Building Codes Focus on Energy Efficiency

A May article discusses the nationwide movement by states and local jurisdictions to make their building codes “greener” by focusing on energy efficiency.

There’s a reason why state and local environmental experts are setting their sights on construction codes. Energy experts see them as the next means to achieving higher levels of efficiency — in part because buildings are a huge energy drain. Energy use in buildings accounts for close to 70 percent of electricity consumption and 40 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions in the United States. Energy efficiency in buildings is also considered the “least expensive carbon abatement,” says Jim Edelson, senior project manager for the New Buildings Institute, a nonprofit group that works on model building codes.

Besides simply requiring more energy-efficient materials and construction practices in a State or local building code, energy efficiency is also being realized through more innovative methods.  One method is by creating a “sustainable” building code that holistically accounts for energy efficiency, recycling, water use, and other green building features.  The International Code Council (ICC) and other stakeholders jointly created and released the first International Green Construction Code in 2010.  Unlike many ICC codes which must be purchased, the International Green Construction Code is free to download.

In 2011 Maryland enacted legislation (HB 972) that authorized the Department of Housing and Community Development and local governments to adopt the International Green Construction Code.  Local governments may also adopt amendments to the Code. 

Another method that may see widespread use in the future is performance-based building codes.

A handful of pioneers has taken code-improvement projects a step further by turning to performance-based codes — focusing on the ends rather than prescribing the means. “We are at the beginning of a dynamic shift in which the focus is on efficiency results,” says Jim Hunt, chief of Boston’s Environmental and Energy Services, “not technologies installed.”  …

Where a handful of states are dragging their feet, at least two — Massachusetts and Oregon — are forging ahead with innovative approaches.  …  Known as “reach” or “stretch” codes, the regulations drafted by these two states do more than raise the bar for efficiency. They also expand the purview of conventional building regulations, which typically dictate materials and construction methods but don’t necessarily measure the amount of energy the building actually uses. The new trend is to do just that — either by modeling energy performance to ensure energy savings or by testing the systems post construction to make sure they are really working.

In 2009, Massachusetts became the first state in the country to adopt a stretch code — an optional set of building efficiency standards that is about 20 percent more efficient than the state’s base mandatory code.  …  In Oregon, policymakers updated the state’s energy efficiency code this year to require a 15 percent reduction in energy use for commercial structures and a 10 percent reduction for homes. An optional but even more stringent set of efficiency standards — the “reach code” — will go into effect later this year and improve that standard by an additional 20 percent.

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