Often Overlooked, New Building Codes Could Buffer Climate Change

Yves here. It’s nice to see a discussion of a concrete measure (pun not intended) to slow climate change. We need way more approaches that can be executed at a local level.

By Emma Foehringer Merchant. Originally published at Undark

On September 9, 2020, California Energy Commission Chair David Hochschild opened a scheduled meeting with a somber observation. That morning, Bay Area residents woke to darkness, as wildfire smoke blotted out the sun and an eerie orange glow enveloped the region.

“It is 10 o’clock in the morning and it looks like midnight,” Hochschild said, looking outside.

The commission was set to discuss “reach codes” — building efficiency standards that exceed state requirements — for two Bay Area jurisdictions. The timing was apt: Evidence of the need for climate-friendly buildings was just outside, according to people who attended the virtual commission meeting and connected the air quality to increasingly treacherous wildfires fueled by climate change. One public commenter called the scene outside his San Francisco window “a literal hellscape.” All urged the commission to adopt the more efficient codes, and to go further to rule out the use of natural gas in new buildings statewide.

“We have the lights on in our house because there’s no sunlight,” said Sasan Saadat, a policy analyst at Earthjustice, who dialed into the meeting from Berkeley. “This is not the outlier. It is the trend.”

“You all have this opportunity on your lap to set a new precedent for the end of fossil fuels in our built environment,” Saadat told the commissioners.

To date, more than 40 California jurisdictions have established policies that either entirely ban natural gas in new construction or encourage electrification. And in the months since San Francisco’s sky glowed orange, the California Energy Commission has proposed state building standards that require “electric ready” equipment and encourage electric heating rather than the use of natural gas.

Last year, California became the first state to enact standards that encourage the installation of rooftop solar on most new homes. If regulators approve the “electric ready” code, it will be another first-in-the-nation state standard, and California will have accomplished both policies through an often-overlooked mechanism: codes that govern the design and construction of new buildings.

Though California is often seen as a trailblazer in climate policy, similar efforts are increasingly cropping up around the country. Advocates and progressive code officials are trying to push forward building codes that help drive decarbonization.

Energy consumed in buildings produced more than 30 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions in 2019, making them a key part of the climate challenge. And the window to decarbonize them is narrowing: Analysts at organizations such as the International Energy Agency have said that new construction worldwide will need to start switching to all-electric around 2025, if nations are to limit global warming to below 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) in this century.

“The place that we are working right now is to get a better code on paper,” said Kim Cheslak, director of codes at the New Buildings Institute, a nonprofit that works with utilities and governments on energy efficient codes. “The place we need to work after that is to make sure that cities, states, and building departments have the resources to enforce full compliance.”

The United States does not have a national building code. Instead, states follow model codes: the International Energy Conservation Code (IECC) for homes and Standard 90.1, a building energy standard of the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating, and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE), for commercial buildings. Certain states amend those standards to make them weaker or more stringent, or allow local governments to adopt codes. Other states, like California, set codes outside of the IECC process.

This decentralized approach leads to wide variation in code adoption. Nine states rely on IECC codes more than a decade old, according to tracking from the Department of Energy. Twelve states use standards set in 2015.

For efficiency advocates, that creates diffuse policy battles.

“You could be involved every three years in 52 fights over the code, because you’ve got 50 states plus the District of Columbia and the national model codes,” said Cheslak, a former D.C. codes official.

This year, those conflicts floated to the highest levels of national code development. The IECC development process — which takes place every three years — was embroiled in controversy when a significant number of local government officials turned out to vote on code changes, enacting efficiency improvements that could trickle down to jurisdictions across the country. In response, and reportedly under pressure from industry, the code council’s board of directors voted to change the process to one where local officials have less sway.

Now a growing group of clean energy and efficiency advocates, including Cheslak, are focusing on instituting local code amendments that improve on the model code. The New Buildings Institute is also already preparing language to submit in the IECC’s next code cycle, which will set standards for 2024, just one year before experts say building electrification needs to take hold.

California generally establishes more efficient energy standards than other states, as part of its efforts to reduce emissions 80 percent below 1990 levels by mid-century.

The state’s 2019 codes, which all but required solar on most new homes starting in 2020, represented a “quantum leap” forward, said Energy Commissioner Andrew McAllister in May. In August, the commission is expected to go further, finalizing codes that provide incentives for home builders to move away from natural gas heating and towards more-efficient heat pumps.

