Building a house in a modern city entails a host of regulations and codes, making the process laborious and costly. Andrés Duany, a founding principal at Duany Plater-Zyberk & Company (DPZ) and co-founder of Congress for the New Urbanism, is advocating for cities to rethink policies and ordinances to allow more flexibility with the Lean Urbanism initiative. One sub-agenda of Lean Urbanism is “pink codes,” overlays of existing codes that create the possibility of bypassing building codes within certain thresholds.

“The Lean Urbanism initiative seeks to spin the clock back to a time when codes weren’t so restrictive so today’s young people–who bring real energy and innovation–can act,” Duany says. “Today’s codes and regulations add tremendous expense, so only major corporations and large developers can afford to build. Pink codes would level the playing field so that the small contractor and individual can work in cities.” 

Pink codes are specifically aimed at small-scale buildings such as homes, duplexes, and some one-story businesses. In many suburbs, people are still allowed to build one and two-family houses without intense regulation. Duany argues that the same should be true for cities. “Individually, houses may seem small scale, but collectively it has a very large impact,” he asserts.

John Norquist, president and CEO of Congress for the New Urbanism and ECOHOME’s Vision 2020 Sustainable Communities chair, notes that bad regulations developed from narrow perspectives or specialties that focused on solutions to fix their problem without regard for how it affects others. “Across the nation, 33 states adopt virtually everything the International Code Council (ICC) puts forth, and many special interests lobby the ICC to get their agenda included. This resulted in codes and regulations that get in the way of better development,” Norquist says.

According to Duany, under pink codes, individuals would take personal responsibility for the buildings they design and construct based on their knowledge and confidence that they will work. “In reality, all the permits you have to obtain don’t protect the builder from liability anyway. If something goes wrong, the city doesn’t get sued because it gave you the permits.”

Mark Frankel, technical director at New Buildings Institute and Vision 2020 chair for Codes, Standards, and Rating Systems, sympathizes with Duany’s plight, but cautions that the primary driver of codes is fire and life safety. If a home becomes a fire hazard or death trap, it can have tragic consequences for children and firefighters. “Still, I agree that codes have become costly and complicated and some are so old they don’t make sense any longer,” Frankel says. “There are definitely opportunities to simplify. We need to figure out how to strike the right balance.”

Making innovative building more feasible though lighter codes may be the only way to forward the green building movement. Duany says the stock market downturn revealed a national impoverishment, and the environmental movement will be overwhelmed by our economic crisis unless building green becomes equally or less expensive than conventional building. 

“The green movement has been hijacked by high-tech solutions,” Duany says. “It has to wake up and develop technology that costs less, not more. If it’s done in a low-tech way, everything can become green. I think this is the future of green, and the future of development.”

Building on its successful launch in 2012, ECOHOME’s Vision 2020 program continues in 2013, focusing on eight critical areas in sustainability. Track our progress all year as our panel of visionary focus-area chairs, our editors, and leading researchers, practitioners, and advocates share their perspectives on initiating, tracking, and ensuring progress toward sustainable priorities and goals in residential construction between now and 2020. The program will culminate in an exclusive Vision 2020 Sustainability Summit in Washington, D.C., in September 2013, and with a special edition of ECOHOME in Winter 2013. Click here to see the 2012 Wrap-Up.