Building Codes

A friend in Tucson, David Eisenberg, in addition to being a national expert on straw-bale housing construction technology,16 has been heavily involved with building codes and building code officials the past half-decade or more, as his way to change the environment to favor sustainable design. David says:

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 reinvent the codes with that larger per-spective.17

For building designers, it's often necessary to challenge the building codes to make advances that both save energy and save money in construction. In designing a LEED Platinum healthcare building, Interface Engineering in Portland secured 11 successful code appeals, effectively saving the project hundreds of thousands of dollars while improving the energy efficiency and rationality of the overall design.18 As one example, the engineers figured out that the underground garage ventilation requirements in the code were based on outmoded data on vehicle emissions of carbon monoxide (the odorless, colorless, toxic gas that will kill you if there's too much of it). By finding and submitting up-to-date information on actual emissions of a typical vehicle fleet, the engineers were able to reduce the fan size by 60% and its energy use by 60% for the life of the building. In addition, they set a precedent for all future projects in the city, thereby saving money for other projects with underground garages and saving all the energy from oversized fans moving too much air for the life of each building.

Scratch the surface of most codes and you'll find similar money-saving and energy-saving opportunities. The trick is to convince architects, engineers, project managers and building owners or developers to push the envelope in each code jurisdiction and with each project, so that local building officials get comfortable with new technologies. Some green techniques that may require appeals and variances include onsite graywa-ter use, onsite sewage treatment and reuse, water-free urinals, underfloor air distribution systems, constructed wetlands for stormwater management and wastewater treatment, natural ventilation systems and innovative approaches to fire and life-safety protection.

Code officials are generally like everyone else: they want to do a good job, they are risk-averse and they need to trust the people they're dealing with. I have found that when local engineers and architects are established in a given town, it's generally easier to get code officials to listen to new approaches: they know they can rely on the professional judgment and experience of the designers, and they know they'll be around to fix problems if something doesn't work.

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