How Building Codes Affect Sustainable Development  

Building codes are one of the main barriers that remain to wide-spread implementation of alternative building materials by excluding nontraditional materials, limiting their use or allowing only experimental building systems. Six "green" building experts offer their perspectives.

by Nicole Capretz



Bob Fowler
David Eisenberg
Pliny Fisk
Nader Khalili
Nadav Malin
Lynn Simon



Buildings have an enormous impact on the environment, consuming up to one half of the world's physical resources.(i) Much of this impact occurs during construction, particularly in the production and transportation of building materials. Worldwatch Institute estimates that a few months of building construction can consume more resources and generate more pollution than a decade of building operation.(ii)

Wood is the primary material used in homes and small structures in North America. More than one quarter of the world's consumption of wood is used in products such as lumber, plywood, veneer, and particleboard.(iii)

The ecological damage from construction-- deforestation, global climate change, destroyed farmland and wildlife habitat, polluted air and water-- in connection with the broader yet interrelated problems of unhealthy indoor air quality, urban sprawl, poor land use planning and automobile dependence have made low-impact, energy-efficient design and construction an appealing solution. Building must be analyzed in a broader context, recognizing and accounting for the people and the community affected by the built environment.

Many barriers remain to modernizing the building industry, not the least of which are building codes. Building codes are legal documents designed to "protect public health, safety and general welfare as they relate to the construction and occupancy of buildings and structures."(iv) They regulate construction by specifying minimum building requirements, focusing primarily on building, plumbing, fire safety, electrical systems and heating and air conditioning.(v) Most areas in the country require compliance with one of the three model building codes: the Uniform Building Code, the National Building Code and the Standard Building Code. The three codes are similar, but are tailored for the different regional conditions.(vi) States, counties and cities selectively apply one of the model codes, either as written or with amendments. All codes are enforced at the local level.

The model codes are generally printed in new editions every third year, with amendments published during the intervening two years.(vii) Any person or organization may submit a proposal for a change in the model code, which is then reviewed in annual public hearings and voted on by the group's membership.

As they exist today, building codes hinder the development of alternative design and construction. They either completely exclude nontraditional materials, limit their use through narrow and restrictive criteria or allow only experimental building systems. For example, the Uniform Building Code used in the western United States recognizes adobe as a building material, but confines its regulation to four paragraphs (the Uniform Building Code has three volumes and a total of 2,749 pages).(viii) In addition, all three codes have sections which allow building officials to approve trial designs and materials, but receiving that approval can be a long and arduous process.

The present codes rely on a few standardized, industrial materials such as timber, steel and concrete because they were once viewed as inexhaustible resources which protect the health and safety of individuals in and around buildings. What the codes do not protect is the broader health and safety of the public jeopardized by these resource-intensive building systems. The codes do not pay attention to the environmental and public health implications of how these materials are acquired, distributed and disposed. In this way, low-tech, low-impact designs have a difficult time breaking into the mainstream and receiving code approval.


In 1994, the three model code organizations created the International Code Council (ICC) to oversee the production of a single national building code. Called the International Building Code (IBC), the working draft is now being circulated for public comment and review. The IBC is significant in that it allows any material and method to be used as long as certain performance objectives are met. These objectives can be proven through testing, modeling, calculations or similar means. The IBC also allows compliance using a combination or performance and prescriptive designs, or just prescriptive approaches. This represents a fundamental shift from the current codes, which shut out new materials and designs through strict prescriptive requirements.

In addition, the code organizations formed the Conference of American Building Officials (CABO) to develop a National Evaluation Service for testing and certifying building materials and systems.(ix) Many are hopeful that this certification process together with the new model code will help obtain mainstream acceptance for new building systems and set the stage for developing prescriptive standards for these new designs.(x)

However, even if the IBC and the certification process help open the door for alternative building systems, there are still many existing barriers. The obvious obstacles include the resistance to change in a competitive and fractured industry and the aforementioned failure of the codes to examine the ecological, health and economic ramifications of building. Perhaps more serious is the lack of awareness and knowledge about green building among the primary users of the code-- building officials, builders, architects, engineers and developers. An organized and sophisticated campaign to educate these key players is critical to breaking green building out of the niche market.

The highly organized and well funded resource industries are ready to battle over code acceptance of particular products and methods of construction. Trade associations and industry representatives play critical roles in the code-making process by testifying at hearings, supplying technical information, and lobbying code change committee members outside of public hearings. The National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) reports that average participation at annual public model code hearings between 1977 and 1981 included 67 percent building officials, 17 percent trade associations and manufacturers, and a mere four percent engineers, architects, builders and code consultants.(xi) There is a great opportunity for green building proponents to participate in the code-making process and to influence code policy. Public hearings are occurring in preparation for the 2000 publishing date for the IBC. There will also be future opportunities when the IBC is updated. Furthermore, the local level holds great promise for regional codes, because building officials are sensitive to community interests and economics.

While unprecedented opportunities exist for builders concerned about the environment, there will need to be major outreach, education and lobbying efforts to truly direct the industry onto a more sustainable path.


In order to gain an understanding of the impact building codes have on the built environment, the author interviewed the following green building proponents. Ranging from builders to building officials to journalists, each person presents a unique perspective on the role of building codes in sustainable building.

