Updating Pennsylvania Building Codes

So. Building Codes. There it is, a title as unvarnished as its subject. There’s no dressing up building codes. They can’t be set to plucky music. So why are they worthy of your attention?

Well to start, Pennsylvania’s inability to adopt up-to-date codes is costing you money. And I don’t just mean if you live in a new home that was built in the last couple of years (though in that case, you’ve likely paid an extra couple hundred dollars per year in energy bills). But just by living in a state that has not adopted contemporary codes, you building and home owners are paying a premium for your insurance.

Still not interested? Building codes (well really, the enforcement of building codes) are responsible for saving countless lives- and not only those located in places plagued by earthquakes and flooding. When was the last time an entire city went up in flames? There is a reason we haven’t had another Great Chicago Fire, and you guessed it, that reason is building codes. As best building practices continue to evolve, codes no longer address merely fire and structural safety; occupant health and comfort are forefront. The development is akin to Maslow’s Hierarchy – having provided for basic building needs, we can now focus on improving occupants’ quality of life.

Enough history. What is going on in Pennsylvania and why should we all care? Well, under the Pennsylvania Construction Code Act of 1999, the state government protects its citizens by enforcing up-to-date building codes. The law reads as one would hope: “[The government will] provide standards for the protection of life, health, property, and environment” and “encourage standardization… consistent with nationally recognized standards” and “permit to the fullest extent feasible the use of state-of-the-art technical methods, devices and improvements.” With the rapidity of technological development, that last part is particularly important, for the only way to ensure the safe incorporation of new building materials and methods is to regulate their use.

So, yay, PA is a great place to live and the “life, health, (and) property” of residents is being looked after.  Well, not really.  The Pennsylvania Construction Code Act went swimmingly for a few years, but the state has now fallen two, soon to be three, code cycles behind.  This means we are currently using 2009 International Code Council Codes, not the 2015 version from the tri-annual cycle.  Why?  It is true that building better buildings initially costs more money, from the materials, the construction methods, to the design. The problem is, those shouldering the upfront costs do not directly benefit from the investment’s future savings. In fact, most upgrades pay for themselves within one to two years – and owners continue saving hundreds of dollars for every additional year of building use. So when buildings are built to 2009 ICC Codes, your money is literally flying out the window, or through the leaks in your attic, walls, or duct work.  Over the life of a mortgage the building and homeowner will pay more when construction is based on energy inefficient codes, even though the intial cost looks cheaper.

Other reasons to care about updated codes:

  1. It saves anyone who owns or operates buildings money, both in insurance costs and operating costs (see above).
  2. Safe incorporation of new technology – we are using 2009 ICC codes, which started development in 2006… so any building technologies developed since 2006/2007 are not addressed in Pennsylvania building code. Pennsylvania’s current building code does not provide clear instruction on safe and proper incorporation of technology developed in the last decade.
  3. Building better buildings requires more skilled labor, and these are jobs that cannot be outsourced.
  4. Updated codes help to make each building more self-sufficient and resilient, allowing occupants to use fewer resources while achieving higher levels of comfort. Have you heard of Rockefeller Foundation’s 100 Resilient Cities? (Hint: Pittsburgh is one of the 100.)
  5. Updated codes would decrease costly confusion for designers and builders across state lines.  As Pennsylvania shares 75% of its border with states that have already updated to the 2015 ICC codes, this is especially applicable.
  6. Consumers want them. According to a recent study, “eighty-two percent of homeowners felt they have a right to a home that meets minimum energy efficiency standards. Seventy-four percent felt codes add to the purchase price of a new home and effectively lower monthly operating costs. Seventy-five percent felt energy codes should be enforced like other safety and quality standards of construction. Seventy-nine percent would rather pay slightly more for a new home and have affordable, predictable operating costs and energy bills.”
  7. Energy efficiency (such as those provided by updated codes) is the cheapest source of energy (just in case you didn’t believe us).
  8. And as we are Green Building Alliance, we would be remiss if we did not mention that updated building codes are one of the most effective ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions ( see case 1, case 2, case 3, case 4 and case 5).

Did any of these reasons peak your interest? If so, that’s one rare point for building codes. If after this article you’d like to see the benefits of new codes, you could shoot your local legislator an email (something like “Please update building codes” would probably get the message across).  And if you are feeling particularly peppy, you can call your legislator (who can be found here). This will cost you one minute of your life, and may bring hundreds of dollars in yearly savings.  You can also add your name to the form below, so when GBAadvocates for updated building codes, legislators can see that it is a topic their constituents care about.  Thanks for listening!

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