While many environmentalists hoped for an all-out gas ban, the standards could result in electrification of more than half of the homes built after Jan. 1, 2023, according to Pierre Delforge, a senior scientist focused on building decarbonization at the Natural Resources Defense Council. That would have the capacity to significantly impact the state’s emissions, he said, because as California’s electric grid gets cleaner, gas is becoming responsible for a larger portion of building emissions. Building stock overall accounts for about a quarter of California’s annual greenhouse gas emissions.

The current draft building code also delicately sidesteps a controversy surrounding the groundswell of California jurisdictions that have made efforts to eliminate natural gas in new construction. Those initiatives have faced opposition from the building, gas, and restaurant industries. The state code would give builders incentives to pick heat pump water and space heaters, rather than gas-fueled models. Success relies on a carrot and stick approach, according to Delforge. If builders do choose to install gas heating, they will have to enact more extreme efficiency measures in other parts of the home.

The format is similar to the one regulators used to encourage solar installation on most new homes. As in 2019, the flexibility built into the 2022 draft code eventually helped make builders more comfortable, said Chris Ochoa, senior counsel at the California Building Industry Association. “We appreciate the no-mandate” on total electrification, said Ochoa. Builders have raised concerns that such requirements would increase the cost of constructing new homes. “We’ve got a climate crisis, we get it. But we also have a serious housing crisis,” said Ochoa. “We’ve got to balance all these things out.”

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  1. jefemt

    I was flying past channels the other day, and once again was slapped by a realization of how cooked our goose is:

    Weather Channel guy gushed about the importance of staying inside and using the AC.

    And I thought, OK, these guys are talking climate change, but their solutions actually exacerbate the problem. More AC, more demand for electrons.

    Populations are up, energy demand is up.

    Plant trees and add aggressive, long roof overhangs for shade. Have massive floors— they don’t have to be concrete…

    Low tech/ appropriate tech might win the day. I personally, in my amateur status home builder and student of sustainable building, dont see multi-family buildings yet designed that are not energy hogs.

    We are in a nasty feedback loop— excellent flow-charty diagram from the latest High Country News:


    Thanks so much for the fodder…

      1. drumlin woodchuckles

        And this could be a real problem where millions of people live in the Great Urban Death Traps crammed into their millions of Concentration Apartment Camp Units in the thousands of Vertical Barracks Towers they are all crammed into.

  2. meadows

    Unfunded mandates are not the answer. We need funded mandates. The legislators want all electric? Pay up! The regional power company here practically gives away efficient light bulbs and offers discounts on efficient electric appliances. Wresting electric utilities from private hands into public hands is the only way mandates will succeed. States where utilities are non-public have the hardest time maximizing solar installations. Regardless, solar will win…

    Our family is near completion on a commercial project. We used ICF (Insulated Concrete Forms) which offers excellent thermal efficiency and strength. We installed a very large solar array on the roof, we used electric heat where possible but still needed to use NatGas.

    If we want to save energy, reduce carbon consumption and consequent pollution in all its forms, getting rid of the US Military Monster is the way to go…

    1. Mark H

      In support of your point, the CA mandate for solar on new homes adds an additional 20-30k cost (after government rebates and incentives) to the price of a new home. Electrification will also add more costs to homeowners. Electric heating has much higher lifetime costs than gas heating. The same politicians who add these unfunded mandates then turn around and lament about the housing affordability crisis in the state. If they want people to adopt these mandates then they should fund it directly.

      1. juno mas

        A $20K system in California would install about 10Kw of solar power (professionally installed). With more modern, efficient appliances and lighting, that is more than most people would need. The federal tax rebate for such a system is 22% for 2021. With California’s relatively high electricity cost the payback time could be as little as 7 years—and, of course, there is a certain smugness in knowing PG&E’s intermittent power supply would not necessarily affect you.

        Roof-top solar is not a panacea, but for many homes in California, even smaller 4-5k output PV systems would add to decarbonization of the power grid and provide for sufficient home power consumption. A great opportunity in the land of cars (Cali) is for municipalities/institutions to erect shaded parking areas using PV panels; eventually they can re-charge the EV’s beneath them. (My local college does this.)

        1. Laura in So Cal

          Sorry, but if you have a grid-tied system without battery storage your solar goes down when the grid does. Either during a blackout due to weather or during an on-purpose shutdown due to “red flag conditions”, your grid-tied solar will shut itself down. This is mostly a safety feature in order not to injure or kill utility workers with the power still flowing thru the lines from yours and other’s systems.