BOB FOWLER is a long-time building official for the City of Pasadena, California and a former Chairman of the Board of the International Conference of Building Code Officials (ICBO). The ICBO publishes the Uniform Building Codes, which are used throughout the west. He is one of the co-founders of the International Code Council, which is an organization of code representatives created to develop a single model code system for the United States, the International Building Code (IBC), by the year 2000. Fowler is now working on a proposal to incorporate a chapter in the IBC on alternative building systems.

DAVID EISENBERG is the Executive Director of the Development Center for Appropriate Technology (DCAT), an internationally recognized and award-winning non-profit organization which helps develop energy-efficient and low-impact affordable housing. DCAT has played a major role in the development and advancement of straw bale construction, including research and testing activities, demonstration projects and building code development. The center was instrumental in the adoption of the nation's first municipal strawbale building code for Tucson and Pima County, Arizona, as well as the model strawbale construction guidelines in California. David Eisenberg also wrote a manual for gaining building code approval for strawbale structures called, "Straw Bale Construction and the Building Codes."

PLINY FISK, III is the Co-Founder and Co-Director of the non-profit Center for Maximum Potential Building Systems (Max's Pot), established in 1975. The Center is a nationally acclaimed sustainable planning, design and development organization based in Austin, Texas. Pliny's expertise is in the areas of sustainable design and building practices, regionally derived building materials and appropriate technologies. Pliny's current and recent activities include being the Principal Investigator of a Cooperative Agreement with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to establish regional benchmarks for sustainable building in the United States; a national team member under the U.S. Department of Energy's "Build America Initiative" to develop strategies to enhance the energy efficiency and environmental qualities of industrialized housing; Co-Chair of the American Institute of Architects' Environmental Resource Guide committee; and member of the President's Council on Sustainable Development "Making It Work" Task Force on Sustainable Communities.

NADER KHALILI is an award-winning architect, author, United Nations consultant and NASA contributor who is the founder and director of the California Institute of Earth Art and Architecture (Cal-Earth) in Hesperia, California. Cal-Earth Institute is a non-profit educational foundation that sponsors research, project design and apprenticeship programs. Khalili has written three books: Racing Alone, Ceramic Houses and Earth Architecture, and Sidewalks on the Moon, which describe his quest to develop sustainable building techniques.

Cal-Earth is currently constructing the world's first totally earth-constructed museum and nature center complex in a high seismic zone. The facility received building code approval in 1993 after three years of extensive engineering tests and skepticism from local building officials in consultation with ICBO (International Conference of Building Code Officials). Cal-Earth hopes to incorporate these earth building principles into local and national building codes.

NADAV MALIN is co-editor of Environmental Building News: The Newsletter on Environmentally Responsible Design and Construction. Malin also leads design consulting work for the company. He lectures widely and has written dozens of technical articles on material selection and other design issues relating to green building. He is also helping to coordinate the design and construction of the Northeast Sustainability Center, a state-of-the-art demonstration office building in Greenfield, Massachusetts, that is home to the Northeast Sustainable Energy Association. Before joining the team that started Environmental Building News he was a builder in southern Vermont.

Published since July 1992, Environmental Building News (EBN) is a newsletter on environmentally responsible design and construction. EBN is read by several thousand architects and builders throughout the United States and Canada and is widely regarded as the leading newsletter in this field. EBN covers a broad range of issues relating to green building: everything from energy efficiency and water conservation to recycled-content materials, indoor air quality issues and waste reduction.

LYNN SIMON is Program Director of Global Green USA's Resource Efficiency/Sustainable Communities program area and is helping to initiate GG USA's "Greening Affordable Housing Initiative." Lynn is also President of Simon & Associates, an environmental building consulting firm based in San Francisco. The firm consults to design firms, non-profit organizations and corporations on a broad range of issues including resource efficiency, sustainable materials selection and healthy building practices. Lynn lectures on green building resources and case studies, and provides environmental education programs and activities for the architectural community and other building industry professionals. She is founder and past chair of the AIA San Francisco Task Force on the Environment, and is currently on the SFAIA Board of Directors.


RCA: Why is the International Building Code (IBC) being developed?
Fowler: Most state and local building codes in the United States are based on one of three model codes. The lack of uniformity creates unnecessary confusion, and inhibits companies from becoming competitive and efficient with the international community. In 1995, the three model code organizations created the International Code Council (ICC) to develop a single set of model codes for the nation. Thus far, the ICC has produced the 1995 International Plumbing Code and the 1996 International Mechanical Code, and has formally transferred the One and Two Family Dwelling Code and the Model Energy Code to the ICC. Now the ICC is tackling the complex IBC, which is scheduled for completion by the year 2000. The first draft of the IBC has been published and is in a review and comment period. Once the comments are received, the draft IBC will go to the committees for modification and will be republished as a second draft.

RCA: Why is the code called "international" if it is only national in scope?
Fowler: A good number of foreign countries use the Uniform Building Code now, and some are participating in the development of IBC so they can adopt it. IBC is not intended to be the only building code used in the entire world, but we want other countries to feel free to use it where appropriate and make it easier for American companies to build overseas.

RCA: Is the IBC performance based or prescriptive?
Fowler: The IBC is performance-based, but it will have prescriptive components. This means it will allow builders to meet the requirements of the code through either a performance design approach, a prescriptive approach, or a combination of performance and prescriptive. We predict that 90 percent of builders will use the prescriptive approach, and the other 10 percent a performance design approach.

