Gerald Herbert/ AP

Masthead Weekly 05.24.19

Today we’re going deep on something you know you should know, but probably don’t: building codes. The CityLab writer Amanda Kolson Hurley argues that climate change is making their role more urgent. We’ll also give you a quick heads-up on a few stories that will bubble into the news next week, and an update on what’s new in the Masthead community. Scroll on.

What to Know: Building Codes

By Amanda Kolson Hurley

Gerald Herbert/ AP

What we’re watching: Happy Building Safety Month! Americans might associate May with finally wearing short sleeves again or firing up the grill for a Memorial Day cookout. But the International Code Council (ICC) has deemed the month a time to celebrate the intangible rules that shape the man-made world around us—building codes.

Codes are the construction standards that ensure our roofs don’t blow off during storms, our children’s schools don’t crumble after a temblor, and our offices don’t consume an ungodly amount of energy. We might take them for granted, but without building codes, the architecture of our daily lives would pose a continual hazard to us.

If Building Safety Month doesn’t set your heart racing, that’s understandable: Regulations aren’t sexy. The language of the codes themselves is technical and difficult for a layperson to parse. (A typical example: “Gypsum board shall be permitted to be used on woodjoists to create a horizontal diaphragm ceiling in accordance with Table 2508.5.”)

Why it matters: Building codes are emerging as important tools for meeting the challenge of climate change—both to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions and to help us adapt to effects that are now unavoidable.

New York City just adopted an aggressive new climate law, the Climate Mobilization Act. As my colleague Kriston Capps reported, it calls for reducing 40 percent of the emissions from buildings by 2030 and 80 percent by 2050. The details still have to be hammered out, but what New York is instituting is what’s known as an “outcome-based” energy standard—one that measures the energy a building actually consumes (whether it’s new or old), as opposed to whether a new structure meets an existing guideline (which is how codes traditionally work). This signals a shift in approach that other American cities might follow.

Cities and states are already making their energy codes more stringent. California’s newly updated energy code, which goes into effect on January 1, 2020, “will be the first state code in the nation to require solar panels and nearly net zero levels of energy consumption in all new homes,” notes the nonprofit New Buildings Institute.

Meanwhile, in greater Houston, city and county officials have revisited their building codes after the devastating floods caused by Hurricane Harvey. In April 2018, the Houston city council voted to require new homes in the 500-year floodplain to be built two feet above the base flood elevation, or the expected level of water during a flood. Harris County, which encompasses Houston, also upped its elevation requirements. Some owners of homes that predate the new codes are raising their houses several feet in order to stay above the water (at exorbitant cost, as I found in my reporting).

What we’re asking: How much tougher will building codes get? Not everyone welcomes the prospect. A report published last year found that progress on revamping building codes has stalled in some hurricane-prone states, or even fallen behind, with those states using older and less rigorous codes. Homebuilders push back on what they see as excessive and costly regulation. Stricter codes and standards prompt new questions: Should landlords have to pay energy fines when their tenants are the ones ratcheting up plug loads, the energy used via electric outlets? What is a “safe” elevation, and will it still be safe 10 or 20 years from now?

What’s next: The ICC will hold its annual conference in October in Las Vegas. Up for a vote will be an update of the International Energy Conservation Code (IECC), the national-model energy code that many cities and states broadly follow. The development of building codes is political and determined by an astonishingly small number of people, and it rarely attracts much notice outside the building industry. Given that these codes have such a big impact on carbon emissions, we should be paying attention.

The One Thing You Should Read to Learn More

  • An Important Vote for the Climate (The New York Times). The environmental writer Justin Gillis explains who opposes tightening the energy code further, why turnout at the ICC’s October vote will likely be low, and what’s at stake.

What to Expect

Notes on the news to come

Politics and Policy

On May 30, a Massachusetts district judge will appear in court on charges of federal obstruction of justice. The Newton judge Shelley Joseph is accused of helping a twice-deported man in her courtroom slip out a back door and evade Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents waiting outside. This complicated and unusual case highlights a long-simmering tension over the presence of ICE agents in courtrooms. Civil-rights advocates and judicial observers say it discourages citizens and noncitizens alike from entering courthouses and exercising legal rights such as the opportunity to defend themselves against charges they face, testify in criminal proceedings, and obtain orders of protection against perpetrators of sexual and domestic violence. Massachusetts prosecutors themselves have made that case in a recent lawsuit that seeks to bar ICE from courtrooms.


