Code Rage: When Politics Poisons Policy, Nobody Wins

The International Code Council announced a new "framework" for code development. A dispute intensified. Now what?


Code Rage: When Politics Poisons Policy, Nobody Wins

The International Code Council announced a new "framework" for code development. A dispute intensified. Now what?

John McManus
March 12th, 2021
Code Rage: When Politics Poisons Policy, Nobody Wins

The International Code Council, whose job is to serve as the world's clearinghouse for applying heft of science and political will to rules that make buildings safer and give the planet a fair shot at continuing to support life as we know it, may have lost key stakeholders' support as it unveiled its latest code development strategy.

A matter that has simmered in the past year-plus over who has "say" in what becomes code intensified early this month as the ICC announced a new, revised framework for the route new enforceable standards make their way into local, regional, and national code imperatives that would take effect in 2024.

Controversy around "due process" in how code comes to be has, does, and could further impact development and structure of shelter for years to come. The story's complicated, of course, by a Byzantine, every-three-year "workflow." Typically, a three-stage procedure for the origination, development, approval, adoption, and enforcement of a new array of building codes would conclude in a vote that reflected wide consensus among private and public sector stakeholders. That flow broke down this past development cycle, with the result that online voters greenlighted new codes that had "failed" to win ICC committee support in the two prior stages.

What's more, the imbroglio involves a criss-cross complex of competing industry interests, each claiming higher-ground on one or more compelling challenges facing housing: affordability, sustainability, and resilience.

Three other moving targets that play constantly into the mix are the trajectory and intensity of housing's most-urgent risk zones: affordability, sustainability, and resilience.

So it's no easy matter to follow the thread of the dispute, let alone understand what a constructive path forward might look like.

Start With Early March 2021

For context's sake, let's start with an early-March message from the ICC, saying it has "released a new framework to assist governments and building industry stakeholders in meeting energy efficiency and greenhouse gas reduction goals." The ICC's claim under the new framework, is that it will "balance test" and "use a tiered approach" to codify both minimum new requirements and "pathways to net zero energy and additional greenhouse gas reduction policies."

The ICC announcement occurred despite:

A heavyweight in the "against" column is AIA EVP/Chief Executive Officer Robert Ivy, FAIA. A statement from Ivy notes: “This heavily opposed decision stands to only serve select special interest groups and will no doubt erode progress towards the modern codes that are desperately needed to heal our planet. We hope the ICC Board of Directors will ensure transparency and fairness in the selection of this new standard committee and take its oversight responsibility seriously.”

Ken Gear, CEO, Leading Builders of America

Homebuilders, on the other hand, have thrown their support behind the new ICC framework, even after having weighed in earlier in the process with serious concerns over the steps the ICC took to reach it. We talked this week with Kenneth Gear, CEO of the Leading Builders of America, a coalition of 20 of the nation's highest-volume homebuilding enterprises.

"We had serious concerns about the development process as it drew to a close in 2020, because the final stage governmental online consensus vote resulted in a list of new code requirements that would have had high-cost-low-benefit implications that would have profoundly impacted affordability," Gear says. "The ICC itself recognized this was not the best way to go, and instead chose to pivot from a Governmental Consensus Process it had found to be inadequate, to a gold-standard American National Standards Institute (ANSI) process that achieves consensus in a pervasively accepted way. Each stakeholder gets a say, and homebuilders get a vote, but not disproportionate to other stakeholders."

So, some organizations believe the new framework will lead to a fairer process for code development. Some, well, don't.

The Go-Forward

The buried lead here is what needs to happen next. That's because at least some of the stakeholders essential to determining meaningful solutions for building codes' evolution believe they've been shoved to the sidelines of a matter they believed they were in the middle of and should have a say.

Yup, they feel canceled, cheated, replaced, disempowered. They'd like to "stop the steal." We all know how well that works out. In the the case of the ICC, the IECC, and the new framework that applies ANSI standards development to the updated codes for 2024, the dispute could serve as a teachable moment, one that could apply to many of housing's most compelling challenges of the moment.

How? This battle over energy and building codes that would take effect in 2024 comes complete with righteous rhetorical fury, a contested voting process, and its own microcosmic version of call-out culture that will more likely result in paralysis all around than a brave path of progress into the future.

At its root, we'd suggest, is the matter of who'll pay for what noble and desperately-needed changes to the current state of things.

Supporters of both sides of a construct that today pits housing affordability and the costs of delivering it fiercely at odds with sustainable, energy-efficient, reduced carbon buildings, and the expense to design, develop, and produce them, believe they have the high ground.

The whack-a-mole phenomenon in building and real estate works like this. Each fix necessarily rules out the others. If you make one fix, the other two come apart, either because they become impossibly expensive or otherwise unrealistic. Further, everybody working for one of those three solutions must necessarily be working at odds with those working on or promoting the other two. Opposing views, rather than serving as an opportunity to establish common ground, are roundly dismissed, discredited, and too often, demonized.

Among society's defining challenges – good, safe, healthy housing that's accessible to more people, carbon positive, and fit to endure natural and human stresses and shocks – none can be more real and ever-more menacing than these, especially coming out of the convulsive shock of the coronavirus pandemic.

