10 Code Violations in Green Construction

There are no official green building codes, so contractors often follow their own rules, and end up violating traditional building codes in the process. See more home construction pictures.
There are no official green building codes, so contractors often follow their own rules, and end up violating traditional building codes in the process. See more home construction pictures.

Once considered too expensive, or even a niche for radical environmentalists, green building is fast becoming part of the new standard. Green construction focuses on energy efficiency, reuse of water and building materials, and designs and systems that don't harm the environment. But through the years, so-called "green" architects, builders and engineers, either in partnership or at odds with local and national building code councils, have had to build without definitive green guidelines. Innovations led to reviews and often rejections of plans, and some eco-mavericks just built outside the traditional codes altogether.

If there were green building regulations in place, they could set the standard for what not to do, and lay the groundwork for successful models for builders to follow. Currently, there are efforts underway to attempt to set uniform standards. The International Code Council, for example, has been working on an International Green Construction Code (IGCC) since 2009 and is set to publish the code in 2012, with new green commercial regulations. It will include the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) 2008 residential guidelines, as well. Another internationally known certification program, LEED -- Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design -- has been raising the green bar since 1998 by recognizing exceptional buildings and communities. And regional and community organizations such as EarthCraft House in Atlanta, and Built Green in Seattle, are examples of green movements within existing codes at the local level.


And it's at the local level of coding, permitting and zoning -- and hand-in-hand with qualified green construction professionals -- where homeowners and builders should get started to avoid the following common violations when they are going green.

10. Plumbing

Before connecting "green" pipes and fitting fixtures, check the local permits to avoid costly do-overs or retrofittings.
Before connecting "green" pipes and fitting fixtures, check the local permits to avoid costly do-overs or retrofittings.

Systems for bringing in clean water and removing wastewater date back thousands of years and work seamlessly in the background of our lives. Green plumbing is evolving, and using gray water and rainwater recovery systems, often with solar heating components, is part of the specialized green training for plumbing professionals.

While traditional building code violations include issues with line pressure and pipe supports, water heaters and venting, an added issue in green plumbing inspection often comes in paper rather than water form: permits. New technologies in green building include fixtures, installation and systems that are off the charts when it comes to building code inspection. Many sustainable features fall within "special project" guidelines and the flexibility of an inspector. Before connecting pipes and fitting fixtures for greener waters, get the local permits and papers in order to avoid costly do-overs or retrofittings. Some locales, for instance, mandate where you get your water, meaning you may be restricted from using gray water.


Although the Uniform Plumbing Code (UPC) and the International Plumbing Code (IPC) are industry standards that incorporate some green practices (such as water conservation), there hasn't been an official code for using gray water and other green systems. Plans for more green plumbing guidelines are in the works, but builders need to test the waters for compliance in the meantime.

9. Mechanical

Ventilation systems in green homes can vary from the standard heating, ventilating and air conditioning (HVAC) systems in more traditional homes. There are green HVAC systems, but separating the air conditioning and relying on the mechanics of moving air is one way that a green home can violate standard building codes.

Often large air conditioning units and furnaces do the work of removing hot air from rooms and keeping hot air in rooms, depending on the seasonal needs. Many HVAC units are ENERGY STAR approved and are already code-compliant for efficiency. Green mechanical systems, however, regulate temperature and moisture within rooms, but they do so by utilizing outside air and air circulation rather than air conditioning, which relies heavily on electricity.


If working properly, these mechanics operate well and natural outdoor air flows, producing healthy and comfortable indoor conditions. Making them compliant with codes for indoor air quality might be a bit tricky, though, because unlike traditional HVAC units, requirements for outputs or inputs of natural air and heat based on square footage aren't widely recorded in codebooks, yet.

8. Air Quality and Flow

Homes with natural air ventilation systems utilize windows for air flow.
Homes with natural air ventilation systems utilize windows for air flow.

Anyone who has lived in a drafty old house or apartment knows what happens to warm and cold air inside when there's too little insulation and too many cracks and gaps: The air escapes, resulting in wasted energy. Improving energy efficiency is a big part of green building stewardship, but having a tightly insulated building envelope can prevent or impede proper air flow inside.

Homes with natural air ventilation systems have windows, of course, so people can regulate the air. But if the homes remain closed up, the insulation often is so efficient that clean, new air from the outside doesn't come in on its own, which can lead to unhealthy, stale air inside. Furnishings made with chemicals and allergens from pets are just two aggravating factors when air is stagnant.


Residential code regulations are a bit behind the commercial ones, but where green codes have yet to fill the gaps in codifying what to do, informed builders and designers will self-regulate for safety. Having mechanical exhaust systems, particularly in areas with long hot or cold seasons and lots of time with windows closed, is essential for healthy indoor air.

7. Foundations

If building a green home from the ground up, local codes and the ground itself are good places to start. Finding a design and materials that match what you hope to achieve in sustainable living is a solid starting point, but where you build has a lot to do with how you build.

Constructing foundations typically involves some type of poured concrete, with a sub-level plan that includes drainage points for directing water away from the foundation. Concrete isn't the greenest of materials, though many use it in combination with green products and techniques. Long-term energy efficiency often is a part of the planning, and the foundation will determine how the home will settle over time, and how many nooks, crannies and creepy crawlies -- not to mention how much water -- will get into the house through the ground.


Land and soil conditions vary by region and climate, so building with site-specific considerations such as sandy soil, rocky, and uneven ground or flooding, and wetland cycles in mind is important. Consulting national and local building codes for load-bearing guidelines and restrictions is essential. Some wood-frame and Earth-rammed homes are brilliant in design, but they may not pass code. An adobe house or Earth-filled foundation could crumble in an earthquake, so it may be flagged in areas prone to earthquakes before the ink on the plans even dries.

