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Local Leadership: Municipalities Take the Lead in Resiliency-Focused Regulations

Jason Richardson

In the wake of President Trump's actions, many state and local municipalities are taking the lead in creating building codes and safety standards that ensure projects can better withstand the effects of nature and human-caused disasters. Here’s a look at how these codes work and how regions around the country are doubling down on resilient design.

Building Codes

Local building codes, including state and city, generally take precedent over any other existing building codes and regulations. Almost all city and state building regulations are based on the International Building Code (I-Code), and include regionally specific modifications to address resiliency issues such as flooding, storms, sea-level rise, wildfires, droughts and temperature extremes which are exacerbated by climate change.


Provisions in the I-Codes address disaster preparedness and recovery — from how and where to build in flood plains to constructing buildings that can better withstand natural and man-made disasters. The I-Code focuses on green construction, safety, energy conservation and flood precautions, and the International Code Council is looking at its existing codes to find overlaps between resiliency and the building and life safety codes, in partnership with the AIA and National Institute of Building Sciences.


Federal agencies such as the VA also use the I-codes, although they have their own special requirements. Federal building codes include mandatory minimum energy codes based on ANSI/ASHRAE/IES Standard 90.1-2013, which relate indirectly to climate change.


Local Leadership on Resiliency


In response to the lack of federal legislation, many states and cities are taking the lead, adopting a two-pronged approach focused on reducing emissions and building resiliency. The majority of states also have climate change adaptation plans completed, in progress, or recommended as part of a broader climate change action plan.


The main instruments local government are using to enforce policies include green building codes, energy use disclosure programs, expedited permitting and preferential zoning, heightened efficiency standards for public buildings, energy efficiency and clean energy incentive programs, and community certification programs.


Some examples of states and local governments which have introduced more strident measures for reducing emissions include:

California: the CALGreen Building Standards Code is mandatory for all government-owned buildings and can be adopted by cities and counties. Its provisions include 20% reduction of indoor water use, compliance with state energy efficiency standards, and a requirement that new homes be solar ready. San Francisco introduced stricter local requirements in 2010, and San Diego expedited permitting for sustainable building projects.

Massachusetts: The Green Communities Act requires adoption of the most recent IECC and ASHRAE codes and allows municipalities to impose codes which are up to 30% more energy efficient. It also expedites application and permitting for renewable energy facilities and introduces new, stricter LEED and energy efficiency standards for government buildings, and offers grants for communities investing in renewable energy and energy efficiency measures.

New York City: The Energy Conservation Code imposes a variety of green building and energy efficiency requirements on new construction, building additions, and major renovations. The regulations require all new municipal construction or major reconstruction projects to meet LEED Silver certification standards. NY’s Climate Smart Communities Initiative also recognizes communities which have met various emissions and resiliency targets.

Examples of states and localities that introduced more strident measures for resiliency include:​​


New York City: While NYC’s building codes are based on the I-Codes, they are much more robust. The city has been updating its codes since Sandy and now has measures to capture stormwater to reduce flooding, ensure the safe storage of toxic materials in flood zones, and mandates for external electrical hookups for emergency generators as well as common tap water areas in buildings that don’t require pumps or electricity. Hospitals have additional requirements such as elevated building systems.

Baltimore/Maryland: The governor’s Climate Change and Coast Smart Construction Executive Order directs all state agencies to consider the risk of coastal flooding and sea level rise in the design of projects, and requires the Dept. of General Services’ design guidelines to require new and rebuilt state structures to be more than two feet above the 100-year flood level. The TreeBaltimore program also aims to increase the city’s tree canopy up to 40% to reduce heat island effect.

California: The state has several additional building codes for water efficiency to deal with the state’s ongoing drought issues. Wildfires are a problem throughout the state, and there is a special section of the state building code which requires, among other measures, that buildings in at-risk fire hazard severity zones be built of fire-resistant materials. Healthcare facilities have additional building code requirements as initially outlined in Senate Bill 1953, as well as a separate building department which oversees enforcement.

Jason Richardson is an architect at NBBJ

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