrofitting of existing buildings.
Governing: Insurability is becoming a big consideration. Can code adoption help with that?
Dominic Sims: Yes. We work with an organization called Verisk. They rate communities' abilities to implement and enforce building codes, and insurance companies use that data to underwrite insurance or set premiums.
Both Verisk and the Insurance Institute for Business and Home Safety have information about the effectiveness of codes, sometimes down to the ZIP code level. That’s an opportunity for the public to ask if the codes in their communities are up to date. Are the resources there to effectively apply and enforce codes?
Governing: What keeps states behind the curve?
Dominic Sims: Ohio, Florida, California, New York and Virginia are examples of states that have statewide codes that generally stay up to speed, at least within one cycle of a new edition of the international codes.
States or locations that lag far behind find it difficult to catch up. There are some places in the country that are still using the 2009 edition of our code. If and when they update to the 2024 edition, it's going to be more difficult because so many changes have taken place.
Governing: What kinds of changes lie ahead?
Dominic Sims: We're starting to look at how AI could help builders and designers and code officials. Robotics and off-site construction are components that are going to go into the industry. Building components and systems that are built in the factory produce less waste. With the workforce challenges we have these days, factory manufacturing in a controlled environment is a very real benefit. We’re trying to develop standards that help reduce commercial barriers to off-site construction.
Our International Energy Conservation Code has an appendix on net-zero homes. Tracking adoptions might tell us what kind of uptake we're seeing in that net-zero space. The construction industry is very, very slow to change.
Governing: Any last thoughts?
Dominic Sims: Building safety is not always on top of mind until after something happens — a fire or a building collapse or a natural disaster that impacts the building space in a community.
It's always better for an elected official to be able to stand up and let the community know that government has taken the necessary steps to make sure that it has the safest built environment possible. One of the ingredients for this is adopting current codes. We're here to help governments do that.