My problem with Building Codes and the Climate Crisis

Conversations about the performance of buildings often focus on Building Codes. According to many people, the most effective way of ensuring that dwellings are sustainable, healthy and comfortable is to simply make it illegal to build something that does not comply with these requirements. (Let’s assume that the codes and the laws surrounding them are well designed and, therefore, that they cannot be easily evaded.) We have seen this working in some countries, which demonstrates that Building Codes can, indeed, be quite effective. Despite this, Building Codes as we know them today might not be good enough to solve the climate crisis in which we are involved.

In principle, the way Building Codes work is relatively simple: By mandating the installation of more thermal insulation in the walls, by limiting the amount of air leakage and by asking for evidence of the overall performance of dwellings, governments can push the performance of dwellings to a higher standard. Additionally, since the number of new buildings tends to be extremely small compared to the number of old buildings, this kind of law can be more effective when applied retroactively. In other words, when buildings that have already been built are also mandated to improve their standards.

While the idea sounds attractive, the main problem is that most of these revolutionary Building Codes we often read and hear about apply almost exclusively to high-income countries. On the contrary, Building Codes sometimes do not exist—or they are not as effective—in other parts of the world. The reasons for this vary, and should not necessarily be associated with a lack of environmental awareness. For starters, governments of developing countries are often already trying to tackle several social problems simultaneously, which limits their capacity of dealing with the climate crisis. Other reasons might be related to problems encountered while implementing these laws and with issues at the time of enforcing them.

This is a big deal because the increase in the world’s urban population is not happening in high-income countries with great Building Codes. According to the data provided by the World Bank, 92% of the total increase in the urban population in 2019 happened in middle- and low-income countries. This means that the Building Codes issued by the European Union, the governments of North America, and some other developed countries are only worthy of 8% of the Fu*&$s that I give my attention. If we really want to secure a sustainable future, then we need to make sure that the new constructions that will house all this new urban population are sustainable. For that, we need to find a solution that is more robust and thus applicable to a more diverse range of socio-economic contexts. This could be a modification of Building Codes or simply an alternative to them.

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Of course, despite their correlation, the Climate Crisis we are facing today is caused by greenhouse gases and not by the world’s urban population. From this point of view, Building Codes do not seem to be too poorly allocated. In fact, it is the wealthier countries in the world those who emit most of these gases. However, this is only good news today. Tomorrow, when developing countries are more urbanized and their citizens have access to better living standards, they will want to live more comfortably. If their dwellings are not comfortable enough when this happens, they will purchase and use heating and cooling systems, lighting, ventilation, and more... And we will repeat the story that developed countries are living today but at a much greater scale. That is to say, we will see the same urgency for reducing the greenhouse gas emissions associated with their housing stock, but this time it will apply to a much greater population.

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In summary, I really have no problem with governments issuing Building Codes (as long as they are well designed). I just do not think it is realistic to expect developing countries—whose urban population is rapidly increasing—to design, implement, issue and enforce good Building Codes on time. If we wait until they develop, they will already have an unsustainable housing stock that will take decades to refurbish and improve. Consequently, I believe we need to either rethink Building Codes or search for alternatives to them. Whatever we do, we need to think of mechanisms that are more robust and thus applicable to a more diverse range of socio-economic contexts.

My efforts for now—and the motivation for my PhD—are focused in making of Comfort a relevant attribute in the housing market. The rationale behind this is that, if people actively seek for comfortable homes, then the housing sector will see incentives to improve the quality of their products without the need for laws. I realize that this might not take us to Net-Zero, but it can still produce a great improvement.