Are Local Building Codes Stifling Innovation?

May 28, 2023DMA Engineering, Steven Forrester - Principal

In my previous blog post, I argued that the existing code standards are merely the minimum requirement and suggested that we should strive for higher standards. I still maintain the belief that this approach should be adopted overall. As more cities aim to become Net Zero cities, many are revising their current codes to meet their goals. Personally, I strongly support achieving Net Zero goals and believe that all new buildings should be designed to be net zero, while existing buildings should work towards achieving a maximum energy baseline that decreases over time. However, not all sites have the capacity to generate the required renewable energy on-site, necessitating the availability of off-site alternative sources.

Unfortunately, there is currently no fully developed marketplace that facilitates the regular purchase of off-site renewable energy, leading to each jurisdiction implementing its own codes that design professionals must adhere to. Some of these codes are becoming excessively stringent, hindering good architectural design and impeding energy innovation.

Building codes are inherently prescriptive in nature. They often dictate specific design elements and materials, which can provide clarity and consistency but also restrict architects from implementing alternative solutions that may yield similar or better outcomes.

Moreover, building codes lack flexibility as they are typically designed to address common scenarios and generic building types. With the increasing diversity and complexity of architectural design, rigid codes can limit the ability to create unique and groundbreaking structures.

Local codes are often developed in isolation, without undergoing rigorous debate like commonly adopted building codes. Consequently, local codes slow down construction processes and increase costs. When there are no local incentives in place, these codes force individuals who cannot afford the additional burden to comply out of the market, leading them to settle for lower-performing buildings that have a greater negative impact on the environment.

For residential buildings, the Energy Rating Index (ERI) is utilized to assess the building’s energy consumption, and offsets are determined based on this score. This evaluation takes place during the design phase, and renewable energy penalties are imposed on projects that fail to offset their energy usage. I have witnessed instances where projects have paid these penalties, only to end up as excessive energy consumers.

Perhaps it would be more beneficial to adopt building codes that have undergone rigorous debate, with necessary modifications to fit the natural aesthetics of the area. Building owners should be given the freedom to construct according to their preferences, while their energy consumption is closely monitored. The jurisdiction can then levy a monthly fee based on the carbon emissions produced. I theorize that this approach would encourage more energy-efficient architectural designs, promote modest residential buildings, change building usage behavior, and stimulate energy innovation.