        2. Solarjay

          Nobody is installing solar for $2 per kWh, especially in California. Try 3-3.5$ per watt
          Also the ITC is 26%.

      2. neutrino23

        I have to push back on that some. Adding 8kW of solar (which is roughly the mandate in CA) costs less than $15k. We are adding 9kW with a couple of big batteries for just under $30k and that is from SunPower, top of the line equipment.

        Once you pay the upfront costs for electric appliances and solar the operating costs are much lower than gas. We will use multi-zone heat pumps for heating and AC which will be much cheaper than using gas.

        There is also a huge opportunity to reduce power needs through white rooftops and better insulated walls and floors and windows and more efficient appliances.

        Roofs are repaired/replaced every 15 or 20 years. It could be required that they be made reflective at this time. Water heaters fail about every 10 years or so. They could be replaced with eco-cute style electric water heaters. These are very efficient and don’t use CFCs.

      3. TomDority

        Adding 20-30k or 50k to the cost of constructing a net zero house or even 70k to retrofit to net zero (design, install, construct and are high numbers) is peanuts compared to the speculative, loose lender aided, leveraged and tax favored gambling in the housing market that has led to run away asset inflation. Average home price inflated by what 30k-40K in one year. None of that 30-40k went to anything productive – just caused the cost of living to go up – so if ya want to know why affordable housing is in short supply – just look to private equity, loose lending, predatory lending, rentier market favoritism, rentier favored taxation – etc.
        At least, when you are paying for product and installation — you are paying real wages and circulating money in the real economy instead of jacking up the cost of living for everyone and funneling the dough to the predators at the top.

  3. The Rev Kev

    Perhaps it is just as well that each State sets their own code. If a national one was set and made mandatory, it would not be long before it was gamed to weaken codes everywhere. This way, you have a powerful State set a standard which gives people in other States a chance to lobby for the same in their own States and pointing out how it works when applied. And each State that adopts the same code puts pressure on the other States to adopt something similar. And it is not like you have to adopt an entire set of codes but adopt ‘modules’ within than code for particular aspects of a build such as efficient heat pumps for example.

  4. TimH

    The emphasis appears to be on cheap power (solar), not reducing power consumption.

    Insulate well (not feasible with USA standard 2″ x 4″ framing), seal against air leaks, no fireplaces, and use multi-pane glass with a big gap and low conduction in the frames.


    1. Michael Fiorillo

      Yes, even if powered by wind and solar, ever-increasing growth is the road to perdition… and a topic that usually cannot be raised in polite company…

    2. Adam Eran

      Yeah, Passivhaus is a terrific way to go, but even 2×4 framing can go to higher “R” values with blown in cellulose (R15 vs. R11 for fiberglass bats). Even better: incentives for multi-family dwellings, and the public infrastructure to accompany it. Currently, California residences do not pay their own way in property tax collections. So in addition to a bunch of strangers, multi-family housing demands more of schools, parks, etc. without providing funding to improve those.

      1. GT

        R15 fiberglass batts for 2×4 studwalls are cost-effective and more durable than cellulose without the long term settling or degradation into fine particulate matter issues of cellulose. That being said, who the frames new exterior walls with 2×4 anymore…

        New construction codes are all very nice – don’t get me wrong, they’re important for the 150k +/- new homes built every year – but California’s real elephant in the room when it comes to energy efficiency are the 10 million single family units built before 2000 that use 3x the energy that home built today uses. The biggest bang for the energy efficiency improvement buck (homeowner, utility or taxpayer) are existing building thermal envelope.

        1. Brooklin Bridge

          Do you have any sources of support for your claim about R15 fiberglass bat? In my experience, fiberglass bat, even properly installed, starts degrading after about fifteen to twenty years and ends up far worse in several metrics than properly installed “treated paper” cellulose. For instance, of the three major means of loosing heat (convection, conduction and radiation) one of the greatest comes from convection, meaning air flow that tends to travel upward (following heat) making the conditioned space in a house somewhat like a chimney, dragging the cold air behind it and this effect is considerably greater (according to HERS raters that I’ve spoken to) with bat insulation including vapor barriers vs. a proper depth of the right kind of cellulose on all horizontal separations (floors). Then there is blown in foam insulation which is expensive but has the best result of all in terms of stopping unwanted convection (so much so that fresh air intake is often necessary). Note that in most houses about 80% of heat loss is vertical (up through the floors and then attic floor – except in the case of “hot roofs”) Cellulose of the treated paper kind is particularly good by comparison to bat insulation at preventing air flow (and thus heat) escape and to blown in foam foam in terms of cost .

