In the fifth article of this series, Constructing Our Niches: Exploring the Relevant Ultimate Design Features, I broadened the discussion of ultimate design features for the building/construction industry, focusing on six categories of features likely relevant for most facility types and occupant demographics - Connection to Nature, Individual Comfort / Wellbeing, Control, Enablement, Cooperation, and Competition. It’s important to recognize that the most appropriate proximate manifestations of these ultimate design features will look different in different social/cultural and physical environmental contexts. And there must be the right mix of proximate manifestations of all the above core design features to ensure that individual self-interests driving within-group competition don’t override our social drive for unity and cooperation at the organizational level. For those interested, the first four articles in the series can be found through the following links:

In this essay, I’m discussing the relationship between ultimate design features and their proximate manifestations relative to the standards and codes used within the building/construction industry. For those unfamiliar, the Whole Building Design Guide, a program of the National Institute of Building Sciences, provides a succinct overview of codes and standards – what they are, how they’re developed and how they’re used. Both generally serve as minimum requirements for the manufacture, construction/assembly, and performance of various building attributes, often with a focus on public health, safety and general welfare. However, there are also what’s known as “stretch,” “reach,” or “green” codes that go beyond the minimum requirements found in base codes (energy efficiency being a common example).

Codes are developed with the intention of adoption by jurisdictions to serve as criteria for the design, construction, and operations of our built environment. Standards, however, may or may not be developed with this regulatory intent in mind, but if adopted by a jurisdiction they do become code. In general, codes and standards provide a measure of consistency and guidance for designers, builders, and code officials.

But to further increase consistency across regions and the nation as a whole, model codes have been developed by various organizations with the intent of potential adoption by Federal, state, and/or local governments, or other organizations. Model codes can also help facilitate a faster incorporation of the latest information and research and reduce the cost of code development. This consistency is a key evolutionary benefit at multiple levels within contemporary society. It provides a greater assurance for building occupants, regardless of where they live or travel to within the U.S, that they will experience a minimum level of quality and safety in the facilities they find themselves in. Referring back to my last essay, the quality of the physical environment and the safety it affords can be considered part of the Individual Comfort / Wellbeing set of ultimate design features, and ensuring that the contextual environment is aligned with these ultimate needs increases occupant relative individual fitness levels.

For example, consider the Wilder Block building, a 130-year old, four-story structure in Brattleboro, VT, that was rehabilitated during the 1990s (Hoefferle 2006:xii-xiii). Working with local fire safety officials, the design/construction team was able to develop design solutions that achieved an equivalent level of safety as required by state/local adoptions of the National Fire and Life Safety model codes, while also preserving the building’s historic character. One such solution involved the original glass transoms above the doorways to each building unit. They weren’t self-closing and so could not provide an effective barrier to smoke and fire spreading into or out of the individual units. Instead of destroying the historic nature of the building by replacing the original doorways and transoms, automatic door closers were added and the transoms backed with plywood. The closers decreased the risk that doors would remain open during a fire, and the plywood backing increased the fire rating of the transoms to the minimum code required level, increasing the time it would take for smoke or fire to penetrate the transom.

During a subsequent 2004 five-alarm fire, this solution proved a reliable barrier, preventing the penetration of fire and smoke into the individual units. This solution, along with other code-compliant renovation solutions, allowed all of the building occupants to evacuate without any loss of life. It’s a textbook example of how building codes help align proximate solutions with ultimate needs to increase individual fitness levels.

Moving to the level of the group, as I discussed in my second essay, norms (that include formal building codes and standards) “…help create common experiences and expectations among group members, binding them together. As a result, they help suppress within-group selection among group members that can disrupt the cohesiveness of groups, ensuring that between group forces dominate (Wilson 2015).” Specifically, codes and standards help drive the standardization of materials, systems, building configurations, construction methodologies, and operational procedures, increasing the uniformity within the building/construction industry among manufacturers, designers, buildings, and building owners. Such industry-wide standardization provides a unifying force at the level of the community, state, and nation-state to help each level operate more efficiently. In this case building codes help ensure that unity and other group level ultimate needs of Cooperation and Competition, discussed in the last essay, are met, increasing their respective fitness levels.

In the case of the Wilder Bock building, the normalized expectations and potential design solutions available through a) the uniformity provided via similarities in codes and standards, b) widely available building materials and equipment, and c) a common building/construction intellectual tradition, set the stage for an affordable solution meeting the ultimate design needs in question. The functional integration provided through the different design professionals, contractors, manufacturers, code officials, and other key stakeholders contributing their own parts to the final solution, enhanced by the uniformity just mentioned, further ensures a successful outcome to a complex problem. And by successfully meeting the occupant and owner needs, public trust in the overall system of code development, design/construction, and oversight from code officials is maintained, contributing to a strong group identity and ensuring that the economic and political stability offered by a well-functioning building/construction industry continues.

Tragedies that unfortunately occur, such as the Station nightclub fire, Hyatt Regency walkway collapse, and the Oakland Ghost Ship fire (sometimes exacerbated by the political weakening of code adoption and enforcement), undermine this trust, even if the eventual outcome is a stronger set of building codes, better design, and more effective enforcement. Such tragedies may also result in a loss of code enforcement flexibility, negatively impacting the ability to meet other ultimate needs. The successful outcome for the Wilder Block building came about because of local code officials’ flexibility in finding a solution they deemed provided an equivalent level of safety. A less flexible interpretation could have required replacing the original doors and transoms, negatively impacting the building’s historic nature. A loss of local history removes some of the common bonds that tie a community together, negatively impacting its group identity and uniformity, and ultimately its relative fitness.