6. Windows/Egress

Standard building codes require that bedrooms and even some basements have exit options like doors and windows in the event of fire. These exits fall within egress codes and provide minimum sizing for windows so people can fit through them and exit the home. Window and door sizes in the International Residential Code (IRC) ensure that these minimum requirements are met.

Placement and usability of windows is very important in green building, as wind, light and heat are used to their best advantage depending on the position of the house, but ensuring that the windows are the right size for providing escape routes in an emergency is one code "gray area" that isn't really gray. Having smaller than recommended upper-level windows to reduce heat in an upper bedroom, for example, will be flagged by most any standard, as would building in the cool sub-ground without an adequate way out.


Building with salvaged or recycled materials also can cause issues. For decades building code agencies in the United States have set guidelines for window materials and strength, and these are part of the International Energy Conservation Code (IECC). Using approved materials increases both energy efficiency and solar capabilities, and many older windows simply don't measure up.

There are rules for the actual placement of windows, too. Standard building codes set forth heights and spacing, but local requirements will determine the code-worthiness of where you put your windows in order to maintain the load-bearing balances of the roof weight, for example.

5. Framing and Structure

Within reason, steel- and wood-framed homes can pass code inspection. Alternate building types such as straw bale and rammed Earth are a little more difficult to breeze through on a code inspection checklist.

That's because traditional building codes generally require structural checks, and have measures based on engineering load calculation for roofs, walls and supports, and spans. Many of these codes come from analyses of structures that fail in different environmental conditions, such as high winds, or from buildings that simply fail, or fall, over time. Applying these principals to green residential construction techniques doesn't work much of the time, and specific green codes are incomplete or not uniform depending on location.


Framing and providing a skeleton of Earth and clay requires getting engineers and inspectors involved at the local level early rather than later. Sometimes a builder, sustainable home manufacturer and a building department may need to hash out the details before a structure can pass the often non-existent code for the building type, but typically, all involved want a safe structure for inhabitants and neighbors.

4. Site Planning

Many who plan for green living already have a love of the land itself and want a home that melds with the natural environment. Achieving this balance can mean working with the land, or demanding too much of it, depending on how much consideration goes into the site.

In commercial or infrastructure planning, such as office campuses or freeway expansions, site planning often equals leveling ground, raising it in other places, removing and refilling soil, or blasting the entire area and starting anew. Residential sites aren't usually as labor intensive, and they can't be because of zoning and code restrictions, and with green building, site sensitivity often gives context to the whole project.


Site-planning a house to maximize its sun and wind exposure will work with traditional codes as long as water drainage and local land use requirements are followed. Some home builders violate codes in the early stages with thoughts of "They won't do anything once it's built," but most times, they will, and the code-breaking owner will pay the cost of coming up to code.

3. Materials

Many of the materials used in green residential construction have passed the test of time, but not all of them have made it into the national or local building codes. Issues of fire safety, earthquake resistance and structural integrity sometimes need approval on a case-by-case basis. While alternative building materials meet inspector skeptics along the way, making a case for their use is a burden of proof they must meet for building and engineering professionals after they satisfy the basic code requirements that are within their control.

Ideas about green building materials vary and include everything from straw bales and even mud, but sustainable homes are still accountable when it comes to meeting realistic code building expectations. If using a material or combination of products that just won't gain local approval, consider the idea as well as the code -- there may be an experienced and very sound decision-maker delaying construction with safety and structural know-how that goes beyond the books. Collaboration is almost always a way forward.


2. Power

Installing wiring within a green material like Insulating Concrete Form can be a problem for inspectors who aren't familiar with it.
Installing wiring within a green material like Insulating Concrete Form can be a problem for inspectors who aren't familiar with it.

Being green with electricity is in the hands of most builders, home owners and renters. Many public utility companies promote replacement bulbs, and water heater regulators and programmable thermostats to save money and energy, but huge advances in green technology are impacting the design and construction industry and those who enforce it.

Two common codes for electrical guidelines are the National Electric Code (NEC) and the International Residential Code (IRC). Conductors, circuits and grounds are trouble spots, as are clearance of the power panels, and labeling and number of plugs, or receptacles. Green building inspections encounter similar violations but have added issues with alternative energy sources and reduction setups. Meeting minimum or exceeding maximum input/output (I/O) requirements also factors into code compliance.


Placing electrical wiring within a green material such as Insulating Concrete Form (ICF), for example, creates problems for inspectors who aren't familiar with the material and with the current code requirements for electrical box and wiring placement. State codes are coming up to speed with amendments, but violations are likely to come where no updates exist. Similarly, the newest solar panel technologies are off the code grid, and meeting requirements may involve some give and take.

1. Keep Improving

Green construction is no longer new or unheard of, but it's still in a very long testing phase. Products hailed 10 years ago might be failing now and those promoted now have to prove their actual sustainability and durability. Building on a solid foundation that comes from thousands of professionals almost always -- with the exception of a handful of truly brilliant ideas -- trumps innovation.

Code violations are frustrating when working within a budget and a dream, but making green construction work its best often means working within current guidelines while new codes make their way into use. Choosing fights carefully is one option when facing a gray-green area, and assuming that your foes -- whether inspectors or local boards or play-strictly-by-the-rules builders -- have safety in mind is a worthy code of conduct to follow.

Lots More Information

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More Great Links

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  • International Association of Plumbing and Mechanical Officials (IAPMO). "Green Plumbing and Mechanical Code Excerpt in Building Design & Construction White Paper." Nov. 10, 2009. (Dec. 27, 2010)http://www.iapmonline.org/Documents/archive/20091123_BDC_Green_Supplement_Coverage.aspx
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