This will open the door for new materials and construction and allow them to attempt innovative design strategies. Then, base testing can be done to establish industry-accepted criteria so that builders would not have to conduct expensive and time-consuming tests every time they use the same design. (This would be similar to what is done with the performance-based sections of the codes today for structural members. A builder demonstrates through engineering calculations that a structural design will meet the established load-bearing criteria, and the building official approves the design, for the most part, regardless of the type of material used). Eventually, prescriptive provisions can be developed for the new technologies. The average builder feels more comfortable having a cookbook that tells him/her exactly how to build a structure, and it eliminates risk and liability.

RCA: What are the disadvantages to performance-based criteria?
Fowler: If you choose to go with a performance-based approach, it is more time consuming because you have to prove that each new design component meets the requisite health and safety standards. And you may create liability for yourself if it does not work. If you build a structure under a prescriptive provision, you would absolve yourself of liability.

However, the benefits to allowing performance-based design far outweigh the hazards. For example, think about brakes for an automobile. One way is to create a model braking system and develop a manual that tells a designer/engineer exactly how to replicate the model. Yes, the car would stop and the designer/engineer would have little liability for the brake design, but braking technology would never advance because they would all be the same design. On the other hand, the performance-based code would say that the objective is to stop the auto at a certain speed, in a certain distance and on a certain road condition. Independent thinkers would then have the opportunity to develop new, improved systems. Similarly, when you encourage builders to challenge accepted building designs, you may be hitting upon the next revolutionary building technology. At the least, you will help diversify available building strategies and avoid an unhealthy reliance on any one resource. Ultimately, prescriptive codes will catch up and incorporate the new technology.

RCA: How will the IBC differ from the paragraph in the UBC allowing performance-based design? How will it further encourage alternative building sytems?
Fowler: The UBC is not specific or broad-based enough to encourage alternative design, and does not state any design objectives. The IBC, however, will state the objective of each building component and allow for creativity in achieving that objective. The builder will have the choice of following the prescriptive route and/or coming up with a different design. It allows the builder to tailor the structure in harmony with the needs of its occupants. Further, the IBC includes specific performance requirements that ensure whatever design is used will meet basic criteria.

RCA: What is the likelihood of IBC adopting the codes as they are in their draft form, performance-based?
Fowler: There is a very good chance it will be accepted by the committee, and close to the same chance by the voting members. It is hard for anyone to complain when no construction method is left out or discouraged. Most important, there is a tremendous economic opportunity involved with encouraging new materials and construction designs. Once a new system is introduced, a company can patent the material and/or design and get money each time someone uses it. If the codes continue to discourage new systems, American businesses will be on the losing end as businesses overseas claim ownership of new ideas.

RCA: What made you interested in alternative design and construction?
Fowler: My architectural spirit and need to follow my creative instincts.

RCA: Do any other countries have performance-based codes?
Fowler: New Zealand adopted a performance-based code between four and five years ago. Since then, they have experienced a five to 10 percent reduction in their overall cost of construction as well as an increase in safety. Our construction industry spends $800 billion per year. If we save a similar percentage, we could save $40 billion. This makes everyone happy because that money goes back into everybody's pocket. In addition, it makes our industry more competitive and efficient in the marketplace.

RCA: What do you see as the barriers to the adoption of alternative building systems?
Fowler: Human nature resists change because we are comfortable doing something we know how to do. We resist change because it requires more effort and involves some risk.

RCA: How big an influence do the timber, concrete and steel companies have on building codes?
Fowler: The big industries have a major impact. The code development process is open to everybody. Anyone can send in a proposed amendment to the building code organization in their region, and it will be sent to the relevant committee. The committee will then have a hearing on the amendment. Industry influences this process by having a full-time professional to testify at the hearings. That is one way they have been able to perpetuate the use of traditional building systems while blocking others.

Fortunately, it is difficult to object to performance-based codes because they do not eliminate the use of the traditional systems. Prescriptive codes get you into a more narrow mindframe and limit the types of building designs that are possible.

RCA: Given your years of experience, do you have any suggestions for how to infiltrate the process?
Fowler: Education and lobbying are key. Sustainable builders and advocates have got to become involved with building code organizations and ensure their voices are heard during committee proceedings. And once the IBC is adopted and there is an opportunity for the development of alternative building systems, even more outreach must be done. Builders, architects, designers, building officials, and homeowners must be educated about the new codes and the new building design possibilities. They must also have their fears alleviated. This outreach is a critical component to mainstreaming earth architecture, strawbale, and other design options.

RCA: Why do you believe the sustainable building community needs a building codes summit?
Fowler: The sustainable building community needs to get together and start preparing for the advent of performance-based codes. They must learn how to be code watchdogs, so they can prevent the big industries from watering down any progressive code provisions. They must learn how the codes process works, how to participate in the process, and then develop a means of making alternative materials more appealing. Right now building officials receive most of their information from the timber, concrete and steel industries, and they look at alternative materials with suspicion, at best.


RCA: What has been your experience with building codes? Have they affected your ability to design sustainable buildings?
Eisenberg: 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. As a result, codes cater to highly standardized, manufactured building materials. These materials often travel great distances to job sites, which results in high embodied energy and cost, culturally inappropriate buildings and disposal problems for waste and used materials. The codes do not pay any attention to where resources come from, whether they are used efficiently or can be reused at the end of the useful life of a structure. Further, codes require buildings to have nearly the same level of technological sophistication, regardless of use, location, owner preference, cost or impact.

