Sustainable Recovery

New FEMA Policy Takes Holistic View to Sustainability and Resilience


In 2023, the U.S. experienced a record 28 disasters causing over $1 billion in damages, far eclipsing the prior record of 22 in 2020. Many of these disasters are driven by climate change. Communities that are impacted by these disasters often experience a long road to recovery with the reconstruction of houses, schools, businesses and infrastructure. In many cases, this recovery is funded through the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

FEMA has long recognized the importance of building back better to avoid future losses from subsequent events. Building codes have been a key component of this strategy. Rebuilding efforts funded by FEMA require such projects to be built to the latest editions of the International Codes (I-Codes). These requirements are supported by a robust analysis from the Congressionally established National Institute of Building Sciences (NIBS). It found that $1 invested in keeping building codes up to date yields $11 in benefit, as FEMA’s own analysis found that if all new buildings across the U.S. were built to modern editions of the I-Codes, the country would save more than $600 billion by 2060.

While the resilience benefits of building codes are already staggering, the discussion is expanding beyond traditional definitions of benefit. A recent study by three U.S. Department of Energy national labs found that the use of up-to-date energy codes like the International Energy Conservation Code (IECC) provide significant resilience benefits in extreme heat or cold events. The study found that applying the 2021 IECC could reduce deaths from extreme heat by as much as 80 percent.

Just as the resilience benefits of energy codes are being quantified, the recognition of how sustainability impacts the need for resilience is growing. Climate change is contributing to more frequent and intense disaster events. The efforts made to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions will affect the climate-related disasters of the future. With approximately 37 percent of energy-related carbon dioxide emissions associated with the built environment, there are significant opportunities within the buildings sector to bend the trajectory of climate change.

Building and energy codes provide a highly effective mechanism to address both sides of the climate coin—reducing the emissions that drive, and responding to the impacts of climate change. The White House has recognized this link through a National Initiative to Advance Building Codes launched in June 2022. The linkage was also recognized by Congress in the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) with a distinct focus on leveraging federal investments to drive decarbonization—particularly through building codes.

The IRA specifically identified the need to drive more efficient building operations through the adoption and effective enforcement of energy codes and the need to address the energy and GHG emissions associated with the design and construction of buildings (also called embodied emissions). While the focus on embodied emissions is relatively new, the federal government has the opportunity to drive progress. Federal government spending on building projects through agencies like the General Services Administration and FEMA is significant.

As described above, FEMA clearly sits at the nexus of climate resilience and mitigation. As communities rebuild, the opportunity to reduce future disaster impacts is obvious. FEMA, through IRA section 70006, can now help cover the costs of low-carbon construction materials and achievement of low-carbon and net-zero energy projects. A recent implementation memo issued by FEMA outlines the basis for these incentives and naturally, codes sit at the core. New construction and major renovation net-zero energy projects meet the requirements provided within the net-zero appendices of the 2021 IECC (or equivalent) while alterations of existing buildings can meet the requirements of Chapter 7 and Normative Appendix B of the 2021 International Green Construction Code (IgCC). Jurisdictions can also receive funding to update their codes to the IECC net-zero appendices.

Buildings sit at the core of communities but also are key to addressing the impacts of climate change. Through a holistic approach that focuses on reducing the emissions of buildings and assuring they are designed and built to meet the hazard conditions we see today and what we’ll see in the future is essential. Such an approach is particularly appropriate when communities are recovering from a disaster, but should be a key strategy for all building projects. New buildings will be with us for decades to come and should be contributors to our communities and economies, not burdens. Renovation of our existing building stock presents opportunities to prolong the useful life of buildings while reducing the climate impacts of building from scratch. The effective application of code requirements that deliver both sustainability and resilience will prepare our buildings and communities for the future.

Ryan Colker is vice president of Innovation at the International Code Council, Washington, D.C. He identifies emerging issues in the building industry, including how new technologies can be leveraged by codes and standards; methods to modernize the application of building regulations; and, the development of new business strategies that support ICC members and building safety professionals. He also serves as executive director of the Alliance for National and Community Resilience and as the lead of the ICC Energy, Resilience and Innovation Center of Focus. Most recently, Colker was the vice president of the National Institute of Building Sciences, also in Washington, D.C., where he led efforts to improve the built environment through collaboration of public and private sectors. Prior to NIBS, he was the manager of Government Affairs at ASHRAE, Peachtree Corners, Ga.