          I’m skipping over penetrations (pipes going up through floors) and other things that are best addressed by foam.

          Granted, something might have changed in the last five or six years since I passed the HERS rating course, but I would appreciate a link or reference to it.

          1. JTMcPhee

            All well and good, but now it seems adequate intake and discharge of outside air (the last commons, though the polluting industries seem to have taken it over by some combination of eminent domain and adverse possession, https://corporatefinanceinstitute.com/resources/knowledge/other/adverse-possession/) from the “carefully insulated” structure is maybe necessary to keep the residents alive — and the virus transmission problem is not the only issue with indoor air from a human health standpoint. https://www.epa.gov/indoor-air-quality-iaq/care-your-air-guide-indoor-air-quality

            Not enough caves to go around, I’m afraid, and who wants to live without all the major energy-gulping “conveniences?” Fulfilling all the “wants,” and trampling the “needs?”

          2. GT

            You know, instead of drawing someone’s claim into doubt in your very first sentence, then pedantically lecturing about basic building science (which infers your doubt about 3 1/2″ R15 batts is well-founded and correct – and that someone else’s claim is just made-up out of whole cloth and incorrect), you could do what lots of people do: read something that piques your interest, do a little research about it to either confirm it is true, or confirm your own initial bias (based on you not staying on top of the building science advances in the last five or six years), and THEN write a comment like above.
            Here you go, you just need to pick a brand, all the major manufacturer’s have an R15 batt on offer.

        2. Felix_47

          How about a 55 or even 40 mph national speed limit that was enforced? If the government was really thinking about attacking this problem one would think that this is about the cheapest and simplest thing to at least start doing. Doubling the speed increases the energy consumption by four. So that would be an essentially cost free way to decrease CO2 consumption. And every year less and less people take public transit.

      2. Michael

        “”Currently, California residences do not pay their own way in property tax collections.””

        More BS from a non resident, renter or person who has never lived the issue.

        I’ve been a homeowner in CA for 41 years. Prop 13 for homeowners was a great compromise. Certainty for both sides. Protection if you stay put and more tax revenue from those who move often.

        The question I always ask people who make this claim is “what is the fair property tax to pay?” No one has an answer or a method to calculate it.

        1. JTMcPhee

          You got a fellow out there, Grover Norquist, who has a ready, simple answer to your question: “NONE!” And a lot of “conservative” freedom-loving screw-your-neighbor Californians who wholeheartedly agree. While enjoying all the stuff that other people’s taxes pay for, of course, even though everyone paying attention knows that Cali government is vastly corrupt…

        2. AlexisS

          The idea that people who live in a house & neighborhood for a long time is a “good” — and they should not be driven out by great increases in taxes when they may be less able to afford them– was what got people to vote for prop. 13.

          The problem with Prop. 13 is that commercial property got the same break– so mega corps have low property taxes indefinitely (although they have the “speech rights” of individuals, they are, after all, immortal)…

          I don’t know if they people who sponsored the proposition didn’t think about that, or if that was actually the point– but it used to burn me (when I lived in CA)…

    3. Samuel Conner

      > Insulate well (not feasible with USA standard 2″ x 4″ framing)

      I’ve been intrigued by alternative (and quasi DIY) construction methods for single-family dwellings, such as “stabiized earth” and “strawbale”, which I think can be very well insulated. I have the impression that there has not been much progress at the level of local acceptance of these methods in the ~15 years since I first became aware of them.

      1. TimH

        Let me generalise by saying that the problem will be insurance and mortgage if you use novel construction.

      2. PlutoniumKun

        These work extremely well in most circumstances, but they usually fall foul of poorly written codes and often overstated benefits. They work best for self builders, its arguable that they aren’t really suitable for mass construction.

        A particular issue with this type of construction is that it is very dependent on local climatic conditions. For example, straw bale construction needs very careful design if the house is in a local microclimate where there is a lot of wind blown rain (such as coastal areas). Semi buried dwellings are great (such as the Earthships of New Mexico), but need a very good knowledge of local hydrogeology.

    4. Carolinian

      In the 1970s there was a big push for energy conservation and you could get books on building passive solar or earth sheltered houses. Then Jimmy Carter and his sweater came along and killed the buzz. Or was it the way the media loved to lampoon Carter while bending their knee to Fossil Fuel Guy Reagan?

      Often building codes go out of their way to discourage experimentation. They have traditionally been regarded as being about fire and structural safety and things having to do with real estate values rather than energy.