This system makes it nearly impossible to build low-cost, environmentally appropriate buildings. The process of obtaining a permit can be a lengthy, arduous and frustrating, unless there has already been an alternative code approved by local building officials. And finding capital or insurance can be even worse. Financial institutions and insurance agencies that supply the necessary funds and liability protection are influenced by the regulatory authorities, so that codes can prevent a potential owner from receiving the capital and protection with which to build.

At DCAT (Development Center for Appropriate Technology), we believe we have an obligation to reinvent the building codes so that the health and safety of both the individual and the environment can be protected. We also acknowledge, however, that preserving capital investment in buildings and keeping limited liability exposure for designers, engineers, manufacturers, suppliers, builders and owners are important and legitimate goals.

RCA: Do you see performance-based codes as the solution? What are the disadvantages?
Eisenberg: I see a combination of performance and prescriptive standards as the best solution for enlarging the green building market. The main disadvantage to having only performance-based codes is the testing needed to determine such building characteristics as structural integrity and weather/earthquake resistance. By including prescriptive standards for certain building components, you decrease the risk and assuage the fear of many code officials.

For example, in the strawbale code we helped develop for the City of Tucson and Pima County, Arizona, we set minimum prescriptive standards for bale quality and established some limitations on design which allows simple, moderately sized single story buildings to be built without the need for engineering and professional design. Similarly, California adopted guidelines based on the Arizona code, but added prescriptive criteria for seismic and climate requirements.

RCA: Is it feasible to develop performance- and prescriptive- based codes? Who is going to be able to fund the testing needed for codes to be developed for the many alternative systems?
Eisenberg: There are justifications for both performance and prescriptive codes. What is important is that there are streamlined methods developed for introducing innovation into the building industry-- whether new materials or methods or the reintroduction of old ones. With the adoption of performance codes, the existence and need for prescriptive codes will not disappear. We won't throw out what we already know about materials and building systems just because we have a performance-based code.

Financial support for the testing of non-proprietary or non-industrial building materials and systems has been very hard to come by. This has been a major obstacle to the development of many low-impact building materials. We are hoping to be able to convince the insurance industry that it is in their own best interest to fund the research, testing, and development program, since these materials offer very large potential reductions in green house gas emissions. The investment would be relatively small compared to the benefit. And we're seeking the support of other institutions and organizations for this work.

RCA: How do you think the proposed performance-based IBC will change the building market?Is it the green light to green building that many have been waiting for?
Eisenberg: At the least, the IBC will help reduce the complexity, time and expense needed for compliance with current codes because it harmonizes the three regional model codes that exist today. It should greatly reduce the resistance to innovation since the code won't depend upon describing exactly how something is to be built, but rather it will describe what the building must be able to do. However, until building officials begin to recognize the value and worthiness of strawbale, adobe, rammed earth, etc. and their relationship with larger societal issues, it will still be an uphill battle for alternative builders. There is still a huge educational and informational gap that needs to be filled.

RCA: What will be the role of local codes once the IBC comes into effect?
Eisenberg: Local codes will always be important because they take regional issues into account. They usually consider the area's climate, culture, needs, economic realities and available resources. This often results in more efficient building systems. As I mentioned earlier, the strawbale codes that exist in certain localities have each been tailored for their particular climates and conditions.

RCA: What do you see as the biggest barriers to the acceptance of alternative building systems in the mainstream?
Eisenberg: Change is almost always a slow process. There are two areas of resistance, one is the institutional acceptance and the other is general acceptance by the public. On the institutional side, other than building code issues, insurance and financing are the next biggest issues. In many cases lenders or insurance companies are just not familiar enough with the new building systems to be able to justify insuring or lending on these structures. Appraisers have similar difficulty in finding comparable sales to arrive at the proper price for their purposes.

RCA: What do you see as the main goal of the proposed building codes summit? Why will the summit be necessary if the IBC is going to be performance-based and therefore allow alternative construction and design?
Eisenberg: We are looking at the summit as an opportunity to gather together some of the best people in the sustainable building realm to look at building regulation to see what needs to change, to develop strategies to begin to address those needs, and to plan a course of action to begin introducing the context of sustainability into the codes. This is the first step in a long and important process. Part of the strategy we develop may be to get very involved in the code development process that is already ongoing. And of course, ultimately, we would like to have the whole code be a sustainable building code that includes as part of the performance criteria the impacts associated with the choices of building materials and systems.


RCA: What has your experience been with building codes? Have they affected your ability to design sustainable buildings?
Fisk: My experience has been somewhat unusual in that most of my projects have been experimental projects approved and often financially supported by government agencies. Since there are exceptions in the codes for pilot projects, this makes code approval less burdensome. I have also developed relationships with certain local building officials that allow me more latitude with my design and material choice than typical builders would receive. However, I know that the codes as written do not consider the larger societal implications of construction and only look at buildings as static, one-dimensional objects. These codes would prevent the widespread adoption of alternative building systems and therefore need to be changed.

