Building Codes: The Right Tool for Achieving our Climate Goals?
Building codes are a unique and complex animal, and their development is driven by a diverse spectrum of vested interests. The recent 2018 code hearings exemplified how motley agendas could at least temporarily align to craft a middle-ground solution for a tough issue (namely, building envelope performance tradeoffs for onsite power production), setting an important precedent for cooperation, but certainly not realizing the gains that many sustainability professionals were hoping for.
There were many issues under deliberation throughout the 2018 code development cycle, and as usual, energy efficiency measures played a starring role in the heated discussion. As Maureen Guttman, President of energy efficiency advocacy group Building Codes Assistant Project (BCAP), reported in a recent webinar with Green Builder Media, “The 2015 and 2018 code cycles were interesting for energy efficiency advocates. Previously, we had realized large increases in efficiency requirements in the 2009 and 2012 code cycles, which had an unforeseen result—many professionals suffered from “energy code fatigue”, claiming that the enhanced requirements were too hard to implement. This resulted in flat-lined code enhancements in the 2015 and 2018 cycles.”
This “energy code fatigue” certainly contributed to the hottest debate that raged during the 2018 code development process over RE-173, a proposal focused on compliance requirements and the potential to trade off onsite renewable energy generation for reduced building envelope performance.
In an unprecedented move, a coalition of vested interests, ranging from production builders to environmental groups, convened prior to the code hearings to develop a satisfactory compromise.
The big builders, many of whom either make money off of the installation and sale of solar systems/leases to homeowners or at least get the installation essentially for free, were in favor of the solar tradeoffs to reduce the amount of money they had to spend on building envelope systems.
Energy efficiency proponents took a hardline against decreased building performance, which would have meant rolling back years of hard-fought efficiency gains.
Ultimately, both sides offered concessions, and together, they developed a modified version of RE-173, which increases ERI values (from 51 to 57) and requires that, if renewable energy is generated onsite, the building envelope must meet 2015 energy code requirements.
“No one was thrilled but everyone was satisfied,” said Guttman, “and renewables are now addressed in the energy code, which is an overall win for everyone.”
Given the net sum of the gains and losses of the 2018 code development process, Guttman concluded that homeowners and environment were the decisive losers. “The current code simply isn’t changing fast enough to get us anywhere near to our climate goals,” she asserts. “Codes are developed and adopted mainly with the bottom line in mind, not sustainability. To get to net zero, we need to move away from a state by state adoption and get to a national code development process. If we can’t do this, then we need to start exploring other tools and drivers.”
Building codes are the minimum standard—the floor, so to speak, not the ceiling. Guttman believes that they are no longer an adequate tool, and she encourages us to consider other public policy drivers that are being implemented in forward-thinking cities like San Francisco, Austin, and New York, such as renewable energy mandates, commissioning, and energy disclosure for homes and buildings.
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