Project Success: Design to Code with Forward Thinking

Building codes affect design, understanding current codes and how to work within them
allows for compliant projects and quality homes.


Working at an architecture and planning firm creates adventure every day. Some of our daily objectives, besides designing high-quality communities, are to successfully accomplish projects with a focus on adaptability for shifting trends and innovations that promote attainability. These types of goals are what we strive for, all while working within the confines of the building code.

California’s 2019 Title 24 Code is in full effect and being implemented in all projects that are currently on the boards or in the permitting stage. This latest code update focuses on photovoltaic systems, building envelopes, demand response compliance options, and indoor air quality. Questions such as the decision to include solar, what U-factor or R-value should be used, and what smart technology will get the project there, are all necessary decisions to be answered while determining the right strategy to get homes built in an economically feasible, visually desirable, code compliant, and timely manner.

Understanding codes and being able to tackle them early in a project mitigates potential issues, provides more efficient building systems, and creates all around better homes.

The biggest focus of the updated Code has been solar photovoltaic systems. Many think solar is mandated in California, but that is actually a misnomer. The California Energy Code (Title 24, Part 6) has the intent of flexibility. Once the Mandatory Measures for the Code have been met, additional requirements within the Energy Code must be accounted for, but can be done with either the Prescriptive or the Performance Approach. The Prescriptive Approach tells you exactly what needs to be done and the standards to be used. The Performance Approach requires energy modeling to ensure a chosen customized path meets energy efficiency standards. Each Approach has pros and cons.

Choosing the best path depends on project type, applicability of design features, experience of the builder, financing, and design preferences. Although solar is not technically required, many are opting to include it as the 2019 California Energy Code uses a home with solar in the baseline model. So far, solar is the most effective way to meet this Energy Code requirement. The Performance Approach still requires making the home as efficient as the baseline Prescriptive home, whether or not solar is used. The goal of the 2019 Title 24 Code is to work towards producing as much energy as the home consumes. The ultimate goal is for future codes to require zero-net homes.

Whether panels are placed at the project or off-site at a community solar facility, solar is a main focus in working towards a more sustainable future. As planners we strive to arrange homes so that they are placed in the preferred solar orientation while still accomplishing density goals. As architects, we try to simplify roofs to maximize roof area while still matching architectural styles. We also work closely with our clients and consultant teams for a more educated and integrated approach to minimize problems later.

Indoor air quality is another hot topic in this code cycle which calls for more efficient filters. MERV 13 filters rather than MERV 6 filters are found to be more protective from harmful particulates in both outdoor air coming in and indoor air recirculating around the home. With the recent COVID-19 occurrence, air quality is of even greater concern to the general population. MERV 13 filters are now required for the majority of new, ducted HVAC systems.

Indoor air quality requirements can impact mechanical design and should be considered when it comes to space allowance for duct work and other house systems. Additionally, the building envelope can also impact home dimensions. As planners and architects, we thoroughly consider building separations between homes to account for insulation and framing. Understanding 2×4 versus 2×6- framed walls and what insulation and coating goes with these, impacts space. Allowing for extra inches “in-case,” always helps. Building height restrictions must also be considered. Insulation and attic space required for high performance attics can increase height. The additional height can require revisions to roof pitch and even plate height. Inches matter and considering the fine design details is essential.

California Codes are stringent but with good intent – to make our built environments healthier and safer places to inhabit and more responsive to our planet’s precious resources. Understanding codes and being able to tackle them early in a project mitigates potential issues, provides more efficient building systems, and creates all-around better homes.


Julia Malisos, LEED AP is a Principal- Planning/ Community Design at WHA Architecture,

Planning and Design with offices in Santa Ana, Long Beach, and San Ramon. Julia can be reached at