      1. Felix_47

        Nixon had the courage to order 55 MPH because of the Arab oil shortage. We heard a lot about a Green New Deal in the last election and now not so much. But a 40MPH national speed limit would probably cut transporation fuel burning by over half. Doubling the speed increases the energy requirement by four. So if cars are doing 80 on the Freeway (and I grant that in Cali most are going 10 in bumper to bumper traffic). If the a car is going 80 it is using four times the energy the same care would need to go 40. And every year in Cali less and less people take mass transit and more and more people arrive. And Biden says raising the gas tax is not going to happen because it will affect poor people. And the mass of drivers in Ca are poor going to essential jobs as nannies, gardeners, blower boys, fast food etc and they were largely raised in lands where only the rich could afford to drive. They would go on foot. So encouraging California essential workers to take public transit might not be too hard. So we have the bizarre combination of the corporate lawyers driving downtown in their Teslas while their essential workers, nannies etc. are driving to Santa Monica and West LA in beater, high mileage SUVs to take care of the kids and the house. Maybe work from home will solve some of that but it will only get rid of the Tesla ride, not the beater SUV driving 50 miles from Pomona from a single family house with three families. New housing? If global warming becomes an extinction event we won’t need to build too many new houses.

  5. SteveD

    The code improvements related to energy efficiency are welcome. Now if we could also mandate dual-source water piping, so that on a fixture-by-fixture basis, homeowners could use either “fresh” potable-quality water (such as in all of your faucets, showers) and recycled water (for hose bibs, toilets), then we’ll be on a roll.

    Also, while mandating these new codes is great for new homes, the existing housing stock is orders of magnitude larger. Probably any house built prior to the 1990s (maybe the 1980s) has much room for improvement in its energy performance.

    Say we were to pass some sort of national policy to thoroughly upgrade all homes with a goal of, (making stuff up here) a 20% reduction in residential energy consumption. The really interesting question is from where we would reallocate the massive amount of labor necessary to accomplish that goal.

    1. Bill Smith

      What is the guess on how much of an improvement in energy efficiency is there in upgrading a house built in the 1990’s? 1980’s?

      Seems to me that by now those houses would already have replaced the heating systems?

      1. SteveD

        For sure many (though not all) of the *systems* and appliances have been upgraded, but the real gains are to be had in improving the “envelope” of the home, which is a much more invasive undertaking. As an example, simply replacing single pane windows with double or even triple pane, in and of itself, doesn’t improve the entire envelope’s performance, as more than likely the building is “leaky” wrt air. I’ve also observed closehand the practices of these “window upgrade” installers, and they are for the most part not flashing the new windows with passivhaus techniques. So, even on “upgraded” homes, there are still gains to be had.

        It is still a great idea to install more efficient appliances & systems & solar, etc. if the economics work for you personally. Way better than doing nothing.

      2. GT

        Up to 20-40% improvement in EE from airsealing the attic floor, sealing ducts, deepburying them, increasing attic insulation to R49 or greater, and installing/diligently using a programmable (smart or not) thermostat. Every other EE improvement (lighting, appliances, mechanical systems) should be secondary to envelope upgrades (in terms of existing buildings). This assumes the occupants do not change their behaviour in any way that uses more electricity after the retrofit.

        A nice potential side-benefit to these EE benefits is that if they get done AFTER a solar system is installed, the use-analysis and permitted system size will producer more electricity than the actual post-retrofit consumption of the home, which may trigger a net-metering payout at the end of the year when the production/consumption true-up is done by the permitting utility.

        1. TimH

          My house built to passivhaus standards has the sealing at the roof point. Loft is part of the conditioned space. The SIGA-Rissan tape used to seal butt joints is $50 for a roll…

      3. voislav

        My family did an upgrade of an older home recently and the difference is big. We used insulation panels to the outside of the home (covered by stucco) and integrated them with the new triple-pane PVC window installation to create an insulation layer with no cracks. Roof was lifted and new insulation put in, we also added solar water heater panels on the roof.

        The home is now heated with a 24 kW electric water heater that is fed into modern wall-mounted radiators, but unless temperatures really dip the unit is only using a single 6 kW heater to keep a 2500 sqft home warm in the winter.

    2. Grumpy Engineer

      @SteveD: A 20% reduction isn’t unrealistic. Several years ago my father added storm windows and extra insulation in the attic and cut his winter-time electric bill by 30%. He was kicking himself for not having done it sooner.

