Building codes were created to keep the general public safe. To that end, most U.S. citizens probably believe that building codes are enforced well in this country and believe their buildings will stand in times of crisis. People also believe that they will be able to exit a building safely when they need to do so. In general I would agree, mainly because life-safety regulations are enforced in buildings by plan reviewers and, therefore, A/E professionals design buildings to adhere to these regulations. Life safety is a matter that engineers, architects and code officials take seriously.
But there are elements of the code that do not focus on life safety. One of these elements is accessibility. Since ADA Accessibility Guidelines (ADAAG) became law July 26, 1990, it has been the hot topic for plan reviewers. Another element of the building code, the U.S. Building Energy Code Program (BECP), was established in 1991. BECP is part of DOE’s Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy Building Technologies family of programs. This program was created to help buildings use less energy to heat, light and cool. With the increased understanding that using less energy conserves fossil fuels comes an increasing need for plan reviewers and A/E consultants to design buildings that use less energy. Many professionals, including me, know that buildings can also generate energy, and there are examples being designed every day.
However, throughout my career I have found that the majority of building officials around the country do not enforce the current energy codes. The International Energy Conservation Code (IECC) is integral to the International Building Code (IBC) and state adopted building codes. I believe that a lack of enforcement is a symptom of a lack of education and that plan reviewers do not prioritize energy efficiency. The reasons for making buildings efficient vary from the big picture to the practical. Some building owners believe that humanity is damaging the planet and that energy resources need to be preserved. Other building owners appreciate saving money every month on their energy bills. Fortunately, conserving resources is good for many reasons—of course saving money is always a good thing.
At a minimum, plan reviewers need to enforce the IECC. An item of the IECC that’s easy to enforce is continuous rigid insulation in the exterior walls of a building. This is a requirement in most climate zones.1 Continuous insulation has been a requirement in most U.S. climate zones for nearly 10 years. The purpose of rigid insulation is to properly insulate the exterior of a building by eliminating thermal breaks. Placing fiberglass batt insulation in an exterior cavity wall is not an effective way to insulate a building.
Building owners/developers are, at times, misinformed by A/E professionals. The evidence is that many buildings: 1.) Are not designed to meet the energy code, 2.) Are approved in a plan review, and 3.) Are built to approved plans and specifications. When I tell a potential client that a building he or she owns does not meet code and the response is “Well, I received a building permit,” it’s very discouraging. Part of my professional practice has been to adapt previously designed buildings for multi-unit retail and commercial building clients. Many of these buildings do not meet the IECC continuous insulation requirements and were designed by competing A/E firms. This lack of knowledge from plan reviewers and my peers is frustrating and disappointing.
In summary, most clients rely on A/E consultants to engineer a building to meet code, but meeting the building code is just a passing grade. We all know that a “D” is not a good grade. We need to do better. If some architects aren’t even designing for a D grade, then this is, as the kids would say, a “fail.” Plan reviewers need to stop approving non-compliant buildings. Architects must design building shells to be tighter, moisture resistant and more resistant to temperature fluctuations. This will help to save fossil fuels for future generations and save cash for building owners and taxpayers—it’s win-win.