Codes developed for health and safety reasons because of fairly horrible conditions in housing, in particular. The codes were aimed at protecting the health and welfare of the building occupants, and they basically slapped down laws for people to obey. Codes began to get complicated because they started regulating every aspect of construction. The disappointing part was that each code developed its own language and it became difficult for those involved in the building process to absorb the complexity. Part of this complexity evolved from the manufacturers, who lobbied extensively for focused, narrowly tailored code provisions that favored their products. It became a self-reinforcing phenomena. Now it is difficult to remember what the codes are about. Whose health is the code protecting? The health of the planet or the individual?

RCA: What do you see as the solution to the "self-reinforcing phenomena" of the codes?
Fisk: It's time to reinvent the codes. We have to develop performance-based codes that examine the long term use of resources and recognize the interrelationship among building siting, design elements, climate and building orientation, building function and resource issues. In other words, the performance codes need to look at more than the performance of an individual building. They need to look at the performance of the whole regional system. For example, you shouldn't be able to use more wood structurally than that "region" can supply.

In this way, codes can look at buildings as flexible, living systems that can be reconfigured and reused. We should be talking about whole systems integration and cycles vs. end-use, linear solutions. Even some environmentalists are guilty of wanting "buildings that last seven generations," without analyzing the ramifications of that structure on the local community and planet, or whether the building can serve in more than one function.

An example of products which use this philosophy are specialized automobiles in Europe. These vehicles are made so that they can be a pickup truck for one trip and then convert into a van or family car for the next. These cars also have recyclable components. So instead of just demolishing the car and wasting the raw material, the cars can be dismantled and the components resold and reused. Likewise, in buildings the only thing that should be permanent is the outside structure. Instead of creating complex and entangled utility lines that force a building into functioning in only its original purpose, you can simplify these systems and allow utilities (and hence walls) to be unhinged and replaced. This is going on in Japan and the Netherlands. The walls are thick and satisfying aesthetically, and they look permanent, but they are actually designed to be reconfigured when the purpose of the building changes.

RCA: How do you think the proposed performance-based IBC will change the building market? Is it the green light to green building that many have been waiting for?
Fisk: The IBC is a first step in transforming the building industry, but there is a lot more work that needs to be done. Right now, only practitioners and some specialty users are pushing alternative materials and designs. It is a top-down situation. At Max Pot we are trying to create a bottom-up market for sustainable building practices by increasing the awareness and knowledge of green building possibilities among the average builder/homeowner. We are developing a user-friendly computer software program that will allow laypeople to determine what kind of home they want and how their building decisions will affect their community. Hopefully, this will help cross the barrier between the mysterious and the understandable, and make green building more than just a niche market.

RCA: What will be the role of local codes once the IBC comes into effect?
Fisk: Local codes are always important because they can focus on regionally appropriate materials. It is also easier to convince local officials of the value of certain new materials/designs by demonstrating their local economic, cultural and environmental benefits. For example, a lot of communities are interested in developing low-income housing, and they are open to learning how alternative design and construction can help them achieve this goal.

RCA: How can we streamline the approval process under performance-based codes (which requires lengthy and expensive testing for each new system)? Are regional prescriptive codes the answer?
Fisk: I think that certain design areas should be prescriptive- and others performance-based. The goal is to pass the necessary performance codes and use a prescriptive framework as infill to satisfy the insurance and financial industry, as well as skeptical builders and building officials.

RCA: What do you see as the biggest barriers to the adoption of alternative building systems?
Fisk: For one, single-minded thinking. People get comfortable with the status quo and it is hard to look beyond that outlined arena. Further, the combination of censored information and more complex codes have prevented true participation and democracy in determining the future of building. That is why we think our computer program will help simplify the building process and empower people to feel capable of designing their own home, or at least being involved and informed participants. Of course, this is only one tool among many that are needed to educate people about the role of building in the larger social, economic and environmental context.

RCA: What do you see as the role of the summit in advancing green building? Why do we still need to meet if the IBC will allow for alternative design?
Fisk: The summit will help us develop a coherent and cohesive strategy for getting green building into the mainstream. We are finally knocking down some institutional barriers, and now we need to capitalize on this opportunity to expand the industry further. It will be a slow process and we will encounter strong resistance, but I'm confident we can succeed if we build a strong coalition of advocates and practitioners and begin a massive public education and communications campaign.


RCA: Why is it important to change current building codes?
Khalili: Building codes need to be updated because they deter the use of earth architecture and other resource efficient building systems. In the entire Uniform Building Codes, there are only four paragraphs that allow alternative design and construction, and they are very restrictive. The provisions require every alternative building system to be tested, and if you or someone else builds an identical structure, it has to be retested regardless of earlier test results. This is extremely costly and time consuming, and an enormous barrier to alternative building construction.

Further, building codes are essentially written by and for lumber, cement and steel companies because they are the ones who have the financial and institutional ability to conduct the necessary research and testing on products and construction designs to satisfy building code officials. These conventional systems also have an established source and language so that code officials feel comfortable adopting these systems. The problem is that while these manufacturers are usually reliable for giving data on structural and weather (fire, earthquake, etc.) characteristics of their materials and techniques, they do not calculate the external, larger environmental costs.

