Buildings are complicated – so is code compliance

Buildings are the most complicated machine that the average person has to operate. Trying to figure out how to put a building together, make it beautiful, comply with all aspects of building code, and meet client expectations for budget, timeline, and aesthetics is the most complicated part of my profession. As of July 13th of this year, in Virginia, we now have to comply with the 2012 Virginia State Building Code. Change complicates life further. Buildings are complicated – so is code compliance.


The new standards in Virginia are impacting energy efficiency practices through daylighting requirements, insulation upgrades, and air leakage standards. In the long run these will all be huge benefits to the building owner through energy savings. In the short-term, the industry is trying to figure this out while trying to keep the upfront costs affordable to potential clients.

attic insulation

On the commercial design side, code officials are now asking for documentation in the form of energy compliance reports that have not been required in past code cycles. This is adding to the amount of time and money it takes to document a design. Daylighting requirements are such that calculations have to be performed to show that you have the appropriate number of skylights to meet the new standards in the 2012 building code. Lighting controls are being added to comply with the new daylighting standards increasing complication to the installation and design of the lighting system. Energy usage standards vs lighting level restrictions in rooms is forcing the use of more efficient LED technology adding to upfront costs. There are conflicts within sections of the code and the energy standards section such as plenum are not allowed in one section and are allowed in another section – so which is it? This all adds time to the design process as we figure out how the local code official is interpreting code requirements and documenting compliance.


On the residential design side the changes are having less impact on the design. In fact, we have not had to change anything about our standard for design in general. It is impacting the amount of time it takes to document our design decisions. We are having to document further some of our structural design in the form of “showing our work.” It adds time to include these calculations on our drawings sheets, but not to our design time as we already had this included. The biggest change for residential is the new requirements for wood deck design and shear wall bracing. The easy solutions are fairly expensive. The inexpensive options have impacts on aesthetics. There are now requirements for building tighter for better energy performance of ducts and building envelope. However, Virginia allows for a visual inspection to show air tightness. I say this is impossible to do with a visual inspection so it will not benefit the majority of home owners. We already include the air tightness test as a standard in our home design so I know we meet the standard on our homes with or without the visual inspection.


There is also a new Virginia building code used for renovation projects. This book used to be a chapter in the commercial building code, but now is a stand alone document. It has a lot of new language and coordination required that did not exist before. There is a lot of confusion as to the intent and time is the only thing that will clarify some of the standards. It is taking a lot of my time to learn the standard and verify we are in compliance for our renovation projects.


All of these changes will be figured out and will become the minimum standard for how we build. I cannot imagine trying to work through all of these changes had we been designing to code minimum in the past. This is going to have the largest impact on those builders that purchase home plans online and build to code minimum. It is going to raise their quality and the level of efficiency and safety in their projects and that is needed. In the short-term, it is having an impact on everyone in the construction industry as we try to stay competitive while making a living doing what we love. All of this to say, Buildings are complicated and so is code compliance.


Green Term Defined: 2012 International Energy Conservation Code

Every three years  (or so) Virginia updates the Virginia Uniform Statewide Building Code (VUSBC). Virginia typically adopts a version of the International Building Code (updated every year) that is 3 years behind the current year. As of July 1, 2014, Virginia adopted the 2012 International Building Code, which will be mandatory for new buildings starting July 1, 2015. Part of that code is a subset called the 2012 International Energy Conservation Code. Virginia does not adopt it without some modification (I wish they did) so here are some things to expect.

attic insulation

  • New homes being built have to be caulked and sealed to create an air tight envelope. Virginia modified this requirement to allow for a visual test – essentially making this a worthless requirement. If you are building, you should ask your builder for a blower door test to at least meet the 2012 IECC requirements of total building air leakage.
  • Ducts and air handlers must be sealed with maximum leakage testing to show tightness. Once again, Virginia allows for a visual test instead of the more effective duct blaster test.
  • 50% of light bulbs and fixtures in a dwelling must now be high-efficacy lighting. I have not designed a house in more than 10 years that did not meet this requirement.
  • Wall insulation requirements have increased from R-13 to R-15 or R-13+1 Continuous.
  • Hot water pipes need R-3 insulation according to the code – unfortunately Virginia deleted this requirement completely.


According to a report developed by the Department of Energy, full implementation of the 2012 IECC would add $215 to a home over the 2009 IECC.  The projected savings the home owner would see over the first year is $388. So ask your builder to build to the 2012 IECC instead of just the worst possible thing allowed by Virginia law – the Virginia Uniform Statewide Building Code.


Top blog posts for 2014

Here are the top blog posts for 2014. Let us know which topic was your favorite!

5. The evolution of a sketch and list of ideas into a dream home.

Old Town Harrisonburg custom home

In an age of immediate gratification architecture and construction is a slow process. We started the design for this custom home in Old Town Harrisonburg back in July of 2013 and the clients just moved in late last month – more than a year later. However, the process holds tremendous gratification when your clients dreams can be translated into drawings and then they are revealed slowly through construction…..

4. Building Code – The worst possible building you can build by law

Bathroom renovation

I respond to a lot of request for proposals and do a lot of interviews for new design projects. Sometimes there is a higher standard to which the new design needs to meet and sometimes the potential project is only aiming for building code minimum standards…..

