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Maine’s building and energy code: So goes the nation. But which way?

As architects, we rarely see ourselves on the front line of foreign policy. Well, we are now, and to deploy our responsibility, as for any conflict worth engaging, requires long and complicated logistics.

The situation in Maine

Over recent weeks, the Maine Legislature and the state’s governor, Paul LePage (who has achieved national notoriety arising from several controversial statements and actions), have been reacting to grass-roots efforts to repeal or severely constrain the newly promulgated Maine Uniform Building and Energy Code (MUBEC), the state’s first comprehensive regulation that became mandatory statewide as of December 1, 2010.

MUBEC consists of regulations that are in broad use nationally: the International Residential Code (IRC) 2009, the International Building Code (IBC) 2009 and the International Energy Conservation Code (IECC) 2009, as developed by the International Code Council (ICC).

Although the code was voted by a previous legislature and strongly supported by the previous governor, creating an infrastructure needed to implement the new standards has been problematic and has taken a dedicated group of public servants and volunteers several years to roll it out. Despite their hard work, and partly because of a shortage of funds, the education, training and local preparation required for smooth implementation has been insufficient, and the resulting fears, unknowns and unbudgeted expense have arisen, expressed in the form of bills currently before the legislature and by cries of outrage.

This push-back, though considerable, is by no means universal. Many interests have expressed strong support for maintaining MUBEC’s requirements unchanged, though perhaps to be modified in administration and timing to allow adequate preparation. Voices I have heard favoring the retention of MUBEC, along with architects and engineers (whose lives have long been complicated by the absence of uniform and uniformly interpreted standards), include many builders and their associations, mortgage banks, code-enforcement officers, insurance interests, advocates for social and economic justice, environmentalists, community activists—in short, those you might expect, not just those who could be accused of being pro-government liberals favoring more regulation.

This rich coalition of diverse interests and philosophies reflects the issues society faces more generally, and as in our larger theater of irresolution, decision—or even its direction—remains far from clear, which brings us back to foreign policy.

National issues

Historically in the United States, building codes have been developed largely through a political consensus of means to protect health, safety and property. Construction regulations have not generally been developed to foster long-term economic interests, much less to express national policy related to the exploitation of resources, capital and labor. The efficiency of the market has been given control of these values, largely by default. Even the relatively recent promulgation of energy codes has arisen from an economic desire to reduce operating expense. And though extensive markets and practices in green construction have been developed from enormously successful and largely private initiatives intended to promote and reward environmental values, they have not been driven by national interest or have been related to foreign policy.

Indeed, as in Maine, so many of the regulations that our society has developed are currently being questioned as counterproductive. And few in the construction industry would deny that the complexity of our work expands even more rapidly than information technology can simplify. We experts, and I would argue, the market generally, are losing the ability to develop process and wisdom equal to discharging our responsibility to the public and society we serve.

What to do?

We have examples of how to approach our duty. I am told that in France, one cannot get a building permit for a roof that would last less than a century. The conservation of national resources, as expressed in durability, is a priority. Stripped of its colonies more than a half century ago, the French economy had to make national and foreign policy to integrate its supplies internationally. In the United States, we find ourselves forced to the same end through globalization. But we should decide the result, not simply accept its outcome.

As architects, we are trained to see and privileged in and responsible for seeing beyond immediate need to meet the larger goals of the client, the community and society. Let us consider and aim for what we want to accomplish as a nation and in our world. Though our goals are complex and contradictory, we must not neglect their importance because it is larger than our means.

George Terrien AIA practices from Rockland, Maine. In addition to having served as the president of the (then) Boston Architectural Center, he has been president of the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards and the National Architectural Accrediting Board, and has been a member of the registration boards for architects in Maine and Massachusetts.

Photograph by Andrew Lachance. This work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 License.