During the education track at the 2024 Innovative Housing Showcase, stakeholders gathered to discuss a range of topics, including offsite construction, decarbonization, innovation through codes and standards, zoning, and manufactured housing.

Ryan Colker, vice president of innovation at the International Code Council (ICC) participated at the IHS, moderating the panel “Building Decarbonization Research & Development.” Colker spoke with BUILDER to discuss takeaways from the decarbonization panel and the IHS, the role codes and standards play in innovation, and areas gaining traction related to innovation, sustainability, and the future of housing.

What were your key takeaways from the panel you moderated at the 2024 IHS?

That was an opportunity, specifically for the Department of Energy (DOE) and Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to talk about the work they are doing in the decarbonization space and recognizing that there are multiple different avenues of things that need to fall into place. One of the big things the DOE talked about specifically was [Affordable Home Energy Shot]. They have these earthshot opportunities to invest in high profile, high need areas. They recently launched one specifically on affordable housing and energy. How do you look at the intersection of affordability—which is a huge challenge—and climate change and energy efficiency? Many folks think they are competing challenges. DOE is looking at opportunities to enhance affordability and reduce energy use. I think that certainly is an exciting initiative.

HUD talked a lot about the things they are doing in the code space with the recent adoption of 2021 ICC for USDA- and HUD-supported properties. They talked a bit about innovation and being able to bring new materials, new ideas to market. Some of that is through the Zero Energy Home program or some of the tax credits. But then taking a step back, one of the panels earlier in the day, we talked to manufacturers of innovative products about being able to gain acceptance by architects, engineers, builders, and code officials. [We talked about] some of the pathways to do that, primarily through product evaluation. We had a couple representatives of the Structural Insulated Panel industry who have been in the space for a while but had some hard times at the beginning and we had someone from Black Buffalo 3D, which is a 3D printing company. 3D is an emerging space, so we talked about their path to market and how they have been able to leverage evaluation services to gain acceptance.

How is the framework of sustainable housing evolving and what role does conversations like the ones at the IHS have in this evolution?

The Innovative Housing Showcase (IHS) provides a unique avenue. You have the education or discussion-type activities to bring folks from diverse perspectives to the table. Then you have the Showcase itself on the Mall where folks are actually doing it and pulling together the technologies and practices. The education piece of the Showcase was great because it touched on so many aspects and challenges. You have the codes and standards side, you have the financing side, you have the zoning piece. [The Showcase was] looking to address all of those around a common goal to advance affordability and sustainability at the same time. Being able to identify solutions, but also solidify the joint effort in that regard.

How quick are government entities moving to adopt change and embrace innovation?

I think things have picked up. We are seeing strong engagement across agencies. The Department of Energy and HUD have a memorandum of understanding, they are collaborating on things. There is a broader White House effort, the National Initiative to Advance Building Codes, which is looking at opportunities to support building codes across 18 or 19 different federal agencies. We are seeing a higher degree of collaboration across the agencies. I think the challenge that the agencies have is that there are only so many levers that they can pull. Most of the building and land use related policies trickle down to the state and local level. At the federal level, there are opportunities for incentives and we’ve seen a ton of that through the Inflation Reduction Act and bipartisan infrastructure law. We’ve seen a lot of activities in the R&D and convening space. The Innovative Housing Showcase is one example of that. The Department of Energy, either through the national labs or other programs, have accelerator initiatives or convening meetings with thought leaders through the Advanced Building Collaborative. We’ve seen HUD put out grants for policy and technology related research. It has definitely picked up.

What do you hope to see in future iterations of the Innovative Housing Showcase?

I think being able to see more and more modularized or panelized systems and strategies in that space on the Mall. The other thing I hope to see, and it’s a little bit wonky, but a more productized or systemized based approach. Instead of having panelized systems or modular systems be one-offs, being able to have it in a systemized approach where you could bring different components or pieces together in different configurations but have those pieces treated more like products. To have a productized approach [would make] approvals and acceptance a lot easier.

What role do codes and standards play in innovation in construction?

The codes themselves set the expectation for what the performance is and allows for multiple different pathways to demonstrate that performance. Having innovative products, whether that’s 3D printing, hemp-based products, bio-based products, or cement with lower environmental impact, there are expectations on how those products should perform. The challenge is that not every product or innovative idea is explicitly spelled out in the building code. Often folks see that as a potential barrier. There are ways to get specific products evaluated and approved. That could be for structural performance, fire performance, or sustainability. I think the piece that codes and standards play is [asking] ‘what are you actually shooting for or trying to achieve?’ That direction provides some insight and support for innovators in the space.

What is the process for introduction and publication of new standards and building codes?

We’ve got a few different pathways depending on the specific need or topic area. As far as the model code development process, that happens every three years. The prior edition closes, we ask anyone who has a good idea or sees something wrong in the code to introduce a code change proposal. That gets heard a couple different times, first by a group of subject matter experts who vet whether that proposal makes sense, and based on their recommendation it goes to the governmental membership of ICC—state, local, and federal code officials. They vote on whether that proposal is included in the next edition. Once that code addition is complete, that often triggers updates and adoptions at the state and local level. You have some states who, as soon as the new edition comes out, start the update process. There are some states that have requirements that say you can only look at updating a code every six years. You have some states and localities with no set timeline for updating codes. Our codes cover 15 different topic areas.

As far as standards, they are developed to meet more specific needs. We have been doing a lot of work in terms of offsite construction standards. How are projects approved, how are they inspected in the factory? It involves talking to different stakeholders across the industry, identifying the need, and pulling together subject matter experts to put together the content of those standards. Often, those standards are either adopted into the model codes and find their way into state and local requirements or they can be adopted directly by a jurisdiction. We just saw the state of Utah adopted those offsite construction standards and established an offsite construction program to address their affordable housing needs.

We saw the state of Virginia adopted those [offsite] standards late last year. Utah just adopted them and established an offsite construction program. Not on the residential side, but the General Services Administration adopted the standards as well. There are many localities that see offsite construction as a need and an opportunity to address housing challenges at the same time the industry is dealing with workforce related challenges and trying to address sustainability. We certainly see offsite construction as a trend that should be picking up.

In addition to offsite construction, what are additional opportunity areas gaining traction as it relates to innovation in codes and standards?

There’s some emerging activity around addressing future-focused climate risk. Typically, the codes and standards today are based on prior events. With the growth in number and impact of storm events and wildfires, I think we’ll see an increase in being more predictive in response rather than just backward looking. In south Florida they have adopted common sea level rise projections that they are basing zoning and other requirements off of.

Do you have any final thoughts on the work being done by the ICC?

I can’t stress enough the openness of the codes and standard development process. If there are innovative ideas, that process is open to anyone to propose them. A lot of folks think ICC develops codes in this black box and what comes out in the end is a couple people in a room. It is actually hundreds of code officials that participate in that process. If people have a great idea, bring it forward.

Keep the conversation going—sign up to our newsletter for exclusive content and updates. Sign up for free.