3. How to Love an Architect

architectural stick figures

Architects are a different breed. They find romance in restoration, poetry in a portico, and harmony in a historic district. A romantic dinner date is filled with observations about the exposed beams, glazing patterns, and a long list of how to redesign the space to make it flow better….

2. Home Energy Tips – Ventilation and Duct Sealing

Dayton Custom Home

I say it all the time, your home is the most complicated machine you own. One of the main reasons for this statement is your (HVAC) Heating, Ventilation, and Air Conditioning Systems. If you have a forced air Heat Pump that is controlling the temperature in your home, you are like most in our area….

1. Penn Laird Custom Home – Interior Photographs

Heavy Timber Living Room
This incredible home is done in Penn Laird, built by Trost Custom Homes, and the clients have moved in. Here are the other updates….

Thank you for reading and commenting on my posts this year. Your participation has made a huge difference for our success this year.

Building Code – Why should you demand more?

Building Code: set of standards established and enforced by local government for the structural safety of buildings.

The building code is simply a set of rules that set minimum standards for construction of structures – the absolute worst possible construction allowed by law. The purpose of the building code is to protect health, safety, and general welfare as they relate to the construction and occupancy of buildings. It is not intended to be the final goal for a project. I remember in the late 90’s when the construction industry was humming along, one local builder advertised on television that he built to code. IMG_6813That commercial used to frustrate me since everyone is required to build to code – he was spending a lot of money on television ads to say nothing. So why did he do it? Why brag that you are only building to the minimum standard allowed by law? Somehow in our industry, that has become a measure of quality. We have somehow allowed the general public to accept a minimum standard as good enough.

In the Commonwealth of Virginia, the governing code is called the Virginia Uniform Building Code (USBC). It is an adaptation of the International Building Code and the International Residential Building Code. It sets standards for wind loads (these seem to be on the minds of clients after the devastating tornadoes in the mid-west), snow loads, occupancy, sprinkler, and egress requirements and many other aspects of the built environment. It does nothing, however, to set a standard for the quality, durability, and comfort of the construction. These added requirements can only come from design. You have to look beyond code compliance and ask harder questions of your building materials and technologies to create a lasting, efficient, durable, and healthy built solution. Again, code is simply the minimum allowed by law, it is not quality construction.

Don’t get me wrong, having a minimum allowed by law is a good thing. It gives us all some assurance that when we walk into a building it will remain standing, the roof will remain attached, and the average size person will not fall over railings on the porch. However, building code is slow to adapt to building science and material technology development. The only way to get better buildings is to create demand for better buildings. You have to ask the right questions of your builder and architect to get the desired level of quality you expect and deserve. “Because that is the way we always do it” only works if a new better way to solve the problems it “always creates” has not been found. For instance, there are new ways to lay tile in a bathroom that are much better than the old way of laying it directly on the plywood sub-floor. SchluterThose VOC laden products that worked so well in years past have equal quality and performance substitutes that have eliminated the toxic off-gassing of their predecessors.  We know more about air sealing and insulation products that make the old way of insulating a home obsolete and potentially hazardous. Advancing technology and tested solutions are not code mandated, they are driven by builders and designers looking to add quality to their projects through understanding the latest science of building. The “because that is the way we always do it” builders are falling behind in the latest building science understanding. They are simply delivering shiny boxes with little consideration to performance, durability, or occupant comfort.

You have all the power in the world to make the construction industry, the built environment, and the homes and offices we spend all our time inside of energy-efficient, healthier, and more durable. You must create the demand for higher performance, better value, and a more sustainable future. Code is not going to solve the problems we face in the coming years. Demand more and I guarantee this industry will meet your call. 



Virginia Adopts 2009 Building Code

On March 1, 2011, the Virginia Uniform Statewide Building Code (USBC) update to reference the 2009 IECC and 2009 IRC became effective statewide (it currently references the 2006 versions of these codes). There will be a one-year phase-in period during which builders and designers can still use the current USBC version. Two-day energy code training is planned for 2011 in eight locations for 1,600 code enforcement officials, and similar training is planned for 2012 for 1,600 code enforcers, designers, builders and contractors. Compliance studies will be developed for late 2011 and early 2012.
According to the Building Code Assistance Project (BCAP), if Virginia began implementing the 2009 IECC and Standard 90.1-2007 statewide in 2011, businesses and homeowners would save an estimated $128 million annually by 2020 and $256 million annually by 2030 in energy costs (assuming 2006 prices).
Additionally, implementing the latest model codes would help avoid about 31 trillion Btu of primary annual energy use by 2030 and annual emissions of about 2.2 million metric tons of CO2 by 2030.
A 2010 BCAP analysis indicates that the weighted average incremental construction cost of upgrading to the 2009 IECC in Virginia would be $582.07 per home. On average, the annual energy savings per home would be $225.00, meaning the simple payback for homeowners would occur, on average, in 2.59years. These estimates are conservative and represent the upper bound on incremental cost.
In November 2010, the 2012 International Energy Efficiency Code was adopted at the national level by building officials from across the nation. This energy code for new residential and commercial buildings will increase energy efficiency by 30 percent. The new IEEC codes must now go through the three year review process before it can be adopted in Virginia.
For information from BCAP regarding Virginia codes:
For Commonwealth of Virginia Energy Conservation Code information: