Special Interests Are Preventing the Expansion of Sustainable Building Codes

by Brynn Furey

As many government officials look for opportunities to make our buildings greener, special interest groups want to put up blockades. Recently, construction and gas industry associations succeeded in erecting a new barrier to sideline city leaders from influencing codes that determine the health and safety of our buildings — and have a major impact on our climate. 

Building codes play a critical role in advancing clean energy and reducing greenhouse gas emissions in our homes and businesses. Residential and commercial buildings account for about 40 percent of our country’s energy usage and a similar amount of our greenhouse gas emissions. Incorporating energy efficiency into our building plans with greener codes can make a big difference in slashing those numbers. 

With no federal building code in the United States, many cities and towns peg their standards to the one set by the International Code Council (ICC), a nonprofit association of industry groups, professionals and government officials that determines a new code standard every three years. 

That standard building code often creates the baseline for building energy efficiency requirements across the country and around the world. The code was previously set by taking input and code change proposals from anyone, including industry representatives, throughout the development process. But at the end of the day, only government representatives were allowed to vote on the final version. 

All of that changed on March 3 when the ICC decided to ban voting altogether. 

The ICC’s decision to change who decides building codes is a direct result of local leaders asserting their voice in that process. In 2019, hundreds of elected officials registered to vote on the code standard. They came out in droves to show support for more energy-efficient buildings, and they successfully won mandates to increase efficiency and require new buildings to be electric-ready with wiring to hook up electric cars and appliances. 

Unfortunately, the victory stirred up pushback from industry groups like the National Association of Home Builders and the American Gas Association, who appealed several measures that the ICC had previously approved. 

As a result, the ICC decided to end the voting process, taking away one of the most critical avenues for government officials to influence their jurisdictions’ building codes. 

The ICC will replace the old system with a standards process led by committees. One-third of those committees will be made up by government officials — who the ICC claims will “continue to have a leading voice.” However, the ICC does not specify who will comprise the other two-thirds of the committee members.

This is the latest tactic that gas industry leaders are using to maintain their grip on building codes and prevent regulations that would limit their profits. Whether they are advocating to cut off voting on the model code or trying to strip local governments of their ability to regulate gas use in buildings, it’s clear that they are spooked by local leadership as decision makers are pushing for more energy efficiency and building electrification to protect our health and the environment.

What happens next is murky. Local elected officials working to bring the benefits of efficiency and local clean energy production to their constituents should have a resounding say in how we build our future.  It’s clear that the ICC decision sidelines those leaders who are leading the charge on clean energy. However, our local decision makers still have other tools to advocate for greener buildings in their jurisdiction, and we can make a difference by calling our elected officials in support of more energy efficient and cleaner building codes. 

As the impacts of climate change are felt more and more each year, we need to make sure that newly constructed buildings help get us out of the mess that our fossil fuels dependence has put us in. Now more than ever, we should be empowering our representatives to tackle climate change and transition to clean energy. Instead of creating more barriers to building a clean future, we should be doing everything we can to construct greener buildings and a healthier world. 


Brynn Furey is the Energy Conservation and Efficiency Associate for Environment America. 


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