It’s Time To Stop Relying On Outdated Building Codes
Outdated building codes are a real problem. Today’s changing global weather and other unexpected events such as high winds, flooding, wildfires, and heatwaves makes it imperative for international collaboration to design updated, practical, and appropriate codes. Building codes rely on climate data, and that data is generally updated on a 10-year cycle. The requirements related to structural/ atmospheric loads for wind and snow/ ice, energy use/heat stress, flooding, and wildfire/ bushfire protection have changed tremendously in the last 10 years due to the climate crisis.
It’s time for countries around the world to step up and assess the way they review building codes.
As weather becomes more severe from year to year, the underlying historical data simply does not accurately reflect the risk to buildings as a result of these extreme weather-related events. The building codes in some countries, particularly in Europe and the US, do reference design standards and dictate the energy performance and structural standards that impact wind loads and snow/ice loads. The issue is that the underlying data is updated on an “as needed” basis, which can exceed the 10 year average.
So a new struggle has emerged in the building industry. Relying on historical climate and weather data no longer provides the same level of safety and resilience for future extreme weather events as they have in past years and decades.
The Global Resiliency Dialogue
Building code developers/ researchers from Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and the US have launched the Global Resiliency Dialogue as a joint initiative to inform the development of building codes that draw on both building science and climate science. Their goal is to improve the resilience of buildings and communities to intensifying risks from weather-related natural hazards.
The following “Findings on Changing Risk and Building Codes” statement outlines the work by the members of the Global Resiliency Dialogue, including:
- Identifying strategies for the identification of future risks and the development of building code solutions that support adaptation to those risks
- Cooperating on the development of international building resilience guidelines and further exploration of the relationship with land use planning instruments that help determine the location of buildings
- Supporting research initiatives to better understand climate science, to assist in aligning expectations for building durability and resilience with the projection of future hazards
- Developing and deploying messages and resources that enhance understanding of building codes, support a common understanding of risk and communicate the importance of up-to-date building codes
- Advancing risk and impact analysis to recognize the multiple economic and social benefits provided by resilience investments and the desirability of alternative approaches that fully capture the benefits and costs provided by the building codes
The primary function of building codes universally is to protect life/human safety. Often this requires structural durability, resistance to fire, adequate means of egress, and other related functions to ensure that lives are protected. However, in discussions of natural hazard mitigation and community resilience, particularly as risks continue to become more severe and impact different geographic locations, the question of greater levels of property protection and bounce back recovery of function following an event is increasingly debated by key decision makers.
Survey findings from the Global Resiliency Dialogue describe the status of international building codes today. Currently, none of the building codes in use in the surveyed countries addresses future climate risk – all are focused on addressing risk based on past weather experiences and extreme events. However, — and this is a really good thing — discussions are underway about how to include future-focused risk in outdated building codes. As is to be expected, some countries are farther along than others.
Integrating Climate Data & Building Codes
Most building code development and research organizations rely on outside organizations with expertise in natural environmental sciences to develop the climactic and hazard maps that are included in the codes. The climate data used to inform provisions of building codes is generally not limited to the building safety industry and has the potential to impact other sectors of society. That’s important, particularly because the key science agencies are often national bodies that service the diverse needs of state, provincial, tribal/indigenous, and local jurisdictions.
Most building codes that address extreme events do so as part of the design standard and based on the probability of the occurrence of the specific event, with the design requirements changing based on the potential severity of the event, location, or the importance of the building. Design events are frequently measured in probabilities, with the ratios varying greatly by country with no apparent international consistency. In some cases, certain extreme weather occurrences have been determined as difficult to address through building codes due to either the localization of an event or the severity of the natural forces involved. Two such examples are hailstorms and storm surge impacting coastal regions.
As countries consider modeling scenarios to incorporate future climate-related risk in building codes, one option under wide consideration are Representative Concentration Pathways (RCPs) – scenarios that consider the emissions and concentrations of the full suite of greenhouse gases, aerosols, and other chemically active gases, along with land use by the year 2100, based on the radiative forcing limit reached on earth before emissions begin to decline. If climate modeling is used, building codes and referenced standards will need to be updated with future-focused climate data. In most countries, this type of change will follow the standard code revision process.
Assuming that code provisions can be adjusted to address future climate risk assessments, countries will need to have a process in place to ensure that the changes are not only adequate but equally suitable and proportionate in scope. This work will fall primarily to the building code development and research organizations in each country, where they utilize their own internal processes. Some entities may develop new standards to assist with regulatory impact analysis.
In the US, a National Climate Assessment is conducted every 4 years by the US Global Change Research Program, a joint effort of 13 federal agencies. To date, the assessment has only focused on the built environment at a relatively high level. As the fifth assessment gets underway, there may be increased focus on the needs of the design and construction industry, which may result in a deeper dive into outdated building codes.
Final Thoughts About Outdated Building Codes
A whole bunch of job types are involved with the design and implementation of building codes:
- Building owners/managers
- Building safety professionals & industry associations
- Conformity assessment bodies, such as product evaluation services
- Consumers or consumer advocacy groups
- Energy efficiency advocates
- Fire safety professionals
- Government entities: federal/national, state, provincial, tribal, territorial, local
- Home builders
- Insurance industry representatives
- Manufacturers of building products
- Professional societies
- Plumbing professionals & industry associations
- Subject matter experts
- Supply chain/distributors
As Forbes notes, building codes must keep pace with technology advances in order to help tap much larger potential energy savings and cost reductions. By adapting to reflect the growing trend of fuel-switching and electrification to enable zero-emissions technologies like efficient electric heat pumps and electric vehicles, policymakers can cut consumer costs and harmful pollution while supporting the transition to a clean economy.
Photo by Carolyn Fortuna