Trillions of dollars of commitment and investment – with an array of risks and opportunities – and many non-monetary measures of value gained or lost hang in the balance.

  • A five-pronged carbon positive strategic investment that could stave off some worst-case scenarios for climate collapse would cost on the order of $50 trillion, according to a Morgan Stanley analysis.
  • In an economic and household-earnings environment where every $1,000 increase in asking price for a new home prices-out 154,000 households from the pool of people able to participate in the new home market.
  • As many as 35 million – one in three – U.S. homes are at "high-risk" of natural disaster: earthquakes; wildfires; inland floods; severe convective storms; winter storms; hurricanes; and tropical storm coastal surge and wind, per CoreLogic.

Rank one of those risks, and the priority around finding solutions for them, as higher than the other. But that's what happens in housing all the time, and it's at the core of the dispute over the ICC's new code-devel0pment framework.

Can it be possible that highest-level priorities – affordability, sustainability, and resilience – rank equally importantly as non-negotiables? If not, why not? If the risk of not accomplishing one of these goals is as great as the risk of not achieving another of them, why wouldn't they rank as equally necessary?

It's also worth asking here, is it truly possible that one of these outcomes could plausibly come true without the other two also occurring? Is there true "affordability" in the sense of wider access to safe, decent, healthy shelter if climate change's threats and natural hazard risk are not part of the total, holistic solution?

Sometimes good – even urgently needed – ideas cancel each other out. Often they only seem to.

  • Good idea: Make housing more affordable to more people by making it easier to profitably develop, build and operate homes and communities.
  • Good idea: Make buildings – which are responsible for four parts in 10 of the carbon emissions and greenhouse gasses causing the earth's climate collapse – net carbon positive.
  • Good idea: Make homes and communities fit to weather, endure and keep open access to vital resources despite natural and human-caused catastrophes.

So, a real-time, real-world example of how not to go about solving this challenge? Take a look at the cascade of knee-jerk reactions to a move last week by the International Code Council to adopt a new framework for evolving building codes to keep pace with the climate crisis' fast-moving goal posts.

What process would essential stakeholders in the enterprise of working to solve these equally urgent exigencies pursue?

Equally important to the power struggle, who "owns" the expected outcomes, the goal posts? Who has "say" in the rule-making process, the flow of consensus and standard-setting, the timetables, and the trajectory of impacts to both housing affordability and housing sustainability and resilience?

Where are the equivalents and the false-equivalencies in the two priorities? Is there reason to believe that they're either mutually exclusive or mutually inseparable?

The Risk Of Politics-Poisoned Policy

If those questions have an answer, it's clearly not evident nor imminent in the current context controversy over agendas, goals, the means to reach them, and consensus for near-term future building codes and standards development that claim affordability and access on the one hand, and greenhouse gas emission and carbon reduction structures on the other.

Here's how we'd frame the challenge:

Navigate genuine, real-world, stakeholder-developed trade-offs that mesh equally-consequential goals of affordable access to decent housing and buildings that reduce carbon and help ward off the collapse of earth's climate.

Here's how we'd describe the surest way not to find solutions to this challenge--which necessarily requires a multi-stakeholder solution rather than a discrete fix:

  • Characterize disagreement as opposition to a goal or outcome: i.e. define dissenters as the enemy
  • Characterize those who disagree as being motivated by "special interests": i.e. call-out the enemy's venal motivations
  • Construe one goal as most important, and other goals as unreasonable, too costly, to people, to the planet, or to private- or public-sector stakeholders.
  • Change the rules of engagement and due process mid-stream if you don't think the current rule set will lead to the ends you want.

Code is not the real enemy of affordability here, but it's hardly felt among builders to be a friend either. The spirit of its purpose comes down to us from the earliest codification of matters of justice, almost 4,000 years ago, when Babylonian dynast "an-eye-for-an-eye" Hammurabi declared that a builder be put to death if the structure he built collapsed and killed the home's inhabitant.

However, those who "develop and own" code, and how it evolves to protect people and the planet, tend to be human, which means they're prone to becoming combative if their methods and processes encounter push-back.

Likewise, wanting to profitably build and sell affordably-priced homes in accessible, inclusive communities is not the enemy either. Still, people whose competitive position and prospect of success require affordable pricing are equally predisposed to the flaws of human nature.

Problems – big ones – occur when cancel-culture dynamics kick in.

Avoid those problems head-on. Fact is, there's no circumnavigating one of these Big Three challenges without a solution that embraces – and drives improvement – in all three realms.

Check out: "Empathy Starts With Curiosity," a Harvard Business Review analysis from Peter Bregman, the CEO of Bregman Partners, an advice-analysis piece on how to trigger an opportunity to listen first.

Also, check out work by by Loretta J. Ross, a visiting professor at Smith College, who's crusading for Calling In Culture as a strategy for life, policy, and community solutions seeking.

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John McManus

John McManus

President and Founder

John McManus, founder and president of The Builder’s Daily, is an award-winning editorial, programming, and digital content strategist. TBD's purpose is a community capable of constant improvement.