BlackBerry has been on the verge of collapse for years. The company has tried valiantly to find its place in a market it helped invent but no longer controls. One of those efforts was focusing on BlackBerry Messenger, or BBM. Think of it as a kind of statistical average of many other communication services on offer—the evanescence of Snapchat or Instagram, along with the group-message features of GroupMe, plus some classics, such as a Facebook-poke-style Ping and a Dropboxesque file-sharing feature. It wasn’t enough; BlackBerry is shutting down the BBM service at the end of the month. The grab bag of features might have been to blame. BBM was trying to be a jack-of-all-trades app at a time when more specialized offerings have become more popular.

Arts and Culture

On May 31, the Disneyland Resort in Anaheim will open the doors of its newest amusement park, a 14-acre attraction called “Galaxy’s Edge” that will try to approximate life in the sci-fi universe of Star Wars. Orlando’s Disney World gets its own version on August 29; each will have cantinas, docking bays, and ancient ruins to explore, as well as a full-scale Millennium Falcon to run around in. The entire enterprise is so popular that, for now, park visitors are being given special passes with tight four-hour windows to explore the area; it’ll likely be many months before the place isn’t completely stuffed with crowds. Galaxy’s Edge is just one prong in Disney’s coordinated strategy to dominate movie theaters, home streaming, and merchandising, turning its most beloved movie franchises into everlasting brands.


Starting June 1, security guards in schools in the town of Garfield, New Jersey, will carry guns. The decision was approved by the Garfield Board of Education’s president and several trustees. The school district is only the latest in New Jersey to start employing armed security guards—earlier this month, schools in Bogota committed to not only armed guards, but also surveillance cameras and lockdown buttons for the next school year. And New Jersey schools are only a small sample of the growing number of schools across the country that are staffing armed security officers in the wake of last year’s Parkland shooting.

Items this week by Ian Bogost, Tanvi Misra, David Sims, and Karen Yuan. Illustrations by Matt Chinworth.

What to Remember

Insight from Atlantic history

125 Years Ago

This week, The Masthead wrapped up a debate over the role of schools in teaching children how to think. Some members argued that schools bore a civic imperative to do so—echoing an argument that, more than a century ago, the educator William F. Slocum made in the pages of The Atlantic.

“The public school stands in close relationship to every moral problem in the republic. The problem of municipal government is pressing upon thoughtful citizens to-day, and many schemes are devised to make it impossible for dishonest politicians to practice their dishonesty and selfishness; but a radical cure of this and all other evils in the body politic can be effected only by the creation of upright citizens. A majority of the voters receive their only training in the public schools. If low and selfish aims rule their conduct; if they lack the possibility of enthusiasm for a high purpose; if, in short, their lives are wanting in principle, it is not enough to say that demoralizing influences overthrow the good wrought within the schools, because the business of the schools is so to establish morality that it cannot be overthrown by evil circumstances in after life.”  — William Frederick Slocum Jr., May 1894

What’s New

Updates from the Masthead community

An Atlantic story that provoked members

“A common expression about the Iraq War is that the problem was not that no preparation was made, but rather that the preparation that was made was ignored. With Iran, I am not aware of any preparation that has been made, though it is fully possible that such preparation can be made outside of my awareness. My point is not that there is no justification or that there is no preparation that could be sufficient. Rather, it is that the characters involved instill no confidence that such preparation would be done.”  — @scott.smith155, a member, writing on the forums about “The Iraq War Was a Failure—War With Iran Would Be Worse

What’s happening in members’ lives

“I went with my wife to her 50th college reunion … Getting a decent education at that time usually led to a decent, livable lifestyle, at least for the folks who showed up at the reunion, which was about a fourth of the roughly 700 graduates … But mostly, my impression was, people in their 70s are old. We don’t move like, feel like, or look anything like we did in college, or even at our twenty-fifth reunion. Many people ‘look good’ for folks in their early 70s, and most can move well until something falls on the floor. Who is going to pick it up?”  — @djbermont, a member, writing on the forums

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