RCA: Should we replace codes or amend them? At what level -- national and/or local?
Khalili: Ideally, we should amend the building codes at the national and local level with new chapters that will address the broader societal implications of building construction, including the depletion of natural resources, increased air and water pollution, unhealthy building materials, lack of open space, urban sprawl, etc. The goal is not to throw out old knowledge or preclude the use of traditional materials, but to work within the system to expand and add other building practices to the mix of available options.

RCA: Why is it important for building codes to address issues other than specifying how to design and construct buildings?
Khalili: We have reached critical mass and we can no longer ignore the social, economic and environmental implications of building construction. To overlook the larger picture of planetary and human health is folly and shortsighted.

RCA: Should the new sustainable codes include all alternative building systems, or just some?
Khalili: If we are able to draft model sustainable codes, they should allow for all alternative building systems. As the markets and technologies mature, new and better building systems will be developed. The codes should be flexible enough to take this into account. That is why performance-based building codes are supported by most sustainable building practitioners. Performance-based codes, as opposed to prescriptive codes, allow for almost any design and construction system as long as certain standard health and safety requirements are met.

I also believe that performance-based codes will reinstate innovation, acclaim and accountability to builders. By handing over the construction process to banks, insurance companies and building agencies, we have lost that pioneering, imaginative spirit of the first American homebuilders. When we want to build a house we go immediately to the bank and say, "please, can you give me some money for concrete, lumber, fittings? Then to the building department, "please, may I build my bathroom here?" and to the insurance company we say, "our little stick house will burn down and all our mortgage payments will come to nothing! Please, can we pay you to take this risk for us?" This reality stifles originality and eliminates responsibility.

In addition, I believe people should be able to build their own house without feeling required to hire an architect/engineer/designer and go through the labyrinth of regulatory, financial and insurance requirements. Performance-based codes allow for individuals and small builders to design and construct their own homes, which are often less expensive and more labor-friendly.

RCA: How can performance-based sustainable codes be written so that they don't require testing each time a new building is constructed?
Khalili: Sustainable codes should include some specific provisions so that builders will not have to test and retest similar structures. One way to do this is to produce prototypes of various structures, test them and then develop a prescriptive code model for that type of construction. This is exactly what we are doing with the earth buildings at Cal-Earth. Now that the prototypes have been developed and proven, we are trying to create a model code for Superadobe and Ceramic construction, which can be modified for local climate and traditions.

In addition, once the building codes allow alternative construction, finance and insurance agencies will be confident about investing in these buildings, and companies will be empowered to develop an infrastructure to invest in further development. This will allow the new technologies to advance and mature.

The fear is that alternative building will put people in traditional industries out of work. It is the same type of fear that existed when computers first entered the market. People were afraid computers would take over their jobs, when in reality burgeoning technologies have created more economic possibilities. Similarly, new building techniques will stimulate economic development because they are diversifying the mix of building practices and expanding the industrial markets. It is not efficient or effective to rely on any one building technology, just like it is not practical to rely on nonrenewable energy sources such as coal and oil to meet all of our energy needs. The only thing we need to ensure is that new technologies are not compared to established products and designs.

For example, a piece of adobe cannot be compared to a concrete block because even though they may be used for the same purpose, they are two entirely different materials. A concrete block is obviously stronger than an adobe brick, but that is often not a concern because you don't always need the strength of a concrete block to accomplish your goal. It is like comparing a bicycle to a car. Both are viable transportation methods, but comparing their speed does not demonstrate where each technology is appropriate.

RCA: What do you see as the greatest barriers to the adoption of alternative construction?
Khalili: Besides the obvious barriers of natural human resistance to change and the opposition of established manufacturing companies, one of the most difficult tasks will be educating building officials and departments, as well as practitioners and other government representatives, about the reliability and value of Superadobe, rammed earth, straw bale, etc. construction. We need to cultivate a new consciousness among these parties about the critical nature of their decisions to the future of our country and our planet.

RCA: How do you think insurance agencies and banking groups will respond to changing codes?
Khalili: I think insurance agencies will embrace new design technologies when they discover they are high quality with increased safety features, and will decrease their claims expenditures. The fortunate quality about these agencies is that they are service oriented, and not beholden to the established industries. They are always looking for new ways to improve the bottom line. And the financing corporations will follow the codes. So, once a sustainable code is approved, they will have the confidence to fund these projects.

RCA: How can we ensure that the liability exposure for the owners, builders, manufacturers, engineers, etc. are not increased?
Khalili: Well, to be realistic there would be more liability in the beginning, just like any new tested system. We may need to develop an initial organizational or governmental subsidy to go through the transition period. I would estimate it would take about 15 years before new systems are able to compete with the traditional manufacturers and builders.

RCA: Can a new sustainable building code incorporate the changing materials and technologies?
Khalili: Codes are routinely revised as technologies advance. A sustainable code will be flexible enough to incorporate new design strategies and materials. Also, using hybrids of alternative material with conventional systems is the best way to start in market. There has to be gradual change.

RCA: How are energy codes related to building codes?
Khalili: Energy codes helped develop consciousness among builders of the importance of thermal value. But, R-value is limited. We should analyze the total value of the quantity and quality of energy used in a building, which will depend on more than just transmission of heat in walls. But the value should be based on material used, orientation, size of windows and openings, and other design elements. In addition, passive heating and cooling systems should be greater utilized.


