The Climate is Changing. So Why Aren’t State Building Codes?

From dramatic wildfires in the west to devastating hurricanes in Texas, Puerto Rico, and elsewhere, "once-in-a-lifetime" storms are becoming the new normal. We need to have strong and resilient communities – especially buildings-- that can weather the increasing number of climate-related storms, fires, floods, and extreme heat and cold temperatures we fear will keep coming.

 A key part of that equation is a strong building code, one that requires construction practices that help ensure that new buildings are resilient in the face of these events. While building codes do not prevent disasters from happening, they help buildings and their occupants better withstand extreme conditions and also can help reduce the damage and the corresponding cleanup costs after disasters strike. And yet a recent study of 18 coastal states by the Insurance Institute for Business and Home Safety (IBHS) found that an alarming number of states have recently taken steps to relax their building codes rather than strengthen them, by taking steps to update codes less frequently or make codes less stringent.

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What’s the building code, anyway?

Building codes have been an important part of construction practice for literally thousands of years. The first known written code was established almost 4,000 years ago in Babylonia (now present-day Iraq) and doled out some pretty harsh penalties for unscrupulous builders. Penalties ranged from correcting shoddy construction at the builder’s expense (sounds reasonable) to the death penalty for a builder whose building collapses and kills the owner (and the same applied for a builder’s son if the owner’s son is killed - talk about construction risk!).

In more modern times, the code has evolved into a mechanism to ensure buildings are constructed in a way that protects the health and safety of building occupants by setting regulations for things like fire prevention, earthquake resilience, electrical and plumbing requirements, and my personal favorite-- which I’ll talk more about below-- energy efficiency. Local municipalities and states adopt codes for their specific jurisdictions, which are generally based on model codes developed and updated every few years.

The good news: we know strong building codes reduce damage and save lives. An IBHS study conducted after Hurricane Charley in 2004 found that improvements to the building code adopted in response to the damage done by Hurricane Andrew resulted in a 60 percent reduction in the number of residential property damage claims and a 42 percent reduction in the cost of those claims. But recent legislative action in storm-prone states including Florida, South Carolina, and Louisiana has attempted to make the building codes weaker, not stronger, largely at the behest of home builders who see the upfront costs of these life-saving updates as “too expensive.”  

But looking at only the costs during construction is a misleading way to think about the code since it ignores the cost of owning and operating the building over the long term. What’s truly too expensive is the cost of a weak building code. If the building suffers damage in an extreme storm, it’s the building owner (or the insurance company) that is left footing the bill. Weather-related disasters in the U.S. caused more than $300 billion in damages in 2017 alone, making it the most costly year on record. And generally, places with historically weaker building codes, like Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, fare a lot worse than those whose codes have kept pace with advances in technology.

A strong building code, with requirements like designing for higher wind speeds or mandating more insulation to keep homes comfortable during dangerous heat waves or cold snaps, could literally mean the difference between life and death. And advanced planning for hazard mitigation saves money: a 2017 study found that the nation saves $4 for every dollar invested in select improvements that exceed the model building code.

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What does this have to do with energy?

Though the IBHS study didn’t focus specifically on energy codes (which are a type of building code that specifically regulates how much energy a building uses), there’s an important link between energy efficiency and resiliency in the face of disaster. A home with more insulation, better windows, and a tighter building envelope will stay warmer in the winter and cooler in the summer, even if there’s a power outage and no electricity for heating or cooling. Efficient buildings are cooler in summer even without air conditioning. During Hurricane Irma in Florida, several disabled seniors died in a nursing home because the air conditioning failed in the power outage that followed.

And even more than that, the building energy code gives us an important tool to help stop climate change in its tracks, not just respond to its effects. The building energy code is aimed at cutting energy waste within our homes and offices, thereby reducing the need to burn fossil fuels to generate the energy needed to run them – and also avoiding the associated harmful carbon pollution fueling climate change.

Building energy codes have proven to be an incredibly effective tool to reduce energy use in homes and businesses, saving Americans money and reducing harmful pollution. A home built to the 2012 code uses about half of the energy as a standard home constructed in 1975 –and there’s still room for improved efficiency.

Unfortunately, the energy code is also at risk in a number of places, where builders and others are often arguing that it’s just “too costly” to update the code to the most recent version (which was just updated in 2018). But we’re not deterred. We’re working in states across the country to make sure that residents and businesses benefit from advances in technology that will save them money on their energy bills, and may even save their lives. Americans across the country should join us and question their local elected officials about why, with a changing climate, they are not doing more to protect their communities by adopting stronger building codes.

About the Authors

Lauren Urbanek

Senior Energy Policy Advocate, Climate & Clean Energy Program

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