The Greening of America’s Building Codes: Promises and Paradoxes
Princeton Architectural Press, 2022
In “The Greening of America’s Building Codes,” Aleksandra Jaeschke, an architect and assistant professor of architecture and sustainable design at the University of Texas at Austin, shares her curriculum on the complex breeding of green standards with building codes, as told through “entangled” histories of single-family construction regulations and environmental agendas. She speaks in a civilized, brainy way about where the world is, in terms of sustainability — a topic that, before reading the book, I could only discuss using curse words. Jaeschke’s research also makes it impossible to ignore the fact that, as knowledgeable as architects are, we are currently as effective at saving the environment as a beauty pageant is at bringing about world peace.
Jaeschke’s book opens with a timeline charting residential and environmental legislation alongside architectural, ecological, and sociopolitical milestones. The chronology begins with the coining of the term “scientist” in 1840 and densifies through green consciousness and policy realms, codes, and landmarks. With captivating infographics, Jaeschke dissects the codified mindset that generates and regenerates the “green Band-Aids” with which we work, because these are what are afforded to us right now
Architects know that green codes and certificate systems are not the crux of climate action, but we often design as if they are the only action we need. Rating and certificate systems have been adopted by some local governments as mandatory construction standards, but most municipalities use only green incentives and overlays. This distinction matters. Core building codes such as the IBC look after health, safety, and welfare by requiring minimum standards, while green overlay codes offer “enhancements.” When we take green standards up on their options — as we should — we accept how fraught they are with compromises.
Carbon removal, for instance, is best done through ecosystem preservation and energy neutrality, yet the building code cannot do much about that, as it mainly addresses the realm of and within the building envelope. The code’s unspoken maxim, “where provided, then required,” means it is mostly activated by things we make and add. Green codes follow this path, seeking their level through what can be purchased and incorporated into a building. Jaeschke names this conceptual scoping constraint as one of the stubborn impediments to seasoned, sustainable development.
Codes see the site outside of the building envelope as decorative, not symbiotic, and could do better by expanding their concerns to include the field as much as the object. Local amendments, for instance, require numbers and types of plants, but they avoid requiring that the landscape restore or create habitat, manage stormwater in a regenerative way, provide passive cooling, or connect the site to conditions of a balanced ecosystem. Jaeschke illustrates a related conflict with solar panels that privileges technology over trees on the site: The panel is incentivized and protected by the code, but the passive cooling created by tree shade is not.
The grown-up solution will include an economic model which finds a place for being instead of having. Jaeschke calls this the urgent “structural and linguistic” change that we need and refers to it as a profound “recircuiting.” We can begin by participating in code cycles where we increase demand for performance standards and broader scoping. Solutions could also come in the form of new paradigms for civil engineering, drainage, landscape, and irrigation codes so that they favor natural processes. Much of what we do now is trade on the mimicry of nature rather than harnessing the true regenerative power of nature itself. To achieve a mature sustainability, architects must reject the recombinant “satisficing” temperament of codes and green checklists, which are inherently (and ironically) closed to urgency.
Jaeschke says that “a building code is only as green as the economy that created it,” and this is one reason green codes are littered with trade-offs. She documents cases of energy-conserving materials that also harm the environment and homes that use passive strategies but cannot receive the same tax rebates won by ecologically dim-witted McMansions with solar panels. Conflicts like these point to a need for discerning the ecosystem prior to checking in with the ICC family, lest we continue creating places where technology beats nature and proper morphology every time.
Jaeschke’s discussion of the green economy looks at rating and certificate systems and helped me both to understand why LEED sometimes upsets me and to recognize my sympathies for it. While I credit LEED with transforming the market, it has often given me the unsettling feeling that by using it I am part of a grift — a feeling that arose years ago from a run-in with a LEED consultant posing as an architect. The individual was reported to TBAE, but it left me with the sense that LEED represents a burglary in our profession. In the same chapter, the swipe Jaeschke takes at house flippers is righteously gratifying, as my contempt for them and their energy-efficient vinyl window replacements is a daily torment.
In addition to demonstrating the value of taking a central role in certificate systems and code-making, Jaeschke proposes that architects take an early role, arguing that predesign is a missing macro to achieving sustainable development. She shares four conversations with people who are in the earth-saving business at predesign: two of whom are directly involved in code-making and construction. Through animated talks about code-borne impediments to straw bale construction and waterless sanitation, we get to see inspiring examples of crucial early intervention.
The immense reorientation of the way everyone thinks about building will be no small task. But that is Jaeschke’s point: Sustainability is not a task but an existence. Authentic sustainability, she says, “requires integrity before integration, attention before action, and ethics before efficiency. Indeed, a wicked problem in a world based on discretization, speed, and standardization.” Few disciplines are better placed for paradigm-shifting and environmental stewardship than architecture and engineering. Centering ourselves in the necessary transformation is the next right move.
Laura Foster, AIA, is an El Paso architect who has worked in local government for more than a decade as El Paso’s first city development architect, the city’s first chief architect, and presently as El Paso Water’s first architect. She is invested in creating thoughtful collaborations between architects and engineers. Foster graduated from the Southern California Institute of Architecture.