For decades, designers have fought for sustainability to be incorporated into building codes and standards. Is it time to do the same for resilience?
Building energy codes have been adopted by the great majority of states in the U.S. As a result, consumers save around $5 billion annually, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. But there was once a time when people argued that energy efficiency was not a safety issue and had no place in the building code (see our 2001 report, Sustainability and Building Codes). Architects, engineers, and contractors were, and still are, key to turning that around. “Regulators rely on us to show them what’s possible technically and financially,” says Jacob Knowles, director of sustainable design at BR+A, who recently helped develop a net-zero-energy stretch code for Massachusetts to consider.
There’s now a similar headwind for resilience. City regulations and building codes are geared toward life safety—often providing only that a building must operate for just enough time for people to evacuate in the case of a disaster. Some code requirements might be designed to lessen physical damage, but don’t comprehensively tackle helping people survive the kind of extreme events brought on by climate change or return afterward. That discounts a huge amount of human suffering—whether from becoming homeless after a wildfire ravishes the neighborhood or from re-occupying a home that’s survived a flood, but is infested with mold.
“It is time to ask, ‘What should our codes accomplish?’” says Heather Rosenberg, associate principal at Arup. Should they ensure homes remain livable in a heat wave? Should they ensure that basic needs can be met if there’s no power? Should they minimize the amount of downtime that a business must sustain after an earthquake before becoming operational again?
This report takes a look at how some cities are changing their planning, zoning, and building codes to ensure that their life safety measures still hold up in the face of climate change and to move toward greater levels of resilience. By understanding what kinds of regulations are gaining traction around the country, building professionals can prepare for what might be coming down the pike—or, better yet, become advocates for similar measures in their own regions.