The IECC Is a Life Safety Code: Make It the Law

CodeWatcher IECC Life Safety Code

This first blog in a series on the IECC explains why America’s Model Energy Code may be getting a bad rap and what the industry needs to do to see it adopted as law in more municipalities around the nation.

The benefits of the International Energy Conservation Code (IECC) may not rise to a building or fire official’s traditional view of the “life-safety protection” offered by the ICC’s other 14 I-Codes that address fire, structural, or electrical issues. That flawed sentiment explains why some building officials say they won’t inspect for the IECC–even where it is the law.  When code opponents flex their lobbying muscle, the IECC sometimes gets jettisoned altogether from the suite of I-Codes that are adopted by a jurisdiction.

America’s Model Energy Code (IECC) may be getting a bad rap. There are life saving benefits that can be laid directly at the feet of the energy code, such as holding the heat or cold in a home during extreme weather, doing the same during power outages, preventing ice damming, keeping polluted air out and expelling indoor pollutants to the outside. These health-related issues are almost exclusively the domain of the IECC.

Non-Energy Benefits of IECC

Before “resilience” became de rigueur, authors Ryan Meres and Eric Makela presented the resiliency benefits of the IECC in the Institute for Market Transformation’s 2013 paper on the non-energy benefits of building energy codes: “Increased durability and healthier indoor air quality, in addition to assisting builders with meeting other health/life safety requirements, are just a few of the added benefits of complying with the energy code.”

Four years later, in one of the earliest articles to argue exclusively that “Energy Codes Are Life Safety Codes,” Christine Brinker of the Southwest Energy Efficiency Project (SWEEP) pointed first to how the IECC manages moisture: “Rot destroys the structure of the house or building, making it potentially unsafe to inhabit, and mold and mildew wreak havoc on human health. To prevent [them], the energy code dives deep into the field of building science—controlling heat, air, and moisture transfer in building enclosures.”

Together, SWEEP and its sister organization, the Midwest Energy Efficiency Alliance, argued that the IECC offers structural/safety protection to home and business owners and tenants by:

  • Augmenting fire codes:  The IECC’s tight building envelopes slow the spread of fires by sealing cracks, holes, and other draft openings, separating conditioned from unconditioned space.
  • Improving indoor air quality:  A well-sealed and purposefully ventilated building keeps pollutants outdoors and ensures healthy air flow inside.
  • Providing greater durability: Moisture management prevents construction material rot and harmful mold growth; a strong building envelope reduces condensation and ice damming.
  • Enhancing resiliency: Efficient buildings allow people to shelter in place longer during power outages.  MEEA notes: “A study conducted after Superstorm Sandy found that homes built to newer energy codes enabled residents to safely stay in their homes longer after a power outage.”
  • Reducing deaths and related health issues from exposure to extreme temperatures: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that about 2,000 Americans die each year due to extreme weather conditions.  More efficient buildings hold air conditioning and heating better during heat waves and cold snaps. While data on indoor deaths from extreme heat and cold is sparse and those deaths are seldom attributed to shoddy building envelopes or even the disorientation that accompanies head stress or hypothermia. But an analysis of medical records in New York City found 25% of those who died from cold exposure were inside: “Nearly all were living in single-family or row homes. . . . A study by the Urban Green Council in NYC showed that single-family and row homes lose heat more quickly in cold weather than apartment buildings.”

Micro Regulation for Macro Benefits

The IECC is unique from the other I-Codes. Greg Johnson, who chairs the ICC’s Sustainability Membership Council nailed the distinction in a presentation to ICC’s Board of Directors last fall:

  • Traditional life safety codes regulate building construction because something could potentially happen (fire, structural collapse, EMT & responder access, secured facilities). They represent micro regulation for micro impacts in the sense that benefits are limited to a building or a few buildings.
  • Green codes regulate buildings for events that are already happening worldwide. They represent micro regulation for macro impacts and benefits.

But the IECC also supports the traditional life safety codes. When one adds its tangible life safety benefits to its substantial reductions in monthly energy bills, strain on aging power plants, foreclosures, and carbon emissions, it’s clear why the IECC is an I-Code and needs to be supported by the construction community.  

Bill Fay leads the broad-based based Energy Efficient Codes Coalition (EECC). Stay tuned for the next blog in this series: “Why Republicans & Democrats Worked Together to Enact – three times – a Federal Law Embracing Improvements to Each IECC Update!”