Book Review: How the codes for construction were constructed


The Greening of America’s Building Codes: Promises and Paradoxes 
Aleksandra Jaeschke
Princeton Architectural Press, 2022

Written by Bill Millard

Linkages between the practical and theoretical sides of architecture are all too rare. It’s easy for professionals who focus on the realities and complexities of construction to regard studies of architectural history, theory, and ideology as someone else’s business, the province of academics whose jargon can be offputtingly insular. Conversely, scholars who deal in abstract discourses and historical documents may not view the concrete details of the building process as relevant to their work. How this disconnection is detrimental to one or both fields is a debate for another day; in the meantime, Aleksandra Jaeschke, a practicing architect and assistant professor at the University of Texas, has taken useful steps toward bridging the gap. 

Reminding builders that the codes they follow in daily practice have a specific history with intentional and unintentional implications, and showing theoreticians that the demanding arcana of codes are a rewarding subject for intellectual investigation, Jaeschke performs a unique service to both realms. She outlines the ways political imperatives, economic agendas, and unquestioned assumptions have shaped codes that protect life and property impressively against fire, natural disasters, and health hazards, yet can provide only limited protection to the natural environment unless and until they are fundamentally reimagined.

Jaeschke’s academic credentials are strong—degrees from Harvard Graduate School of Design (where her dissertation work laid the book’s foundations) and the Architectural Association, along with experience founding and running a small practice—yet her preface offers the disclaimer “I am neither a historian nor a building-code expert.” She approaches the history of code development with an outsider’s fresh eyes and, in the tradition of interdisciplinary architect/writers like Rem Koolhaas and architecturally savvy sociologists like Richard Sennett, discusses the ways built structures and spaces become the tangible, inhabitable expression of ideas. A fundamental concept in her analysis is predesign, her repurposing of a term to denote both the phase of projects preceding design work and the implicit, rarely-examined process by which codes determine the possibilities of design in advance. When formal standards don’t even measure the effects of choices like passive design or humble organic materials, she notes, they hardwire the design process to favor technical options that someone has paid to have evaluated.

Beginning with a 20-page “Timeline of Residential and Environmental Legislation with Related Architectural, Ecological, and Sociopolitical Events: 1840–2016,” Jaeschke’s book traces the history of code development from mid-19th-century interventions aimed at improving housing conditions through the environmental concerns of the 1960s to today’s “greening” attempts to embed energy and emission standards into codes, with a particular focus on California’s leading-edge codes. Her primary (though not exclusive) interest is single-family residential construction, where steady standardization since the early 20th century has made building codes powerful enforcers of social practices. She is convinced that responsible stewardship of the Earth requires a deep rethinking of certain ideas that have been no less tenacious for being tendentious: technocracy, reflexive deference to markets, the consumption-driven economy, and the reduction of complex processes to their quantitatively measurable elements. “[T]o reopen our society,” she says, “green Band-Aids won’t do it. We need a total recircuiting of mindsets.” 

Even the best-intentioned efforts of the USGBC, the LEED program, CALGreen, and the International Green Construction Code, she asserts, have not addressed the ways the natural world requires humanity (Westerners in particular) to scrutinize and change patterns of consumption and resource use, not simply recalibrate the performance of products. She notes, for example, that “a house that consumes less energy due to spatial solutions will not receive a tax write-off, while one that promises to cover predicted consumption with an array of solar panels will. In this context, there is no motivation to adopt environmentally friendly solutions that do not require a purchase, even though residential construction and domestic operations cannot possibly achieve a net-zero impact using solar panels alone.” Moreover, she argues that Net Zero measurements and claims themselves are devastatingly susceptible to greenwashing, since they are customarily bounded to exclude processes beyond energy consumption and emissions. 

This book may be the only place a reader can find discussions of ASHRAE standards and composting toilets within shouting distance of references to Michel Foucault or Félix Guattari. The sheer novelty of such juxtapositions, combined with occasional passages of medium-density academese, may lead some readers to assume that Jaeschke is writing mainly for the seminar rooms of critical architectural studies. She is not; she aims provocative questions at the legislatures, the design studios, the construction sites, and the not-for-profit standard-setting boards as well. (For the record, to apply a quick Ctrl-F litmus test for theoretical bafflegab in any digital document: the term hegemony appears only twice in the book, and one of these instances is in a footnote.)

Churchill’s aphorism that “we shape our buildings, and afterwards our buildings shape us” has been quoted thousands of times; to my knowledge, Jaeschke is the first to ask, on a level that combines factual breadth with scholarly sophistication, what shapes the regulatory boundaries within which we’ve been shaping our buildings. It’s a “who guards the guards?” question, and it deserves the attention of anyone concerned about how the built environment might do a better job of guarding our planet.

The geography of rule making: from global treaties, through federal laws and state regulations, to municipal ordinances.
A timeline of residential and environmental legislation with related architectural, ecological, and sociopolitical events.