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A ‘Travesty’ in the World of Building Codes Could Erode Cities’ Ability to Fight Climate Change

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Workers install panels on the roof of a home in Newburgh, New York.
Workers install panels on the roof of a home in Newburgh, New York.
Photo: Craig Ruttle (AP)

Backroom deals, undemocratic processes, shutting out local voices in favor of industry interests. There’s soap-opera level drama happening in an unlikely space: the world of building codes. But the issues at hand are more than made-for-TV drama, and the outcome could have devastating effects on energy efficiency and the climate.

The International Code Council is a nonprofit association that essentially sets the rules and regulations for building codes worldwide every three years. Before this week, the organization was structured to allow its members—which include thousands of local government officials—to have the final vote on new building codes. But in a meeting on Wednesday, the ICC’s board of directors voted to limit participation from state and city government members in weighing in on energy efficiency rules, stripping them of their right to vote on codes.


The decision at first may sound like a smart one; let the experts who know the most decide what’s best in this complicated space. But the reality is actually the opposite. The move comes at the behest of various industry groups who want to keep control. And the change is in response to local governments getting more involved in the ICC as they map out climate plans.


In fact, local governments’ increased involvement in the ICC made its most recent set of codes significantly more energy efficient than past years, said Bill Fay, the coalition director of the Energy Efficient Codes Coalition, who called this week’s announcement a “travesty.” Overall, local governments getting involved meant huge growth in efficiency in codes after decades of stagnationand represented a big change for builder groups who were once able to dictate a more leisurely pace of progress.

“That ticked the builders off,” Fay said.

The phrase “building codes” may make most people want to hit the snooze button, but the decisions the ICC is making are going to be vital for making sure we cut emissions around the world. The International Energy Agency found that in 2018, the building sector accounted for 28% of all greenhouse gas emissions, two-thirds of which was from increased electricity use. In that same report, the IEA estimated that we could cut 90% of greenhouse gas emissions from buildings by 2050 simply by pairing energy efficient upgrades with renewable energy.

In recent years, the number of mayors and other elected officials choosing to become involved in the ICC have grown as more and more cities and states make climate pledges and try to tackle emissions. In 2019, municipalities, helped by energy efficiency advocates, turned out in record numbers to vote for the codes for 2021.

Industry groups “have gotten really used to the code staying the way it is, or making like, 1% improvements, [and] just having the builders stay in control,” said Lauren Urbanek, a senior energy policy advocate at NRDC. “They were blindsided by the fact that there was such interest and such progress.”


Looking at the list of ICC members who are in favor of limiting local government input is pretty telling. There’s the American Gas Association, which, obviously, represents natural gas interests. (It also seems pretty invested in touting gas’s ability to lower emissions as well as market something it’s calling “renewable natural gas,” which….OK.) The Edison Electric Institute, meanwhile, is a utility industry trade group that uses ratepayer money to prop up various anti-renewable campaigns. Even the seemingly-innocuous Asphalt Roofing Manufacturers Association has something to lose from more input from local officials: Asphalt absorbs a lot of heat, and various experts have recommended replacing asphalt roofs with more reflective materials to reduce heat islands in urban areas.

One powerful member in favor of the new decision has already been called out for manipulating the ICC. In 2019, the New York Times reported that the National Association of Home Builders, a trade group representing construction companies, had brokered secret agreements with the ICC that gave it more control over building codes for homes. The NAHB then used their powers to fight against initiatives, like requirements for better insulation and circuitry for electric vehicles, that would make houses more energy-efficient but would be more expensive.


Following the 2019 vote, “builders were not happy,” Fay said. “They went to the ICC immediately to try to get the voters and proposals invalidated.”

It worked. Last year, the ICC board decided to invalidate energy efficiency measures, including ones for electric vehicle hookups, voted through by members in 2019. This week’s move seems to be a preemptive nail in the coffin to prevent the progress made then from happening again.


The ICC claims government members can still get involved by submitting a public comment or serving on a committee. But “that’s really different than having a final say that you can give a yes or no vote to,” Urbanek said. “They are attacking the results of a democratic process. It’s making it basically impossible for the thousands of members who have been engaged in this process to meaningfully participate.”

“What bothers nearly everybody is we don’t know the answer of why they’re doing this,” Fay said. “You have a very successful effort going on. Government officials have done a phenomenal job of boosting energy efficiency. And now, that progress will be stopped.”