The Energy Code Paradox

What happens when compliance becomes a barrier to achieving energy performance in buildings?

For over fifteen years, New Buildings Institute (NBI) has worked to advance energy codes in jurisdictions around North America. We’ve had some huge wins for higher efficiency requirements in existing buildings, controls for lighting and daylighting hardware and HVAC equipment specifications.

But even as we work to advance energy codes, we are keenly aware that there can be little relationship between the codes themselves and actual energy performance. This is a fundamental issue with how code compliance is approached.

Simply put, the biggest energy savings opportunities nationwide lie in simply meeting the intent of existing codes. Until we address the issue of how buildings are actually built and operated, states and jurisdictions will never meet their energy savings goals.

Right now, energy codes offer two primary pathways to demonstrate required energy savings: modeled and prescriptive. Prescriptive pathways limit the ability of architects and engineers to use integrated systems and innovative technologies to lower a building’s energy needs. On the other hand, modeling is often prohibitively expensive, and while it can be appropriate and effective at increasing the efficiency of large projects, it rarely captures all of the energy use needs and patterns of the completed building. With all of the new devices and computer hardware in buildings, codes capture less and less of the actual energy use.

Regardless of the compliance pathway, once a Certificate of Occupancy is issued code standards become unenforceable. The day-to-day energy use of completed projects is unregulated by our energy codes.

Frontiers in Compliance: A New Pathway

A pending proposal to the International Green Construction Code (IgCC) holds the answer to this problem. NBI, in collaboration with the National Institute of Building Sciences (NIBS), Institute of Market Transformation (IMT) and code officials in Colorado, is working to promote the adoption of an outcome-based compliance method that would be an alternative to prescriptive or modeled performance energy compliance in the 2015 IgCC. This proposal will help facilitate innovation in design and greatly simplify the task of verifying code compliance.

This new pathway proposed for the IgCC (proposal GEW-147) sets energy-use targets by building type and climate zone, with the goal of actually achieving expected energy results while reducing the burden on code departments to enforce beyond-minimum code requirements.

The proposed pathway:

  • Utilizes all potential opportunities to save energy while giving maximum flexibility to the design team
  • Moves beyond component-based requirements to capture systems-level energy-saving opportunities
  • Allows for energy efficient results recognizing the fiscal, technical and personnel limitations of today’s code departments
  • Supports quality installation, diligent design and construction, and effective operations and maintenance to achieve long-term energy performance
  • Provides a framework to help communities, code departments, building owners and design teams realize actual energy savings

With a historic vote in May of this year, GEW-147 cleared a big hurdle when the IgCC development committee voted 8–5 in support of the proposal.

Make sure your voice is heard

We’re close to adoption, but there are some final steps. The next vote on the outcome-based compliance pathway and other proposals will take place October 1-5 in Fort Lauderdale. The final vote will occur two weeks after the hearings and will be an electronic ballot for all registered governmental officials, more information about how the process works is available on the International Code Council website.

Help us get the word out about this issue and the upcoming votes. With your help we can begin to dramatically reduce energy consumption across North America and beyond.Read a related blog about the Getting to Outcome-Based Performance Summit