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Homes in the Midwest need to be ready for more days of scorching heat

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The record-setting heat we saw this past summer was a preview of the dangerously hot weather expected in years to come. Much of the nation's housing stock is not ready for it. Holly Edgell of the Midwest Newsroom has this report.

HOLLY EDGELL, BYLINE: I'm standing in a very busy construction area here in the city of St. Louis. In front of me is a brand-new townhome development going up. Across from that is an older building, much older, where masons are repairing and replacing some of the original brickwork. The law requires adherence to the 2018 International Building Codes.

ALICE HILL: One of the things that we should be thinking about is, how do we move towards performance-based building standards?

EDGELL: That's Alice Hill, an expert in the risks of climate change for the Council on Foreign Relations. She says building codes are designed to keep us safe. Across the U.S., builders and developers are guided by international building codes set by the International Code Council, which are updated every three years. The key word is guided because state and local governments can decide to follow the latest, most stringent codes or not. Hill says the nationwide patchwork of rules prevents us from designing and constructing homes that will protect Americans from extreme heat.

HILL: They're primarily based on past data, and that means that they're out of date.

EDGELL: Even the latest codes - for 2021 - are not what we need, Hill says.

HILL: They are calling for buildings to be constructed for climate that no longer exists, much less the climate that we will see in the near future.

EDGELL: By midcentury, climatologists predict that extreme heat will suffocate parts of the South and Midwest, bringing feels-like temperatures of up to 125 degrees Fahrenheit for more days of the year. Justin Glisan is Iowa's state climatologist. He says our housing infrastructure is not built for today's extreme heat.

JUSTIN GLISAN: And it's definitely not built for where we're going. So it is an infrastructure adaptation aspect that we really have to deal with.

EDGELL: Adaptation is not cheap. Old houses built for a different climate can be made airtight, energy efficient and more climate resilient - at a price. When it updates building codes every three years, the International Code Council considers new technology and materials aimed at energy efficiency and climate resilience. Depending on where you live, these features can add thousands of dollars to the purchase price of a new home. Hill says that has an impact.

HILL: So you've got the developer who wants to build cheaply. The family wants to buy cheaply. So that may be that the developer really doesn't want to have the added cost of resilience.

EDGELL: Efforts to update U.S. residential building codes happen state by state, city by city and county by county. The process requires buy-in from developers, designers, builders and members of the public, just to name a few of the stakeholders.

HILL: It's a big challenge.

EDGELL: Hill says the Inflation Reduction Act offers some programs aimed at energy efficiency, but it's not a climate adaptation plan.

HILL: Building resilience to climate change requires all levels of government, as well as the private sector, to work together to understand the risk and then talk about, how do we finance the investments in getting ourselves to a position of greater safety?

EDGELL: In other words, building from the same blueprint.

For NPR News, I'm Holly Edgell of the Midwest Newsroom.

(SOUNDBITE OF ROBOHANDS' "IKIGAI") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Holly Edgell