Building Science

Code Compliant Today, Problem Buildings Tomorrow

The State of Texas is in the midst of a multi-year building boom, as businesses and families continue to pour into the state at a break-neck pace. Residential, commercial and institutional construction are all receiving significant investment, and many new buildings are being constructed every month. These new buildings will have a service life of 30 to 50 years, and many will be around much longer than that. As a result, the impact of these investment decisions will be felt for most of this century.

Unfortunately, unless we begin setting our goals on something higher than building code, it is likely that in 30 years we will be having the same conversations then that we are having today about the poorly performing buildings that we have constructed. We will look back to today and wonder why we designed and constructed buildings this way. We will question why we didn’t design buildings that were more energy efficient, healthier, safer, and more resilient. Without a significant increase in our design goals, we will be dealing with a whole host of problem buildings for much of the second half of the twenty-first century.

Behind the Curve on Energy Efficiency

While significant advances in energy performance have been made in recent years with the adoption of the 2015 International Energy Conservation Code (IECC) in Texas, we are still a long way from what would be considered truly efficient. In fact, with the adoption of the 2015 IECC, we are only about 60% of the way towards our long-term goal of reducing the average energy intensity of buildings relative to the 1978 baseline. This means that many of the buildings constructed today will be the energy hogs of tomorrow.

Less Leaky Is Still Leaky

Moisture- and air-related problems have been a real challenge in the construction industry for many years, and will continue to persist as long as conventional building practices are followed. Building codes dealing with air infiltration and continuous water barriers have become more stringent, but the actual performance of the buildings that are being constructed today are far from optimal. Even under ideal installation conditions, many of the building designs today will continue to have problems with moisture and air infiltration over their life spans.

Health and Safety Last

Building codes do ensure some level of health and safety, however, it does not mean that the building is anywhere near as healthy or safe as we want them to be. Building code requires certain levels of ventilation in a building, but it does not address important factors that lead to optimal indoor air quality. Building codes requires ignition barriers over flammable insulation, but that does not ensure that the building is actually safe. While building codes are particularly focused on health and safety concerns, a code-compliant building is far from healthy or safe.

Unfortunately, many of today’s buildings will only be designed to minimum code requirements and will not achieve anywhere near the levels of performance we want and need. These code-compliant buildings become outdated almost as quickly as they are constructed. The trouble we are experiencing today with our existing building stock should serve as a warning. To avoid having to repair or replace our new buildings just a few years down the road, we should not be designing to minimum code compliance. We should be aiming much further ahead.