RCA: What do you see as the future of green building? What is your sense of the market out there?
Malin: That question is tricky because green building is not a single market. There are different people with different agendas. There is a big market for healthy building and good indoor air quality, and a fair number of people are concerned about reducing their global environmental impact. Overall, the market has evolved since EBN started in 1992, and the level of awareness has become more sophisticated. People are beginning to recognize the links between resource-efficient building, environmental sustainability, local economic development and public health.

RCA: What role do building codes play in this future?
Malin: On the negative side, building codes tend to create a smooth pathway for a limited number of established materials and construction designs to the exclusion of everything else. Anybody who wants to use a new material or design usually faces a tremendous battle with building authorities.

On the positive side, building codes have the potential to require better buildings that less scrupulous people may not otherwise provide. However, I hesitate to endorse using codes as a broader social document because I believe they serve as only the nuts and bolts of construction and design, and may not be the best avenue for raising consciousness about the larger issues of sustainable building. Nonetheless, I do believe performance-based codes are necessary to allow and encourage energy- and resource-efficient design.

RCA: How do you think the adoption of the IBC will change the building sector? Do you think the proposed performance-based IBC will open the market for alternative building systems?
Malin: The success of the IBC in advancing sustainable building will depend on how far you have to go before alternative systems become accessible to a broader spectrum of builders. Now, it is up to the building code official to approve an alternative project because there are no set methods for measuring performance of many novel design systems. If the IBC can clearly define performance criteria, it may help bring about a change in the industry.

RCA: Do you foresee a need for prescriptive-based codes for new building technologies? Especially for the average builder?
Malin: In an ideal world, there would be less need for regulation and more use of common sense. The reality, however, is that prescriptive codes are easy to follow and verify so that eventually materials considered alternative will need to be written in a prescriptive form. This will increase builder access to new design systems. The builder will have a how-to manual as well as liability protection, which will in turn make it easier for the insurance agencies to underwrite and the banks to finance these buildings. However, we need to be mindful about keeping these prescriptive codes in context of the broader goal, which is to encourage the continuing development of environmentally sound building systems.

RCA: What are the barriers with performance-based codes?
Malin: The barriers to performance-based codes include how to measure the building's performance, how to set the performance requirements, and how to develop the tools and criteria to meet those performance demands.

Under the performance-based sections of the codes today for structural members, the code tells you how much load the building needs and you can use whatever material you want to fulfill the load requirement. For most materials, the performance requirements are sophisticated enough that it is relatively easy to ascertain if the criteria has been satisfied. If the building inspector is not familiar with the material, however, the inspector will have no basis to determine its strength and reliability. Over time, low-impact designs will develop base testing criteria so they can avoid going through a time-consuming and expensive approval process.

RCA: How do you think insurance agencies and banking groups will respond to changing codes?
Malin: What these industries are most concerned about is enforcement. Existing codes aren't being enforced, so they're wary about approving structures with flexible criteria and new materials. In their eyes, performance-based codes will only be more difficult to enforce and will complicate their lives.

Bureaucracies like to pigeonhole things into a limited number of slots. They'll welcome some new materials, but when faced with a vast number of products and designs they will get nervous.

On the other hand, the insurance agencies have begun opening their arms up to alternative energy systems because these systems can provide uninterrupted back-up power during natural disasters, which helps mitigate power-related losses. And there is increasing support in the industry for promoting energy efficiency because it can help reduce global warming and climate change, which is linked to an increase in natural disasters. Our task is to show them how disaster-resilient, green building practices can further reduce risk and minimize losses.

RCA: What steps need to be taken to integrate alternative building into the mainstream?
Malin: In a certain sense the mainstream is the mass production builder market. At this time, the goals of the mass builders and the goals of the sustainable builders are incompatible. The industrial builders are profit-margin driven, interested in uniformity and simplicity. The more they can use the same materials and the same design, the more structures they can build. Some inroads are being made with the value of energy efficiency, but there is a long way to go regarding resource efficiency, waste reduction and alternative building materials.

RCA: What is your vision for the proposed summit?
Malin: I hope to come away from the summit with a clear strategy on how to work with code bodies to increase the compatibility between the IBC and appropriate building technologies.

I would like to see the codes recognize the broader environmental impacts of different technologies so they inherently encourage more sustainable building practices and increase the flexibility for new and different design approaches.

It seems almost certain the IBC will be performance-based, but we need to figure out what areas of performance the IBC is looking at and how we can influence this process. Are they looking at standards for a building's global environmental impact and/or indoor air quality, or are they only examining a building's structural safety and/or weather resistance? And, as I said earlier, how are these new performance-based goals going to be measured? How will a new system meet the requisite targets? Further, what route should we follow to eventually develop prescriptive-based codes for some of these alternative systems, including making them regionally appropriate? Hopefully, the summit will be the first step in developing a game plan to address these critical issues.


RCA: What has been your experience with building codes? How have building codes impacted your work designing sustainable buildings?
Simon: As compared to some (such as David Eisenberg and Pliny Fisk) who are experimenting with truly revolutionary building sytems using strawbale, rammed earth, adobe, etc., I have not had as difficult a time with the building codes. My work on sustainable building has focused on issues that are less controversial and have become more mainstream, such as indoor air quality, passive solar design and energy efficiency. In my experience, then, it has become easier to use products such as nontoxic paint and recycled-content cellulose insulation because they have become more well known and reputable with code officials and builders. I have also found that building officials can be persuaded on a number of alternative products as long as I can show the product has been successfully utilized in other places and can improve the structure's health and safety.

