(Written by Jack Milarch – NMHBA EVP/CEO – Originally published in the July 2008 Housing Journal)

The Argument for Incremental Code Change

New State-Wide Building Codes Effective July 1, 2008

The new State of NM Building Code is effective as of July 1, 2008. There are a number of significant changes, some of which were reviewed in the March 2008 issue of the Housing Journal. (If you missed that you can find it online at www.nmhba.org). Most of these changes were done in response to pressure from CID and Governor Richardson’s office to incorporate more energy efficiency features into our basic building code. Our members who worked with CID on these changes believe we have taken a common sense practical approach in selecting these changes from among the many which were offered and promoted by various individuals and advocacy groups. We tried to avoid changes which seemed impractical with today’s technology and which we thought didn’t have a reasonable cost vs. benefit comparison.

I expect there will be some advocates of “deep green” and advocates for climate change reversal theories who won’t be happy with these amendments. They will probably say we didn’t “go far enough”. I definitely don’t agree with that opinion and I want to give you my reasoning on this.

Many of us have been around the New Mexico construction industry long enough to recall how energy shortage pressures caused us to incorporate lots of new energy efficiency features into our buildings during the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. Some of these features and techniques worked great, and have become embedded into our standard practices and codes. Unfortunately, there were also the others. Some of the things we did were just a waste of money and a few of those seemingly good ideas resulted in disastrous failures. The consequences of those failures included serious rot, mold, and indoor air quality issues. And it wasn’t only the building owners who got to suffer. The massive class action construction defect lawsuits due to those failures continue to this day. Even a garden variety construction defect suit can easily run into the millions of dollars. Everyone who pays for a general liability policy and new home warranty coverage is helping to pay for those problems. Can we learn something from our past misguided energy conservation efforts?

I believe one of the lessons we have learned is that actual performance of a building is a very dynamic thing, and the way the building responds is greatly influenced by conditions beyond the designers’/builders’ control. How do the occupants go about their lives as they use the building? Do they maintain their roof? Do they like to keep their bedroom or office very cold all during a hot and humid part of the summer? How many showers do they take? How many people actually live in the house? Will subsequent owners understand how to use the building’s energy efficiency features? We all know these and a thousand other details of everyday living can combine with a new construction detail to result in a totally unforeseen problem.

Let’s look into the future. Suppose something bad happens with the homes or commercial buildings you built under this new code. Suppose the reason you changed that old tried and true detail was because our new building code made you do it. Will the State of New Mexico stand by you? Will the Construction Industries Division step in to help cover any damages awarded against you? I doubt it.

I haven’t even mentioned that building a habitable structure is a complicated process involving many individual workers and specialty contractors, all of whom do their work based on their past training and experience with what works in the real world. Code changes need to take this inescapable reality into account. Incremental change is critical so that everyone involved has time to adjust and successfully accomplish their part of the construction process. Incremental change is important because it just simply takes time to figure out what works and what doesn’t.

Is all this a plea to stop change? No. I believe contractors must keep up with new technology and must always be prepared to fulfill their customers’ expectations. The expectations of today obviously include more energy efficiency features in a new building. I believe the current code changes are appropriately incremental and will at the same time advance us toward the goal of providing our state’s residents with more energy efficient buildings. With these changes we should be able to go about our business without creating unmanageable risk for the designers and builders whom everyone is counting on to provide those new energy efficient buildings.