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.