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Back to the future: lifting a page from ancient architects' playbook

  • Posted on: 1 July 2016
  • By: Yamina SAHEB

Some would have us believe that construction regulations are new. Have you ever heard of the Code of Hammurabi? It’s the very first code of laws known in history, dating back to 1750 BC. And guess what? Building codes were already included! Six out of 282 laws regulated construction safety, including penalties for builders of non-compliant homes. Quite visionary, indeed, even if some penalties could now seem  slightly stringent.

Code 229: If a builder has built a house for a man, and has not made his work sound, and the house he built has fallen, and caused the death of its owner, that builder shall be put to death.

Regardless of the Babylonian take on compliance, this led me to research the more recent history of construction codes. It turns out that governments have always used building energy codes to address their national priorities: between the two world wars, to reduce health issues caused by poor insulation in cold climates; in the 1960s to improve comfort and living standards for baby boomers; in the 1970s to reduce oil dependency in IEA countries; in the 1990s to address climate change.

Today, the whole world must address all of these priorities at the same time. And even though buildings are complex systems, failure is no longer an option.

Back to my history books. When technology didn’t exist yet, architects had to adapt their buildings to the local climate and maximise daylight and sunshine in cold climates, or minimise them in hot ones. Builders and designers were using vegetation and light colours to protect buildings from excessive sunshine, and were doing the opposite in cold climates. This is what we now call energy sufficiency measures.

In the modern era, some believed we could ignore nature and compensate with technology. Basic, time-tested construction principles were forgotten. We ended up designing inefficient buildings, hoping that technological improvements alone would reconcile our poor buildings designs with our energy security, health, energy poverty and climate mitigation objectives. To some extent, this worked over the past century. But there’s no way this techno-optimism will work in the 21st century with 7 billion inhabitants, soon to be 9 billion by 2050, all striving for first world middle class living standards, all crashing simultaneously onto the same hard limits in energy, resources and environmental capacity.

We need to lift a page from the ancient architects’ playbook. For IEA member countries, it’s too late: our construction rate is below 1%, and our buildings can’t be reoriented to reap nature’s benefits. Technological progress will have to supplement energy sufficiency measures to correct a century of bad choices. Our policies need to target best available technologies and to increase investments in R&D to secure our energy future. Outside the IEA, however, more than half of the building stock that will be standing in 2050 remains to be built.

Ancient times could still light the way to a low energy future.

This post was published for the first time on December 13, 2012 on the IEA sustainable building centre web site,