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Resilient Codes Can Help Buildings Achieve Safe, Sustainable Tomorrow

May 4, 2022
To celebrate Building Safety Month this May, the International Code Council is stressing the important role that buildings can and must play in creating a more sustainable future.

By RYAN COLKER, Vice President of Innovation, International Code Council

As governments continue to race toward achieving the goals outlined in the Paris Agreement, it is now evident that the COVID-19 pandemic had the unexpected side effect of helping to lower global greenhouse gas emissions (GHG).

However, with more individuals beginning to re-engage in pre-pandemic activities, emissions are once again on the rise. Based on preliminary data for 2021, Rhodium Group estimates that U.S. economy-wide GHG emissions increased 6.2% relative to 2020, though emissions remained 5% below 2019 levels.

While historically, the building and construction industry has contributed around 40% of global emissions, the Global Alliance for Buildings and Construction found that buildings in 2020 were responsible for 37% of global emissions, 10% lower than in 2019, largely due to the pandemic. With the U.S. construction sector now forecast to grow by 8.8%, it is to be expected that the expansion will result in a surge of GHG emissions. Fortunately, the industry has been provided with the necessary tools and resources to make both an immediate and long-term impact on GHG emissions from the sector.

Building Codes Are the Foundation for a Resilient Community

In November 2021, the U.S. Congress passed the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA), allocating nearly $1.2 trillion in federal funds to necessary infrastructure projects across the country. Through the IIJA, state and local elected officials can update their jurisdiction’s infrastructure by constructing it to be sustainable and efficient for years to come.

While certain projects, such as investing in the renewable energy utility grid, might take years, there are other projects that can be implemented to have immediate effects on GHG emissions. For example, the IIJA makes federal funds available for the implementation of updated energy codes. Energy codes are a fundamental mechanism for driving reductions in energy use and GHG emissions. The U.S Department of Energy (DOE) found that from 2010 through 2040, energy codes will save U.S. home and business owners $138 billion and reduce emissions by 900 million metric tons (equivalent to the annual emissions of 227 coal fired power plants).

Energy codes such as the 2021 International Energy Conservation Code (IECC) provide an immediate pathway to increased sustainability, yielding energy savings of 9.4% and GHG savings of 8.7% over the 2018 edition, while also saving homeowners an average of $2,320 over the life of a typical mortgage. The IIJA will provide an unprecedented investment of $225 million in grants to states and localities through the DOE to support the implementation of updated energy codes.

Accomplishing Sustainability Through a Holistic Approach

Beyond adopting modern energy codes, communities should also consider their building safety strategy from a holistic viewpoint. Modern building codes and standards when adopted and implemented as a family of codes such as the International Codes (I-Codes) create an ecosystem of building policies that supports resiliency and sustainability. For example, codes that focus on plumbing like the International Plumbing Code (IPC) work with energy codes to improve water efficiency and energy efficiency.

When it comes to plumbing management, facility managers and building owners should invest in high-performing insulation to eliminate water waste and keep energy costs down. Properly insulated pipes require less energy to heat and cool, because they keep the water at the desired temperature for longer. Additionally, the IPC provides industrial and commercial buildings with provisions to help address plumbing fixture flow rates, eliminating water waste and improving the overall efficiency of the building.

Along with those listed above, other solutions such as water usage tracking technology and updating older infrastructure have also proven to help make buildings and communities more sustainable while saving money on utilities. However, the building safety industry must work to develop long-term solutions as well.

Where We Go from Here

While the federal government’s investment in the transition is an essential step, the industry must continue to take a proactive approach in developing resources and solutions that support reductions in GHG emissions.

Understanding that it will take a collaborative effort, standards developers, like the Code Council, recognize the importance of having tools that support consistency in how the GHG emissions of buildings are measured and how savings are verified. Existing tools, like Chapter 9 of the International Green Construction Code (IgCC), provide processes for verifying the impacts of material choices through environmental product declarations (EPDs) and the impacts of buildings through life-cycle assessments.

The ICC Evaluation Service (ICC-ES) provides verification of EPDs for many construction materials and products. ICC-ES also provides evaluations verifying that low-carbon concrete delivers the strength levels required in the codes.

Understanding that providing new resources to professionals is key, the Code Council has announced its intent to develop a standard for the consistent measurement and verification of carbon emissions across the building life cycle, including processes used during the operations and decommissioning phases. The standard is intended for use by governments, businesses and the financial sector as the underlying process for measurement and verification of any targets or requirements they set.

Federal, state and local governments have placed the reduction of GHG emissions as a goal of paramount importance, with ramifications that can be felt across all sectors of the economy and daily life. As decision-makers continue to gain access to federal funds, standards development organizations (SDOs) must continue to step up and provide resources to aid officials in making informed, long-term decisions for more sustainable communities.

Reinforcing the importance of this topic, the Code Council has devoted the first week of Building Safety Month, celebrated in May, to “Planning for a Safe & Sustainable Tomorrow.”

Building Safety Month is the annual global educational campaign to raise awareness around building safety and the important role building safety professionals play in delivering safe, sustainable and resilient buildings and communities. Throughout the month, the Code Council will be hosting a lineup of free webinars.

For more on Building Safety Month and to register for the webinars, visit here.