      And I very much agree that addressing the existing housing stock is more important than improving codes for new homes. Tweaking the code to reduce the new homeowner’s electric bill from $100 to $80 is a nice thing to do, but if you want to make a big difference to the environment, figure out how to better insulate and heat those single-wide trailers with baseboard heat. I’ve personally met people living in such circumstances who have electric bills in excess of $400 during winter months. If you could cut that to $200, it would represent literally tons of CO2 reduction per trailer.

      This was the one area where I truly saw value in the various “Green New Deal” proposals. Get a bunch of people out there installing high-impact energy efficiency improvements. Starting with older, poorly insulated homes that use resistive heating. There are millions of them out there.

    3. GT

      Its not a re-allocation of labor that is needed, it is simply expansion of an existing labor force already in place and trained and doing this kind of work on a small scale. There are lots of people willing and able to take on this work – wages are good ($25-50/hr., usually union shops) and if a large scale commitment were to be made at the national level, real megawattage could be saved that is durable and long lasting (unlike with appliances and mechanical systems that have usage lives of 7-20 years).

      Fund it and workers will come…

  6. John

    I’m very worried about this as a home-owner and developer. Building code is already complex as it is. Depending on mandates given for useful things like water retention, superior insulation, AC usage, solar installation, this could jack up the cost of construction. Meanwhile, were in the middle of a housing crisis.

    In housing construction, it’s death by a thousand paper cuts. Say I want to split a lot and build two homes. Usually the city will demand to upgrade sidewalks, so let’s say that costs 10,000$. I’m just ballparking prices. Oh, solar power mandate. Okay that’s another 10,000$. Storm water retention… ADA accessibility… sprinkler requirements…

    Yes I’m including zoning code along with building code as both seriously affect cost of construction. Unless cities agree to reduce some of the onerous requirements, I see a worse housing crisis coming with the mandate to green homes.

    1. Samuel Conner

      > Storm water retention

      Rainwater catchment and storage might be a selling point — a desirable feature in homes that are well-suited to faciliate home growing of food.

      I know I’m dreaming, but I think that “home growing” may become a bigger thing in the future, as climate disruption makes the food supply chain less reliable.

    2. Jeremy Grimm

      I share your trepidation about new zoning ordinances and building codes. Building codes, much like other regulation of commerce, have become tools for crushing small and medium scale enterprises. City councils, County Supervisors, and State Assemblies respond to Big Money in much the same way as the Federal Government. This post suggests to me that ‘greeness’ will provide new clubs to beat down smaller builders and drive up the cost of housing — to echo your comment and the comment above by Mark H. The same complexity that you deal with as a small builder confronts anyone who thinks of building or designing their own home, and hiring the services of an independent architect and a small builder.

      You should have also commented on how the cost for getting a lot split approved was comparable to the costs for getting a subdivision approved by a city or county authority. Similarly the costs for getting a small subdivision of a small parcel approved are comparable to the costs for getting a large subdivision of very large parcel approved. Added to the ‘efficiencies of scale’ for arranging and obtaining inspections, obtaining zoning variances, and of course obtaining money to fund construction.

      I noticed an unusual number of prefab housing units being assembled in an area of California where custom homes had been the standard. I asked about this and was told that the costs for paying the various fees and the time delays in obtaining inspections and approvals had made a custom-built home too expensive to build — even for the relatively well-to-do who moved into the area.

      The claim that zoning codes are intended to protect home buyers from unsafe building practices took a hit in one area of California when homes in an older subdivision started sliding down the edge of the hillside where they had been built, following an unusually heavy rain. As I recall the San Francisco area has some interesting stories to tell about housing built on some of the fill there. The quality of inspections was writ large by the many thin and unreinforced slabs in one subdivision that cracked or developed holes exposing the dirt underneath. A close look at the wood butchery that goes into most tract housing now shames the idea of using building codes to compel safe or durable housing.

      It is little wonder US housing has been transformed into pricey, cookie-cutter, ticky-tacky McMansions built cheek-to-jowl on tiny parcels.

      1. Michael

        100% agree.
        They never let up.
        Its why many folks just stay put and make do. Every thing related is too expensive.

        Same situation with small commercial buildings. Want to improve your property?
        Here’s a list of things to do first. Fees, fees and more fees.
        Then go see your overpriced architect and builder. Sheesh!

