Evolving Building Codes: Many Builders Worry about Costs without Benefits


Many single-family builders are worried about the cost implications of the way building codes are evolving, especially codes associated with fire sprinklers and energy efficiency, a recent NAHB survey finds.

Originally, building codes were designed to establish minimum safety standards for newly built structures, but codes have increasingly been seen as a tool for advancing other public policies, such as energy efficiency. Hundreds of changes to building codes have been proposed over the past several years, by many different advocacy groups. Anecdotally, NAHB members have expressed concerns about some of the changes driving up construction costs substantially, as well as needlessly.

Although lessons are learned over the years and it’s possible to find new ways to improve building codes, codes have been established for so long and updated so many times, it’s not surprising that builders sometimes wonder if every one of the hundreds of proposed changes represents a significant and necessary improvement.

To help quantify the concerns, NAHB added a special question to the October survey for the NAHB/Wells Fargo Housing Market Index. The question specifically asked builders “How concerned are you about building codes becoming too stringent and driving up costs without a measurable improvement in safety or other benefits?”

Codes Chart

The results show that (on a scale of 1 to 5 where 5 is extremely concerned), 35 percent of single-family builders are extremely concerned about building codes overall, but this varies with the specific type of code. At the top of the worry list, 58 percent of builders are extremely concerned about the cost implications of codes associated with fire sprinklers, followed by energy codes at 38 percent. At the other end of the scale, only 9 percent are extremely concerned about the cost implications of plumbing/gas codes.

The survey didn’t distinguish the source of the cost increases.  The mostly widely adopted national model codes are those published by the International Code Council and are updated every three years. Many local jurisdictions have adopted a particular version, often with significant modifications (and Wisconsin has even written its own state-level code).  Builder concerns could stem from experience with a particular version of a model code, or the way local governments modify, interpret, and enforce it.

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