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Sustainability and the Building Codes

I start with this premise: Building codes are based on a societal decision that it is important to protect the health and safety of people from the built environment. If, inadvertently, the codes are actually jeopardizing the health and safety of everyone on the planet by ignoring their impacts on resources and the environment, resulting in the destruction of the ecosystems that sustain us, we are obligated to re-invent the codes with that larger perspective.

This larger view of the consequences of codes provides a crucial and typically missing context for looking at the regulation of design, construction and development. In one sense, building codes embody our accumulated knowledge and understanding of materials and how to safely use them to build structures. In another way, though, they exist as a disembodied data set of definitions, prescriptions, rules, and tables, evolved through a process which has a strong internal logic, but ignores the consequences which fall outside the concern for the physical health and safety of people in or near individual buildings.

Building codes have continuously evolved toward the use of higher levels of technology, and almost exclusively, industrially-processed materials. This has greatly amplified the unintended consequences of building. Codes and regulations lack mechanisms to address this problem, and the industrial basis for product and code development drives the system continually away from low-impact, local alternatives and towards high-impact, less-sustainable materials and systems.

Though the consequences are enormous, building codes ignore where resources come from, how efficiently they're used, or whether they can be reused at the end of the useful life of a structure. They ignore environmental impacts of resource acquisition or depletion, transportation, manufacturing processes, disposal after use, embodied energy of materials, or contribution to global warming. Though resource issues are often identified as being at the heart of developing sustainable patterns for building and development, they are totally absent from building codes.

Why is this important? Buildings consume approximately 40% of the materials and resources entering the global economy each year. They account for one-fourth of the world's wood harvest, two-fifths of its material and energy usage, and one-sixth of its fresh water usage. In the past 100 years the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has risen 27%, one quarter of which has come from burning fossil fuels just to provide energy for buildings. During the same period, the world lost 20% of its forests. This is at a point when only two billion of the nearly six billion people on the planet live and work in modern resource-intensive buildings. The projection is that in fifty years, it will be four times that many. (Figures from World Watch Paper #124.)

Apply the level of resource intensity that is, essentially, required by our modern building codes in the US to the world population and it is apparent that it's not even remotely possible to house that number of people in this manner, with the available resources. What do we do about that? One strategy would be to find ways to include non-manufactured, indigenous materials and building systems into the codes.

There is a long history of the battles between the building regulatory system and proponents of both traditional and improved low-cost, low-tech, and low-impact building systems. This is often in the shadow of indigenous buildings which are hundreds and even thousands of years old. How did the indigenous, natural or low-tech materials and building systems, which have been used for thousands of years, get relegated to the status of "alternative" materials and methods? In many climates, the indigenous buildings are far more comfortable and have far fewer negative impacts and costs than the modern buildings that have replaced them.

We have an obligation to manage our limited resources so that we proceed down a sustainable course... we do not have the option of "outlawing" the most sustainable approaches to building. Yet, the lack of a larger context in code development and application has allowed this regulatory type of "mismanagement" of resources to pass unnoticed and unquestioned for decades. These are the issues of the next century that will impose themselves on us whether we ignore them now or not.

The issues of sustainable building extend beyond these resource-based problems. They include the toxicity of the processes through which materials are extracted, manufactured, and used. There is also the question of treating nearly all buildings as though they require the same level of technological sophistication, regardless of use, location, owner preference, cost, or impact. If we truly believe that the preservation of health and safety is the real and legitimate purpose of building codes, then we must address these larger issues.

The process for change involves developing awareness of the real impacts and consequences of what codes demand in the design and construction of buildings. Modern building codes were initially developed by insurance interests, and have been influenced heavily by the industries that produce the materials and building systems which are regulated by the codes. But major insurance underwriters and re-insurers around the world are now recognizing the threat posed by global warming and how that relates to their exposure to risk.

Also encouraging is the development and increased adoption of model energy codes: they represent a basis for codes not strictly limited to the health and safety of the occupants of buildings. Model energy codes preserve health and welfare on a community or even larger level, rather than only for the individuals in the buildings. As we learn to factor this larger web of interrelationships into what we do, especially where the impact is so great, we will see large scale returns, even from incremental improvements.

The Development Center for Appropriate Technology (DCAT) is leading a team of organizations and individuals in focusing attention on the issue of sustainability and building codes. We also seek to foster support for a national partnership for research, testing, and development of low-impact building materials and systems, to bring them into more common and practical usage within building codes. Since these materials and systems often lack a developed "industry" or profit base for their development and promotion, they can't attract the type of investment that proprietary materials and systems do, to pay for extensive research and testing. This is a legitimate role for governmental support and an area that the insurance industry, with its concern about global climate change, also has reason to support.

The seriousness of this crisis has started to have an effect on the way the design and construction industries conduct their business. An excellent example is the process the Civil Engineering Research Foundation (CERF), an affiliate of the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), has undertaken to incorporate sustainable development principles into the full spectrum of activities related to civil engineering.

Changing the way buildings are designed and built starts with developing an awareness of the complexity of the relationships and impacts of what we do. While the challenges are of monumental proportions, we are not starting from zero in this endeavor. We must not be paralyzed by the difficulty of the task at hand, nor can we be lulled into thinking that it will happen without our commited, focused, long-term efforts.

This article is based on papers for the Joint Technical Meeting of the National Conference of States on Building Codes and Standards (NCSBCS) & the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) given on September 4, 1997 in Reston, Virginia; and for the Building Environment and Thermal Envelope Council (BETEC) Emerging Technologies Symposium - Sustainable Building Envelope Materials, given on November 19, 1997 in Washington DC.

David Eisenberg is Co-Director of the Development Center for Appropriate Technology in Tucson, Arizona. He is a co-author of The Straw Bale House book and numerous articles and papers on this and related subjects. He is leading a national effort to develop a sustainable context for building codes and to support the research, testing and development work to enable the widespread use of low-impact materials and methods of construction.

Development Center for Appropriate Technology (DCAT)
P.O. Box 27513
Tucson, Arizona 85726-7513
Phone 520-624-6628; Fax 520-798-3701

This article was previously published in issue #24 of The Last Straw, The Grassroots Journal of Straw Bale and Natural Building; HC 66 Box 119, Hillsboro NM 88042; ph 505-895-5400, fax 505-895-3326;,

One of the ways I describe appropriate technology is that it is the lowest level of technology that can be used to do well what needs to be done.

Of course it also has to be appropriate in terms of the origin of the technology, place of use, and many other factors. But the level of technology is of particular interest because we need to remember that we typically know little about the real consequences of our choices and actions. And the more complex the systems we develop and technologies we use, the less we know about the consequences.

That leads us back to using the least processed materials, simplest designs, etc., as long as they do what we need them to do.

Appropriate technology doesn't mean no-tech, low-tech, intermediate-tech, or high-tech... it really does depend on what you're doing, where you are, what and who it's for, and a whole host of other local and general factors related to labor, economics, resources, culture, etc. There are no universal solutions or quick, easy answers. But some things are obvious once you get out of the box — and materials like earth, earth and straw, straw, and lots of others make clear sense in the right circumstances.

We need to learn to use the resources we have in abundance, and which have the lowest impacts. Our cultural bias keeps us from thinking we have anything to learn from "primitive" building systems, though many are brilliant and elegant examples of appropriate technology.

— David Eisenberg


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