Dealing with building codes can be a major hurdle for those who want to build with natural materials, especially if there is anything experimental about the design concept or building technology. I have rassled with this issue many times in my life. I have ignored the local building authorities and either been caught or felt deceptive. I have complied with local authroities and been forced to do things that I considered either of questionable value or in opposition to my intentions. Occasionally I have been glad that the code was there to point out a safe approach to some building problem. So I approach the issue of building codes with very mixed emotions.
Building codes tend to be extremely specific about what materials may be used where and in what way. Little is really left to the discretion of the builder. Sure, design elements can vary, but they all must fit within certain parameters that regulate every aspect of building, from the nature of the foundation, to the size and placement of windows, to what materials may be used to create the shell. The Uniform Building Code does provide for the discretion of the inspector to allow different interpretations of the code, if he feels that the intent of the code is met. In reality this is rarely done, because there is a disincentive: anything that doesn't come straight from "the book" could possibly come back to haunt him. His supervisor may not like it, or if there were a failure at some point, somebody might try to hold him liable. Besides, people who are attracted to be inspectors tend to fit the profile of a bureaucrat. This degree of micro-management can easily squelch innovation in building technologies.innovation which is vital to evolving what I would call sustainable architecture.
The specifications of the UBC are derived from historical building habits, which currently means primarily the use of wood framing and highly industrial materials, such as steel and concrete. Using such natural materials as straw bales, cordwood, adobe etc. if allowed at all, must fit within the accepted scope of the code. Usually this means such materials may be used as "infill", but cannot be used structurally to support any weight of the building. We obviously need to come up with more earth-friendly ways of building than what the UBC requires. Our forests cannot sustain continued decimation, our air cannot accommodate continued industrial pollution, and people need to be able to afford adequate housing. The requirements of the UBC add up to a lot of money because many simple, effective means of construction (such as rubble trench foundations) are not allowed, and the use of used or ungraded lumber is not allowed, which means going to the store and buying lots of stuff.
So what is the driving force behind instituting building codes? The
usual response to this is SAFETY and HEALTH; without the codes, people
will build unsafe houses. I think that primarily the driving force behind
the codes are certain industries that want to protect their investments,
and are afraid that without the codes their investments may not be secure.
It's FEAR. I'm talking about banks that loan on mortgages, insurance companies
that provide homeowner's insurance, real estate companies that sell and
resell houses, and manufactures of industrial building products that rely
on business as usual. They all want to be assured that the house won't
fall down or burn to the ground. The other industry that benefits from
the UBC (and the plumbing and electrical codes) are the contractors and
subcontractors who do the work. The codes have become such an arcane maze
of requirements that the average homeowner who might do the work himself
is baffled and bewildered by them. So the professionals get more work,
because they do it all the time; they know what the inspector will allow.
The thing is, we ALL want assurance that our houses are safe. That's why we go to such trouble to build safely. If you are going to live in something, you find out what works and what doesn't. Building codes are more likely to insure uniformity than safety. Much detail in the UBC is devoted to mitigating against potential fires. This is good, because wood frame houses are probably the most dangerous fire traps ever conceived. They provide all of the necessary ingredients for a great blaze: small dimensional lumber spaced in vertical and horizontal boxes, with lots of air provided on most sides. No wonder the codes try to give the fire department a few extra minutes to put out the fire! Most of the alternative building that I have seen is far safer on this score: straw bales, adobe, earthbags, rammed earth, and cob do not promote combustion.
The agency that created the UBC is the International Conference of Building Officials (ICBO), a non-profit organization. Over the last few years they have gotten together with several other similar organizations and come up with a new set of building codes that they are promulgating. These new codes are called the 2000 International Codes, and are intended for use around the world. I find this concept especially disconcerting in view of the fact that vernacular building has been under pressure from "modern" methods for some time and we could lose much valuable knowledge if new codes replace old ways. Also the issues around sustainability are a global concern.
I have a proposal that could satisfy everybody's concerns. Why not create a certification process for building new homes according to codes that are voluntary? This could be administered either by the city, county, or by a private entity. Those builders who want their buildings to be certified (whether to satisfy the needs of banks, insurers, realtors or their own concerns) could avail themselves of this service, for a fee to cover the cost of administration and inspection. Home buyers who wanted this certification could only consider homes that have it, and would perhaps be willing to pay a little more for it. Those people who see no need for the certification would not be coerced into it, and would take responsibility for making their own homes safe. This would allow flexibility for the experimentation that is essential in creating earth-friendly ways of building. New building technologies could eventually find their way into the codes so that everybody could benefit from them. It doesn't have to be "all or nothing," where we either have no codes, or everybody must comply with them. A cooperative approach seems like the best solution to me.
In 2008 the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) in conjunction with the International Code Council (ICC) developed a new National Green Building Standard. This has also been approved by the American National Standards Institute (ANSI), which is a first for this organization. This new Green Home Building Standard is similar to the LEED process for evaluating and certifying homes, but is probably less costly to perform. It does rely on independent inspections to verify claims that are made. These standards will help home buyers realize just how green the claims might be for any given home they might be considering to purchase.
I would say that this new standard for evaluating the "greeness" of buildings is a giant step in the right direction. Virtually all of the basic criteria for building green that I have been advocating for years at this website have been recognized to some extent. The next step is to begin incorporating these green criteria into the actual codes.
We have reached a critical point in the United States, where there are very few places left without mandatory building codes. We need to express our concerns to those making the decisions through letters, phone calls or attending any meetings that are scheduled around this issue. Our future is at stake.
sterlingcodifiers.com the actual building codes for many jurisdictions throughout the United States.
dcat.net The Development Center for Appropriate Technology fosters sustainable building practices by getting them into building codes!
California Sustainable Healthy Home Waiver a PDF of the initial campaign framework for a Ballot Initiative in California.
taunton.com/finehomebuilding an article by David Eisenburg: Our Myopic Building Codes
green.blogs.nytimes.com a 2012 article about alternative building codes in Moab, Utah.