Shari Shapiro – March 13, 2013
Most jurisdictions in the United States have a construction code setting the minimum standards for new construction and significant renovations of commercial and residential buildings. The construction codes are generally based on the model codes developed by the International Code Council (ICC), a nonprofit standard setting organization, that are updated every three years. 2012 is a code update year, and the recent changes have created controversy in some jurisdictions regarding adoption of the 2012 codes. Understanding the 2012 code changes that have a material impact on the design and performance of buildings is critical if you are planning new construction or building renovations in the near future.
MAJOR CHANGES IN THE 2012 CODES
Arguably the most far-reaching changes in the 2012 codes are changes to the International Energy Conservation Code (IECC), designed to improve building energy efficiency. The 2012 codes provide new provisions to improve building energy efficiency by 15 percent above the 2009 codes, and 30 percent over the 2006 codes. A 30 percent enhancement in energy efficiency can change the economic calculus of a new building project. On the other hand, additional investment in energy efficiency may change the cost of construction. Changes to the construction codes can also change the competitive landscape – an older building may be less valuable than its newer counterpart not only because of the granite lobby, but also because of the long term energy savings.
For residential and commercial buildings, the 2012 IECC includes a comprehensive set of measures designed to improve the thermal envelope and to increase the efficiency of the HVAC and electrical systems. For commercial buildings, the IECC also includes energy performance standards for windows, doors and skylights.
Advocates of energy efficiency, including the U.S. Department of Energy, stress the energy and financial savings of the 2012 code changes. Critics of the increased energy efficiency requirements claim it will cost too much to comply with 2012 IECC, and that the return on investment in additional energy savings is small. As described in more detail below, the controversy over the IECC changes has slowed the adoption of the 2012 codes as a whole in some jurisdictions.
Protection from Wind, Seismic and Fire Catastrophes
Construction and real estate professionals need to be aware of the provisions in the 2012 codes that are designed to reduce the catastrophic effects of natural disasters. Construction codes provide the minimum standards for construction. If the codes in a particular jurisdiction are not up-to- date, buildings constructed to older codes may not provide the same protection from natural disaster damage.
The 2012 International Residential Code (IRC) (applicable to one- and two-family dwellings) and the International Building Code (IBC) (applicable to all other construction) include changes to design requirements to prevent damage from high winds. There are changes in load, roofing, bracing and other standards to take into account potential wind damage. Similarly, the 2012 codes incorporate revised requirements for construction in earthquake-prone areas.
In the 2012 codes, there are a number of changes to enhance first responder access to high rise fires. For example, two fire service elevators are now required to serve every floor of a building with an occupied floor more than 120 feet above the lowest level of fire department access. Other fire safety related changes require that activation of a building fire alarm system also initiates a recall of all fire service elevators.
Incorporation of Green Technologies
Finally, the 2012 codes more directly address certain green technologies. Greywater recycling, the practice of allowing non-sewage water from domestic activities, such as laundry and dishwashing, to be reused on site, is now permitted in the 2012 codes. Photovoltaic solar panels (i.e., the method of converting solar radiation into direct current electricity) are addressed. Prior to the 2012 codes, there were no requirements for photovoltaic solar panels. The 2012 codes provide criteria for the placement of solar panels on the roofs of buildings and include safety features for the safety of first responders.
CONTROVERSY OVER ADOPTION OF THE 2012 CODES
The controversy primarily stems from the enhancements to the IECC. Several state home builders’ associations and the National Association of Homebuilders have been vocal critics of the 2012 codes. They argue that the added cost of the residential energy efficiency provisions will put homes out of reach of homebuyers. For example, in Illinois, the state’s home builders association sought to delay adoption of the 2012 codes legislatively, alleging compliance with the new code will increase building costs by $5,000 for a 2,000 square foot home.
Advocates of enhanced energy efficiency dismiss these claims, noting that the additional cost of the energy efficiency upgrades will be recovered many times over from decreased energy costs.
In certain jurisdictions, the controversy over the IECC has slowed adoption of all of the 2012 codes. Pennsylvania rejected the 2012 codes entirely, and Michigan, Minnesota and Illinois have all seen regulatory and legislative activity related to the 2012 code adoptions.
In summary, the 2012 codes incorporate changes that can significantly alter the design and performance of buildings. Therefore, it is important to check the status of adoption of the 2012 codes in the applicable jurisdiction early in the development or construction process.