      2. Brooklin Bridge

        The burden on small construction companies is a very real problem that is totally ignored (or worse, purposely made difficult and complex) by the runaway proliferation of these codes and the fees involved, not to even touch upon the costs of conformance. It definitely seems oriented toward larger companies that can afford to devote resources to nothing other than keeping abreast of new, expensive and ever more complex codes. Code inspectors run the gamut from being fair and helpful to being absolute pricks and complexity tends to be the friend of the latter type. Corruption is also becoming a major problem in many areas (my source on that latter point , besides talking to builders, is a building inspector who runs classes for contractors to keep up their licenses so it may not be applicable on a broad scale – though I think it is).

        Any effort to really improve energy production and thermal efficiency via housing, as well as quality and consistency of building design, materials and practices, requires a major re-design of the system to be simpler, less bureaucratic, and less expensive through extensive government assistance. Home owners and prospective homeowners can no longer do this by themselves.

    3. c_heale

      First, what about just having a code which says any new properties have to be built to use only as much energy as a passivehouse and be able to cope with standardized local extremes of storms, etc. As long as this is achieved the methods don’t matter.

      Second, reorient the building business to retrofitting older homes. There is an unsustainable boom in building which is gonna crash.

      Third, if humans don’t get a grip in short order, you won’t be worrying about your job, you will be worrying about surviving since California will be a desert.

      Finally, a Sicilian friend is from Catania which is in flames at the moment. The other day the temperature was 47°C (116°C). Some of it may be due to the fire, but that is Death Valley temperatures.

      1. John

        The first suggestion might work but I’m just looking at the long-term trend of the International Building Code slowly growing in size over the decades and the construction industry grappling with new materials. It’s ever escalating levels of complexity, and complexity has it’s own costs. Simplicity requires deregulation to an extent. That rarely happens in zoning and building code, ever.

        As to a housing crash, I find it unlikely. Though a serious correction is possible and I would welcome it. I’m watching what were once 250,000$ homes get torn down and replaced with 700,000$ homes in my neck of the woods. It’s a generational disaster and class warfare in real time.

        As to California, I live in the Carolinas. My state might have a net increase in climate refugees. We are looking at heat stress from heat waves and local water resources getting depleted but no-where near the disaster that will be the West Coast. They gon’ need housing and me thinks they can’t afford a 500,000$ stupid oversized overpriced McMansion.

        If this inflation and bureaucratic disaster continues, Americans will finally have enough and just live with Tiny Homes that defy their local county inspector. They’ll use what materials they can find and group up to afford things. Some will be slummy hoover-villes, others quite gorgeous with most modern amenities and vernacular architecture.

        The whole construction industry and culture is due for an overhaul.

        1. Felix_47

          I think the expectation that everyone lives in a SFH has to change. High rise multifamily housing like Singapore or the Plattenbau in Germany is going to have to become reality. But this sort of housing does not work with extensive driving so in Singapore, for example, the tax to drive a car exceeds the price of the car. And if we are to bring the essential workers close to where they work so they can walk or bike to work we are going to have to allow high rise multifamily housing in places like Brentwood and Santa Monica or Atherton next to multi million dollar mansions. I don’t see it happening. Lee Kwan Yew created a unique environment in Singapore. And he had unlimited power to do it.

    4. TomDority

      Having been in all aspects of building over 40 years – the most expensive part is land acquisition – the codes are just a baseline and, although the codes get it wrong occasionally – they are just baseline. As far as complexity..they are not. – Look at where the money goes from $0 land to completed project.
      If I build the exact same structure in two different locations – same materials and finish – – say 175,000 all in with profit and overhead
      One place I build will sell for 1,250,000 and the other for 200,000 — so what is the difference – land acquisition/location –

      1. John

        I’ve been only chipping away at development for +-5 years and frankly had very little success building so I could be over-estimating the cost of code. I’m just worried mandating green could add more burdens. Also note that new comers in construction haven’t grown up with the evolving building code, they are just starting with that bugger of a document. The illustrated books help a bit explaining things.

        Zoning code might be the biggest factor. I’m looking at a lovely 8,000 sq. ft. corner lot. Passed it over because I thought it was too expensive at the time (hah). I also passed it over because I knew it would violate single family zoning and I didn’t want to deal with the planning department. Would of made a good site for a 4-plex or even a small apartment building at 6+ units.

        After being bought by a couple and wondering what would happen, it’s been listed. 950,000$ home with 4 bedrooms. Yup… this is exactly the housing the neighborhood needs.

        Watching this process in real time has been radicalizing me to the left.

      2. Jeremy Grimm

        I have some problems with your example of the two identical houses. The materials and methods for constructing both houses are the same for both of your hypothetical houses — “exact same structure”. The materials and methods and their costs for house construction depend very much on the codes. I agree that the main profits from developing a housing tract at either location comes from the profits obtained through subdividing a large parcel into numerous smaller parcels.

