Lessons from the Ancient World

Julie Ruth
October 20, 2008
COLUMN : Code Arena | Codes & Standards

"I want a job like yours where I can get paid to write about what I did for my summer vacation," my son remarked. He was responding to my comments that I thought there were elements of Roman architecture, both ancient and medieval, that were relevant to today's development of U.S. building codes, and that I thought I would mention them in my next column for this magazine. We had just completed a week in Rome touring various sites, and with a shared interest in history and art, many of the sites we toured included ruins or buildings still standing, originally built over 1,000 years ago.

I tried to explain to my son that I felt there were a few corresponding elements between the ancient or medieval architecture of Rome, and the trends we are seeing in modern day construction regulations that might be relevant to the members of the U.S. fenestration industry, but I am not sure he bought my argument. Children can be so difficult, even at 22, can they not?

The Value of Daylighting
The corresponding elements I noted between ancient and even medieval Roman architecture, and modern day trends, were practices that today we would refer to as "green." In the Pantheon-originally built as a Roman temple to "all the gods" in 125 A.D., the only source of daylight is an opening in the roof that is referred to as an "oculus." The roof of the Pantheon is a 142 foot diameter dome. The diameter of the opening in the roof-the oculus-is 30 feet. So the opening comprises approximately 4.5 percent of the domed roof area. And yet this oculus was considered sufficient in size to provide daylighting to the entire open space interior of the Pantheon. The ancient Romans also used openings in the roof to heat the water of their communal thermal baths, as can be seen in the ruins of Hadrian's villa, built in the 2nd century in Tivoli, Italy, and in the ruins of various other Roman thermal baths.

These roof openings have relevance to AAMA's attempts to gain recognition of the value of daylighting through appropriately placed fenestration elements, in reducing the overall energy load of a building. These include AAMA's public comment on EC122 that was heard during the ICC final action hearings in Minneapolis in September. AAMA proposed a requirement that 50 percent of the area of spaces larger than 25,000 square feet in size to be daylit, with skylights that are exempt from the SHGC criteria of the 2009 International Energy Conservation Code permitted in up to 6 percent of the roof area to facilitate such daylighting. The Pantheon is located in a climate similar to that of Atlanta, but research funded by AAMA found that the use of skylights in up to 6 percent of the roof area, along with photocontrols of the lighting system, provided significant energy savings in all U.S. climate zones. The status of AAMA's public comment on EC122, and several other issues of interest to the fenestration industry, will be discussed during next month's column.

Other aspects of Roman architecture which today could be argued as being "green" were the gravity powered fountains of Villa D'Este (built in the 1600's), also in Tivoli. These relied upon the recycling of "grey" water without the use of pumps or other types of modern day hydraulic equipment to create a cool, green haven from the Roman summer, and the "recycling" of buildings and building materials that was common practice in Medieval Rome. The later practice, which was once referred to as "looting," was commonly cited by our tour guides as an example of how progressive the Romans were.

To me, the relevance between the Romans engaging in these practices and the development of U.S. construction codes today lies in the Romans' reasons for doing so. They included these elements in the design of their buildings due to economical and practical necessity. In spite of the centuries of power struggle that belie the Roman culture, it appears that these practices were put into play without any kind of government mandate.

By the time you read this, the final content of the 2009 IECC and the 2009 International Residential Code will be known. At the time that I write this, those results are still unknown. But regardless of what those results are, I think the bigger question is, just how relevant will those results be? Will they be put into place? Will designers design to them, will builders build to them, will code officials adopt and enforce them? If not, what are the forces that have to be in place before that happens?

Out of Necessity
These examples of "green" Roman architecture were designed and built out of necessity and not necessarily out of a desire to be friendly to the environment. Could what was true of Rome over its 2,000+ year history also be true for us? Will we as a country only truly begin to embrace green practices when it becomes a practical and economical necessity for us to do so?

Many of you remember the gas wars of the 1970s. Do you remember waiting in line to buy gas because we were all given a sense that somehow it was going to run out? During the same time period the value of larger, more comfortable vehicles fell while that of smaller, more fuel efficient vehicles soared.

And yet, even though today's SUVs get much better gas mileage than the tank my father used to drive, and at least part of this is due to federal mandates, there for a period of time the American public seemed to forget their fear that gasoline to fuel these beasts may someday be in short supply. Sales of gas guzzling beasts were soaring only a few short years ago.

But what do we see today? Reports in business papers are that the larger, less fuel efficient vehicles are sitting unsold on dealer's lots, while consumers who are buying new vehicles today are looking for more fuel efficient vehicles. Is this being driven by any kind of federal mandate? Of course not. It is being driven by the high price of gas.

In Rome, gasoline costs about $8 a gallon. No wonder every one drives those "cute little cars" or scooters. Is this what we are likely to see in the U.S. in the future as well? If the price of gas remains high-and we have no indications it will not-it seems likely.

So what implications does this have for American construction and U.S. building codes? According to the ICC Web site, 32 states have adopted the 2000, 2003 or 2006 IECC for statewide enforcement, and one or more editions of the IECC is being enforced on the local level in another 10 states. Adoption of one of the editions of the IRC, with its Chapter 11 requirements for energy efficient residential construction, is even more widespread and has occurred at the state level in 38 states and locally in another 10.

Yet there are indications that even though these codes have been adopted, they are not always being enforced. In fact, there are some parties who would argue that the U.S. Department of Energy would come much closer to reaching its goal of reducing residential energy usage by the year 2010 by 30 percent if they put more focus on the enforcement of energy conservation codes that are already in place, rather than the continued revision of the codes.

If the current enforcement of energy conservation codes is not as strict as it could be, what would it take for builders to begin to build energy efficient buildings or to improve the energy efficiency of the buildings they are building? Do they not respond to the demands of the marketplace, just as any other commercial entity must do to survive? So the demand for more energy efficient buildings must come from the market place. And what would cause the market place to demand more energy efficient buildings? It would seem the answer is the same factors that affected Roman architecture-practical and economical necessity. Are we there yet? No, but we will be in the near future, and that future may be much sooner than most of us realize.


Code Arena is brought to you by the America Architectural Manufacturers Association. Julie Ruth may be reached through AAMA at 847/303-5664 or via e-mail at julruth@aol.com.