Looking Forward: the Importance of Building Systems

Looking Forward: the Importance of Building Systems

This piece was originally published in the June 2017 issue of electroindustry.

Representative Matt Cartwright (D-PA)

Serving the American people as a member of Congress is an important lesson in the concept of systems. After all, every American schoolchild is taught that our government is a system of checks and balances, of which Congress is an essential part. Systems-based thinking is also an important part of lawmaking, as successfully addressing issues involving healthcare, the economy, and the environment requires a broad, systems-based approach.

Of course, systems-based thinking is hardly unique the government. A common application in the private sector is in construction. Buildings are made up of systems: electrical, plumbing, heating, and more. When creating the electrical system, it isn’t enough to understand how all the components work individually. You have to understand how they work together as a system.

Taking one step back, the building is not only made up of multiple systems, but it can be considered a system itself with multiple subsystems. You can’t just understand how the electrical system works in isolation; you have to understand how it works with the plumbing system, the heating system, and everything else. You could step back even further and ask how the construction of a building is part of an even bigger, overarching system.

This isn’t just an academic exercise: there are important systemic factors that influence the construction of buildings well before the idea for any one particular building is even conceived. A huge variety of standards and codes are relevant to the built environment, including those developed by the National Electrical Manufacturers Association.

The process of standard setting is fairly decentralized. In many ways, this system has served America well, but it is always worth asking whether improvements can be made. One topic I have focused on in this respect is climate change. Are standard-setting bodies thinking about future climate changes, or are they only looking at historical data?

I asked the Government Accountability Office to look into this question, and they found that while some organizations have tried to use forward-looking climate projections when setting standards, many have had trouble doing so. This is not surprising. It can be very difficult to translate data and projections used by climate scientists into a form that is helpful for standard-setting bodies. However, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. Our children will thank us tomorrow if we future-proof our standards today.

Fortunately, the federal government already employs scientists who address this problem. That is why I introduced HR 1464, the NIST Success Act. This bill would task the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), in partnership with climate experts, with helping standard-setting bodies identify and use relevant climate change information. NIST would also help coordinate the participation of federal agencies in the standard-setting process.

The end result is that we will have more resilient standards for the built environment and across the private sector. When, for example, we want a building to be able to withstand a 50-year flood, we can be more confident that it will be able to handle the kinds of floods coming in the next 50 years, not those that came in the last 50. At a time when we are looking at climate change, this task could not be more essential.

Congressman Matt Cartwright represents Pennsylvania’s 17th Congressional District. He serves on the House Committee on Appropriations and the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.

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