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.