Monday, December 23, 2013

CODE COLLISION: Part Two of Two Parts

Last time we looked at a number of modern building code requirements that make it either economically impractical or else flat out illegal for green builders to use recycled building materials, even though the cities enforcing these codes may officially encourage such reuse. Some of the issues we covered last time, such as the requirement for safety glazing in doors and windows, stem from modern ideas about safety that didn’t exist when many salvaged materials were created.

Yet safety concerns are not the main reason current codes make the legitimate reuse of salvaged materials difficult. Ironically, modern energy conservation mandates are an even bigger roadblock to reuse. In the case of windows, plumbing fixtures, and lighting fixtures, energy efficiency standards all but mandate the use of brand new materials, since few salvaged materials can comply. 

The majority of salvaged windows, for example, are single-glazed and don’t meet modern requirements for thermal efficiency or air infiltration--shortcomings that usually can’t be remedied without spending more than an old window is worth. 

Salvaged plumbing fixtures often run afoul of energy efficiency standards as well. Most of the toilets available at salvage yards, for example, don’t meet the code-mandated maximum of 1.6 gallons of water per flush--in fact, some coveted antique models use as many as eight gallons. Likewise, the old faucets fitted to vintage sinks don’t have the flow restrictors mandated by modern energy codes. Achieving compliance usually means replacing the old faucets with modern ones, once again defeating the purpose of using salvaged items in the first place.

How can building departments reconcile the laudable practice of recycling building materials while maintaining modern safety and energy-efficiency standards? It would be neither practical nor prudent to forbid the reuse of salvaged doors, windows, plumbing fixtures, and lighting--many of a quality superior to new ones--simply because they don’t comply with modern building codes. These are, after all, the very same materials that are still in daily use in millions of American homes.

One way to acknowledge the reuse old materials as an alternate and equally valid way of saving energy would be for city building departments to grant “green credits” to people using salvaged building materials. These could be used to offset certain code compliance shortcomings, especially those having to do with energy efficiency.  

An even simpler approach would be to “grandfather in” various kinds of salvaged items, just as the noncompliant windows, plumbing fixtures and lighting found in the vast majority of houses across the nation are deemed acceptable because they were legal when they were installed. While such an exemption might horrify code enforcement officials, it would remove one of the major impediments to using salvaged materials in lieu of new ones.

It’s troubling that in the face of widespread interest in green building, today’s inflexible building codes remain on a collision course with the environmentally friendly reuse of salvaged materials such as windows, doors, plumbing fixtures, and lighting. One thing is for sure: City governments can’t continue to have it both ways, promoting aspects of green building on the one hand while outlawing them on the other. 

Monday, December 2, 2013

CODE COLLISION Part One of Two Parts

“Green buildings use durable materials that are salvaged, have recycled content, or came from rapidly renewable resources. These materials significantly reduce the environmental destruction associated with the extraction, processing, and transportation of virgin materials.”

So reads a prominent display in the building department of one of America’s most environmentally progressive cities. It’s meant to exhort architects, builders, and homeowners to reuse building materials that already exist--a worthy goal, to be sure.

The trouble is, the building codes enforced by the very same department often make it difficult or impossible to follow this policy. Nor is this just one city’s problem. Current building codes simply aren’t formulated with the reuse of salvaged materials in mind, leaving well-intentioned green builders caught in a classic Catch-22: As a matter of public policy, many progressive cities encourage the recycling of building materials, yet in actual practice, the codes enforced by these same cities often render the use of recycled material either economically unfeasible or just plain illegal. 

A common example: Modern codes require safety glazing in all glass doors as well as in many windows. Yet the overwhelming majority of glass doors gleaned from architectural salvage--not to speak of most windows--have plain glass which does not comply with these requirements. What’s more, the cost of reglazing, say, a pair of old French doors with code-compliant glass would typically far outstrip their value. Faced with this reality, most homeowners will either install such noncompliant items on the sly or else forego the whole idea of using recycled materials and buy new windows instead. 

As you might guess by now, the legal reuse of salvaged electrical items is equally problematic. Many local jurisdictitons, for instance, require all newly installed lighting fixtures to carry an Underwriters Laboratories label, a standard that many old fixtures-- even those rewired with modern components for safety--cannot meet. What’s more, many state energy conservation codes no longer permit fixtures that use traditional incandescent bulbs--which constitute the vast majority of the salvage stock--in rooms such as kitchens, baths, laundries and garages, further restricting the opportunity for recycling such items.

On top of everything else, local restrictions dealing with lead paint and asbestos (the sale of both was outlawed only in 1978) can cause other problems for those wishing to use recycled architectural materials. Lead paint is practically a given on older salvaged items, whether doors, windows or cabinets. Asbestos shows up in old ironing board cabinets, clinging to the backs of old heating registers, and in vintage appliances such as toasters and heaters. In general, building officials tolerate the presence of these products in existing structures, but as regulations inevitably become more restrictive, these, too, may stand in the way of widespread recycling.

As if these troubles weren’t enough to discourage would-be green builders from using recycled materials (many of which are of far superior quality to newly-manufactured ones), the list of difficulties is far from complete. Next time, we’ll look at some more examples of building codes and green building efforts colliding head-on.