        Small builders and individuals building their dream house usually purchase a single lot or small parcel where all or most of the profits from subdividing land have already been added into the price for purchasing the land. That means there are little or no profits to be found from land acquisition/location. The costs related to the building codes — the costs for labor, building materials, and inspections figure large in terms of the costs where a small builder can find some margin for profit [except in a crazy market like we are seeing right now]. Those same costs add up for the dream home purchaser. The profits for a small builder come very roughly from whatever difference in purchase price there is between new construction and existing older housing of similar size and quality in the same area. [My comment is simplistic and ignores the many differences in the costs — grease — required to build in different areas, and differences in demand. I also did not observe that the zoning codes and public provided services greatly affect the costs for housing and land purchases in many areas.]

  7. Adam Eran

    All good comments. One omission: Changing FNMA underwriting standards to demand excellent insulation, and pedestrian-friendly, mixed use (residences, offices, commerce), mixed-income neighborhoods. These demand roughly half the vehicle miles traveled of sprawl.

    Change the government mortgage standards, and the changes to codes and civic design would happen overnight.

  8. Susan the other

    “Energy consumed in buildings produced more than 30% of US greenhouse gas emissions in 2019.” 30% is probably the very lowest possible statistic. Housing and commercial buildings, imo, have got to be at least as polluting as cars. Because buildings are “on” 24/7. Even when we go on vacation and turn the heat down to 45 (and who even remembers to do that?), the pilot light still burns away. Night-lights still come on. The fridge hums and clanks… So, even using a minimum amount of energy, housing pollutes. If we really want to nail it down with universal codes we should look at this constant use and devise ways to minimize it, like in cold climates never put water pipes in the outside walls, maybe heat tape them instead. Wise choices. It’s easier to do that in multi-family housing; too restrictive for a high-flying architect. Remembering articles here about how Frank Lloyd Wright’s beautiful designs were usually maintenance disasters complete with leaking roofs.

  9. PlutoniumKun

    A core issue in better building codes is training and certification of builders. Some of the most advanced techniques require a lot of knowledge from the builders, it often needs them to completely rethink their basic assumptions. 12 years ago the codes in Ireland were updated on roofs to change the ‘best practice’ from insulated upper ceilings to insulating the roof structure. But in Irelands damp climate this meant very careful attention to structural airflow was needed to prevent condensation build up.

    My brother built a house at the time and his architect (thankfully a very well informed one) found that the contractors had sealed up air flow vents thinking that this what they were supposed to do. They had to rip out the entire roof and start again – fortunately at the contractors expense. I’ve often wondered how many houses were built when similar errors were simply not identified by the architects/engineers who managed the project.

    1. TomDority

      “I’ve often wondered how many houses were built when similar errors were simply not identified by the architects/engineers who managed the project.”
      Not only houses but multi-resident buildings, commercial buildings – etc. and some of those have led to death.
      A lot of new homes are going up with cookie cutter designs that the builder/developers are using. The owner of the development often looks at cutting the architects services to cut costs and the owner then further, looks only to low bid subcontracts to improve margins further while complaining that it’s so hard to find qualified workers (often overlooked is many qualified builders exist for a proper price) meanwhile those underpaid builders (those without scruples) look for cost cutting to get the place up. In the end, the township or municipality is all joyous about how much extra tax can be derived from the increased market value of the property from which they can borrow to pay for shit that does nothing for the environment or provide for inflated salaries of Police – most of which are good -but the good ones never seem to talk about the bad ones, the realtors get an inflated vig …so to them the market is great, the developer/owner of the property gets to make a boatload to leverage into inflating his other asset classes..all the while shafting the workers who pay inflated prices for homes and the inflated taxes.
      A little crazy that buying a home that will be efficient or even net positive is hard to come by because owners of development property want huge capital gains – whereas the person who wants to buy efficiency is penalized in property taxes and inflated asset price to begin with.
      As to construction defects – or reduced code oversight (look to Florida condo and overseas to Grenfell Towers or a NJ and DC parking garage collapse and countless others – add in deferred maintenance etc – it’s an ugly scene with liability hot potato contests all over– everybody trying to make off with there sack of cash and leave anyone else with liability (including the scam victims)
      If ya spend all your money to buy a shack or a place to live – doesn’t leave a lot left over for the nicer things…. like safety, efficiency, sustainability, environmental etc.

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