The Ministry of Health should be in charge of the Building Code

Building Codes are, more often than not, seen as public policies that reduce energy consumption, utility bills, and carbon emissions. This is partially true. After all, the things these codes mandate—e.g., insulation, shading, air-tightness and good windows—help reduce the heat transfer through the building envelope and therefore keeping the home at a comfortable temperature is going to require less energy. However, this is also partially wrong because, in practice, the benefits of improving a building envelope will sometimes not reduce energy consumption but only make the home healthier. Therefore, I claim that it is the Ministry of Health the one who—at least for now—will see the biggest benefits in improving housing and thus it is it who should manage the Building code.

As I explained earlier, reducing the heat transfer through the building envelope means that keeping the home at a comfortable temperature is going to require less energy. The physics in this statement is hardly questionable. After all, it is a direct consequence of the first law of thermodynamics. However, will people keep their homes at comfortable temperatures? This is not a physical discussion but a behavioral one.

I argued in a previous post that this assumption highly depended on the quality of the existing housing stock. Specifically, insulating highly performant homes might result in energy savings but insulating cold homes will mostly result in health and comfort improvements. The reason is very simple: when homes are cold, people do not keep them at comfortable temperatures.

Back then, when I published this blog post, I did not have much evidence. I wrote what I wrote based on what the findings of my PhD allowed me to predict. However, after talking to some people, I realized that my predictions had already been documented in several places. For example, 99% of the estimated benefits of subsidizing insulation and clean heating in New Zealand were associated with people’s health. Something similar happens in Denmark, where homes are labeled from A to G based on their estimated energy consumption. The evidence in that country shows that while a better label implies a lower consumption in the highest end of the spectrum (A to D), dwellings with labels D to G all seem to consume the same. This suggests that the benefits of improving homes from G to D will not reduce their energy consumption but improve their levels of comfort and health. Finally, just like I mentioned in another blog post, similar results have been documented in Belgium.

In conclusion, the main benefit of improving the quality of homes—at least in those countries with a not-very-highly-performant housing stock—is not related to energy but to health. Therefore, it is the ministry of health who should be in charge of building codes. This is especially true in countries with a strong healthcare system, as this ministry will see direct financial benefits as a consequence of people’s health improvements.