Few people have the responsibility to actually understand building codes in Massachusetts and across the nation, but the overlooked details in building codes actually affect each of us every day since we exist largely around buildings.

Since the current federal administration has little interest in the environment, states must take action at a local level to push for change at the national level. In Massachusetts, the structure of building codes with a plan toward strict sustainability and advancements toward a unified code lends itself to energy reduction.

Predictably, since we spend so much time in buildings, they consume an enormous sum of energy. In 2015, 40 percent of U.S. energy consumption was from residential and commercial buildings. Buildings also account for 39 percent of total CO2 emissions in the United States. Additionally, according to the U.S. Green Building Council, emissions from buildings are projected to grow faster than any other sector, with commercial buildings growing the fastest at 1.8 percent each year through 2030. 

 Buildings account for 70 percent of the electricity load in the United States, an even larger percentage than energy consumption and CO2 emissions. These are striking figures that should merit considerable attention in our efforts to combat climate change.

According to a Green Building Council study, if half of the new commercial buildings were built to use 50 percent less energy, it would save six million metric tons of CO2 a year –  the same as taking one million cars off the road annually. Sustainable design codes are an overlooked tool for fighting climate change in this country. We must take sweeping and dramatic steps to reduce emissions and cut energy consumption, and one way to do so is to use Massachusetts’ policy as a model for the nation.

Unfortunately, global temperatures are approaching a 2-degree temperature rise, which could have devastating impacts. To make buildings an effective part of the race against climate change, we must transition to sustainable design immediately by requiring stringent requirements for buildings. 

We can do so by redefining building codes in Massachusetts. Building codes are mandated at the state level as a tool to promote safety and health, so each state has legislative powers surrounding the minimum requirements for buildings.

In the “Energy by Sector Report” from the U.S. Energy Information Agency (EIA), compared to 2015, measures of residential, commercial, industrial, transportation and electric power decreased in 2016. By using building codes as a tool, we are extending the definition/scope of health and safety to include the risks posed by climate change.

In the long run, owners save on energy costs from sustainable design, so with increasingly available and advanced architecture, the demand will naturally increase. 

Homeowners’ yearly savings can be as high as $1,567 in a large electric pump home under a more sustainable code, such as the Massachusetts “Stretch” Code, an optional stricter code beyond the “Base” Code. Building codes can be added to the arsenal of weapons we need to employ as soon as possible to fight climate change. The next edition “Base” Code is up for debate in Massachusetts, and there are a number of bills in the Legislature surrounding climate change that could expand the role of building codes.

The include: An act to protect our environment and update our climate action plan (Bill S.1870); An act transitioning Massachusetts to 100 percent renewable energy (Bill S.1849); An act relative to energy efficiency improvements (Bill S.1881); and an act to promote healthy communities and the environment (Bill S.1170).

A “Stretch” Code should not be optional in our world that cannot protect itself from the effects of climate change that are increasing steadily. Building codes are an overlooked tool to decrease energy consumption. We must act now.

Brett Ann Bidstrup, a psychology major and environmental studies concentrator at Williams College, grew up in Byfield.

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