CANOA's Take: The Shiftless Approach to National Building Energy Regulations

We have all heard that buildings consume a good proportion of the energy we use on an annual basis...

 min. read
November 13, 2021

Originally written Lance Amato on Medium on November 2nd, 2020 (link)

My time at CANOA has given me the opportunity to dive back into the practice in ways most professionals in my industry would rarely have the chance to do. As Chief Compliance Officer, one of my first initiatives was to build our database of construction and energy codes across the entire nation in preparation for an upcoming product release. So I dove into what the tech industry terms “ stealth mode” for a few months reading codes books, researching municipal ordinances, grandfathered clauses, etc. Several eyedrops and 655 different townships later, my presumed assumption for a level of national consistency fell by the wayside and an unexpected concern for the misalignment of how we evaluate energy use and its compliance grew.

We have all heard that buildings consume a good proportion of the energy we use on an annual basis. There have been numerous initiatives developed to target this, including organizations lobbying for commitments to focus on the reduction of energy use and companies based on offering incentivization to landlords for better building performance. I ask though, would enough be warranted in the time we need it to be achieved to remedy our climate crisis?

The majority of the states in our country offer the opportunity to follow guidelines they adopted for energy compliance. The most followed guidelines being developed by the International Code Council (ICC), aptly named the International Energy Conservation Code (IECC). Within the IECC & ASHRAE, there are various metrics and baselines which new and existing spaces must meet for the design of insulation, lighting, mechanical, and plumbing. The ICC takes great care in understanding our current climate crisis, and are diligent in updating their guidelines to lower the bar for energy usage.

The problem resides that per US law, it is at the choice of the local municipality to adopt the version of code which it enforces. Such a rule, which honestly could be argued for in terms of building code, should not be applicable to energy code.

To that point, it was absolutely disheartening to learn through my research, while most states offer to comply with with a newer version of IECC, most municipalities within those states choose to utilize codes develop many years ago….or sometimes not adopt a version at all. Unfortunately, this isn’t a personal interpretation based on unconfirmed research….the US Department of Energy clearly exposes this on their own website (below).

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Commercial codes
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Residential codes

This digital footprint coincides with my own personal research. Of the 655 different municipalities I reviewed:

26% are following codes from 2009 or earlier

11% are following 2012 code

27% are following 2015 code (a very highly adopted version across the country)

Meaning 64% of the municipalities researched are using older versions of code, nearly 40% of them while compact fluorescent fixtures (CFL) were still an acceptable solution. While my research only covered 655 of the nearly 39,000 municipalities in the United States, my estimation leads that many smaller municipalities may follow older versions codes unless part of a larger state wide drive for suggested (not mandated) energy compliance.

As an broad understanding on how adopting the latest energy code can improve reduction of energy usage, let’s take commercial lighting energy compliance as an example. Listed below is the comparative improvement in lighting design of “office use” and watts per sf restrictiveness between the published IECC versions of code:

2018 to 2015 : 4% Improvement on Energy Allowance

2018 to 2012 : 13% Improvement on Energy Allowance

2018 to 2009 : 21% Improvement on Energy Allowance

One could assume this discrepancy between new versions and backdated codes will increase as the new 2021 IECC codes are released.

So I ask, with our broad talks of environmental initiatives drawn for 2030, 2040……the New Green Deal…how exactly can we bridge the ever growing gap of altruistic behaviors with the aspirational efforts of our sustainable political and design leaders?

Accept and agree the pace of climate change is lapping our ability to react accordingly. What I propose would be controversial but driven solution. State mandated, if not nationally enforced energy codes. Our interest in sustainable energy generation should and could be supported with an overall reduction of energy use if moderated properly. We can rely less on our waning fossil fuel reliance and comfortably replace our dependences with the slower growing developments sustainable power generation.

How could the design and construction community assist in this endeavor? Establish your own guidelines for energy compliance verifications above and beyond your locally mandated terms. Collaborate with others and educate them to do the same. Potentially find new partners if those aren’t willing to meet your standards. Do not allow designs to fall to the status quo, regardless of the pace our fast moving industry demands you to see designs our the door.

Need a state to reference in what setting “above and beyond” in energy compliance means? Most would guess correctly if their first thought would direct them to California. Nearly every town and city collaborated and agreed to consistently follow the same set of environmental principals.

2019 Building Energy Efficiency Standards

The 2019 Building Energy Efficiency Standards improve upon the 2016 Energy Standards for new construction of, and…

In conclusion, our community should take the opportunity, even in today’s world of uncertainty, to address and support the steps for an more environmentally driven process. The future of the office may look different, but the principals of sustainable design can remain consistent. Take your time in the research of organizations which support the incentivization of buildings to perform better…and lean into your own local politicians to enhance how your municipalities address these codes.