Overall, however, there is a strong resistance to try new building systems because it is a conservative profession and there is a certain comfort level associated with conventional wood-frame construction. Builders and code officials are familiar with stick-framing and they don't expose themselves to liability when using it. This aversion to change, however, stifles advancement in the building industry and perpetuates our unsustainable use of resources and energy. It is critical for codes to increase their flexibility and allow, if not encourage, innovation. Ultimately, we must develop and enhance markets for affordable resource-efficient products and practices, and create a shift towards sustainable building codes as well as sustainable land use and energy policies.

RCA: Do you see performance-based codes as the solution? What are the disadvantages?
Simon: Performance-based codes are absolutely critical to developing more environmentally sound construction practices. Performance codes allow you to build with alternative materials as long as you can prove they can do their job. The disadvantages are that the alternative materials are often unknown and it may be difficult to prove their worthiness, especially to those who don't like change and are skeptical of any new material and/or design.

RCA: Do you see a role for prescriptive codes?
Simon: We need both performance-based and prescriptive codes. They each serve important functions. As mentioned above, performance-based codes allow invention, while prescriptive codes provide the builder with a blueprint. Therefore, as long as you have performance codes to open the door for new building systems and prescriptive codes to help commercialize successful new systems, you can move the industry towards more sustainable construction practices.

Prescriptive codes, however, will only be developed once new systems are thoroughly tested and proven. This all leads back to the pervasive issue of funding. Today, manufacturers pay to test their products. However, start-up manufacturers may not be able to pay for this process, as it is very expensive. Further, it is hard for builders to trust manufacturers' testing claims when they have an obvious vested interest in the results. The government should step up to the plate and fund projects in national labs and other independent facilities which research and test new building designs and products. It is of national importance that we reduce resource consumption and create sustainable communities. Government-sponsored testing will serve the dual purpose of cultivating and enhancing markets for new products and providing independent verification of a product's worth.

RCA: How do you think the proposed performance-based IBC will change the building market? Is it the green light to green building that many have been waiting for?<
Simon: Because the insurance and finance industries depend upon the building codes to validate a certain building product and/or design, the approval of the performance-based IBC will play a critical role in producing resource- and energy-efficient buildings. Of course, as I mentioned above, money is going to be a huge barrier. Further, these products need recognition and acceptance among the building community. One way to achieve this is through education. Many builders aren't aware of environmentally sensitive products and designs, and what they do hear is not verified or validated. We need to begin an instructional and training process that helps builders understand the connections between resource-efficient building, economic development, public health and environmental sustainability.

RCA: What will be the role of local codes once the IBC comes into effect?
Simon: Local codes usually follow the model national codes, and the IBC will be no exception.

States and localities will adopt the IBC as written, or they will tailor it to suit their needs. Local codes are probably the best arena for developing prescriptive requirements for alternative systems because they allow for regional and political considerations. Some localities are ecologically minded, some recognize the economic potential in using local materials and some are looking for ways to construct low-income housing projects.

For example, at Global Green we are working with the city of Los Angeles on a pilot project to green affordable housing. The goal is to foster community environmental stewardship through the construction of inexpensive, resource-efficient housing. This housing will enable more low-income families to become homeowners by lowering overall expenses (for example, reducing energy bills and maintenance costs). Part of this effort includes working with city agencies to develop new code policies that will examine broader health and safety implications. It is a slow process, but the city is committed to advancing sustainable strategies.

RCA: What do you see as the main goal of the proposed building codes summit? Why will the summit be necessary if the IBC is going to be performance-based and therefore allow alternative construction and design?
Simon: I see the goal of the summit as learning how to work with local officials and open their minds to alternative systems while still achieving the basic code goals of health and safety. I think the summit should be narrow in scope so that we have a better opportunity for getting things done. If we had one goal and we achieved it, it would be a significant accomplishment.

The summit is definitely necessary even if the IBC is performance-based because there is a lot of lobbying and educating that needs to occur. If the builders don't know or trust alternative products and designs, they aren't going to use them. In addition, we really have to target the large-scale production builders, consumers and others in the mainstream to convince them of the value of resource-efficient design both in the short- and long-term. Once they recognize the social, economic and health values associated with conservation and the use of nontoxic materials, they are more likely to open their minds to new products and building strategies.


i. Nicholas Lenssen and David Roodman, "Making Better Buildings," State of the World 1995, Worldwatch Institute, Washington, DC, 1995

ii. Id.

iii. Id.

iv. National Association of Home Builders, Understanding Building Codes and Standards in the United States, Home Builder Press, Washington, DC, 1989

v. John A. Kilpatrick, Understanding House Construction, Home Builder Press, Washington, DC, 1993

vi. Athena Swentzell Steen and Bill Steen, The Straw Bale House, Chelsea Green Publishing Company, White River Junction, VT, 1994

vii. Understanding Building Codes and Standards in the United States, 1989

viii. Paul Graham McHenry, Jr., Adobe and Rammed Earth Buildings, University of Arizona Press, 1984

iv. The Straw Bale House

x. Prescriptive provisions in codes are desirable because they simplify the building process by providing a blueprint for design and construction and eliminating risk and liability

xi. Understanding Building Codes and Standards in the United States, 1989