This doesn’t mean that the uniformity within the building/construction industry contributed to by codes and standards results in limited to no competition among designers, contractors, etc. But as long as there is generally sufficient work for everyone (i.e., the local environment is capable of supporting the current population), the competition for individual projects typically doesn’t include extensive efforts to put the competition out of business. Codes and standards, code enforcement (i.e., Low-cost monitoring), maintaining professional reputations (i.e., Graduated sanctions) and the legal ramifications (i.e., Graduated sanctions) also restrict the actions potentially taken by design firms and contractors to increase their profit margins at the expense of the final project’s quality and safety. More cut-throat competition is an indication that within-group selection is rivaling or dominating between-group selection forces, contributing to instability at the community or larger social level.

As already alluded to, code consistency, or more specifically the potentially associated inflexibility, can unintentionally contribute to instability. It can lead to (or at least contribute to) misalignments of local level proximate manifestations with ultimate needs. There may not be enough flexibility built into a code or standard to begin with to allow adequate adaptation to local conditions or local code officials may adopt a generally inflexible approach. I’ve already discussed the benefit of code interpretive flexibility in the case of the Wilder Block building. And standards, while not necessarily having the regulatory requirements of codes, are sometimes applied by designers in an inflexible manner, or at least without fully understanding the context in which they were developed. This too can lead to misalignments of ultimate needs with proximate manifestations of the physical environment.

In the fourth essay, I mentioned how M.E. GROUP’s post-occupancy evaluations of pre-K – 16+ campus environments found thermal discomfort to be a too-common occurrence, particularly for students. One of the reasons for this is design solutions often don’t adequately account “… for how variation in demographics (age, gender, clothing, etc.) impacts thermal comfort.” ASHRAE Standard 55 and ISO 7730 Standard for “Ergonomics of the thermal environment” are both standards used to help maximize thermal comfort in the built environment. But as pointed out in a report by the Committee to Review and Assess the Health and Productivity Benefits of Green Schools (National Research Council 2007), both are based on experimental studies of adults, not children (or young adults).

As I’ve pointed out elsewhere, the metabolic rate estimation methods and predefined clothing insulation values recommended for use by these standards to model thermal comfort during design don’t adequately address a) younger physiologies, b) the variation in clothing insulation values between adults and students, and c) the wide variation of clothing insulation values among students. Yet many designers and modelers use these methods and values in education environments without attempting to adjust for the varying ultimate needs of students. This results in a greater thermal discomfort among students, negatively impacting their ability to learn (at least compared to an environment better capable of meeting their thermal needs).

One disadvantage of codes and standards is that they’re only updated every 3+ years, delaying updates that could improve the alignment of people’s ultimate needs and their proximate environments. This is compounded by the fact that for a variety of reasons ranging from inertia to implementation and construction cost implications, the versions of model codes adopted by municipalities are often one or more cycles out of date. Sustainability is often negatively impacted because the only real driver in many locations is relative to the requirements for energy performance mandated by the local building energy code. If it’s several cycles out of date, then the current best practices with regards to energy performance aren’t mandated and associated utility savings and emissions reductions aren’t obtained.

Certification systems, such as LEED, BREEAM, and the WELL Building Standard, provide municipalities and building owners the option of exceeding out of date code requirements or of even going beyond current model codes. However, unless aspects of these certification systems have been mandated and/or incentivized in some manner by municipalities, utilities, or other relevant organizations, their use is sometimes limited. They have an associated certification cost and can also add varying amounts to the costs associated with design, construction, and operations, though the percentages are often comparatively small. Providing the associated return on investments from utility savings, quantified occupant productivity and health benefits, increased rental rates, and other operational benefits can help make the decision-making process more prosocial and longer-term in nature, but not always. And certification systems suffer from the same potential update cycle limitations as codes and standards.

Stretch codes, though, if adopted, provide municipalities the ability to establish a vision and set of goals for energy efficiency (or other aspects of sustainability, health/wellness, etc.) looking forward ten to twenty years as opposed to being tied to the 3+ year cycle of updates. This also gives the market time to react to and accommodate any needed new practices and technologies. Businesses, universities, school districts, etc., can all see what will be required of their existing, or potentially renovated or new buildings, for years down the road. And because such codes are typically performance or outcomes-based (as opposed to prescriptive-based), they have greater flexibility in adopting new technologies, methodologies, or understandings of relevant ultimate needs as they develop over time. Stretch codes, when properly implemented, help facilitate longer-term assessments of costs and benefits, as well as the environmental and societal impacts beyond the individual building or project. At the level of the community, state or nation, they have even greater potential than non-stretch codes at minimizing within-group selection forces that can overly disrupt unity, cohesiveness and group identity (e.g., Wilson 2015).

The next essay represents the culmination of this essay series. I’ll be focusing on the planning, design, construction, and operations processes themselves, discussing what we can do to better account for the relevant ultimate design features of a given project and determine their most appropriate proximate manifestations.


Hoefferle, J., Jr. (2006). Fire & Building Safety Code Compliance for Historic Buildings: A Field Guide, 2nd Edition. University of Vermont Graduate Program in Historic Preservation in Cooperation with the Vermont Department of Public Safety, Division of Fire Safety. Retrieved from

National Research Council. (2007). Green Schools: Attributes for Health and Learning. Committee to Review and Assess the Health and Productivity Benefits of Green Schools, National Research Council of the National Academies. The National Academies Press, Washington, D.C. Retrieved from

Wilson, D.S. 2015. Does Altruism Exist? Culture, Genes, and the Welfare of Others. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.