The foxes are writing building codes for henhouses

Lloyd Alterlloydalter October 28, 2019

Hammurabi's building code
CC BY 2.0 Hammurabi’s building code/ ctj71081 on flickr

A secret deal lets the homebuilders dominate the committees that write the building codes for housing.

Building Codes have been around since the time of Hammurabi and Deuteronomy, and have always been contentious, but became particularly so when they moved from being just about not killing people, about safety standards, to having other goals, like energy conservation.

Most building codes today start with the poorly named International Code Council (ICC), which is not even national; it’s a non-profit organization in Washington that “develops model codes and standards used worldwide to construct safe, sustainable, affordable and resilient structures.” They make recommendations that are often ignored and not implemented in state and local codes (like the one that sprinklers should be mandatory). That’s because local builders’ associations would fight these changes at the local level.Now Christopher Flavelle of the New York Times reports that there was a secret deal between the National Association of Homebuilders (NAHB) and the ICC that gave the builders four out of the eleven seats on the committee that sets the standards, in exchange for industry support at the local and state levels. And voila: upgrades stopped happening. According to Flavelle:

While four seats is a minority on the two committees, which focus on residential building codes, the bloc of votes makes it tougher to pass revisions that the industry opposes. Before the homebuilders gained seats on the committee that handles energy, for example, the energy efficiency of those building codes increased 32 percent over six years, according to a federal analysis. After the industry’s influence expanded, that number was less than 3 percent over the same amount of time.

Right now, the industry is fighting changes requiring better insulation in attics and air ducts, a huge source of heat loss in homes where ducts run in the attic. (See Allison Bailes on why ducts shouldn’t even be allowed in attics because of the heat loss). They are rejecting the idea of requiring that every house have the wiring for charging an electric vehicle, which is really nothing more than a 220 volt, 40 amp outlet like you have for a dryer. They fought triple-glazed windows in cold climate zones, high efficiency water heaters and provision for future rooftop solar installations.

Stairs and baths are a lot more of a danger than fire

© Stairs and baths are a lot more of a danger than fire/ ICC

They are also fighting requirements for grab bars in baths and showers, and changes in the rise and run of stairs to make them shallower and easier to climb, both measures which would make it easier and safer to age in place. The Code Commission notes that these are the two spots that cause the most falls, and they are expensive: “The societal cost of these injuries, plus about two and a half times additional, medically treated injuries, was (for 2010) about 20 billion dollars for US bathtubs and showers and about 93 billion dollars for US stairs with the greatest risk for both being in homes.”

But according to Flavelle in the Times,

The homebuilding industry says it opposes proposals that would make houses more expensive, pricing people out of the market. Supporters of the changes say they would more than pay for themselves over time with lower energy bills and reduced likelihood of damage in the event of floods or other disasters.

Supporters of the changes also know who pays in the end.

Advocates for tougher building codes say the effects of decisions like these will be felt for generations as global warming leads to more powerful storms and higher risk of damage to property.

People who worry about the aging population should also be incensed about this, but it’s not just the old that fall. Grab bars in bathrooms should be mandatory for everyone everywhere; people of all ages slip. Shallower stairs mean fewer falls.

Hammurabi code

Hammurabi code/Public Domain

Hammurabi’s code started with:

If a builder builds a house for someone, and does not construct it properly, and the house which he built falls in and kills its owner, then that builder shall be put to death.

It, like most building codes, were about standards of personal safety, about people getting killed and injured. Slips and falls are definitely in Hammurabi territory when the evidence is there that these changes would save lives.

But in coming years, design and planning for resilience, for insulation, for resistance to hurricanes, not to mention fires, are becoming issues of life and death. Instead of addressing these issues, we have the fox writing the building codes for the henhouse.