Carli Yoro

The phrase “don’t judge a book by its cover” is often applied to judgments of people — and to buildings, too.  

A building’s façade can be beautiful, but it doesn’t necessarily indicate the quality of its indoor environment. A building’s “Walk Score” doesn’t tell you much about how well it manages rainwater. A building’s energy use alone doesn’t tell you much about the productivity of the people inside. A building’s use of recycled materials doesn’t tell you much about how well it manages its waste stream during operation. Indeed, it takes a full range of metrics or impressions to better understand a building. LEED serves as an important proxy for better designed, managed, and performing real estate.

For the tens of thousands of buildings that engage with LEED, there are hundreds of thousands more that may have no further guidance than what’s written in a state or local building code. That’s why USGBC has been so enthusiastic about sharing what we have learned in green building with minimum codes and standards — and, more recently, with green building codes and standards.

The recent announcement about USGBC’s work with partners on green building codes intends to lead the market, coach those that follow, and shepherd better building practices into the mainstream expectations for all buildings. 

So, as we make our way towards a future filled with an even better set of regulatory tools, what kinds of questions should you be asking about where we are today?

Here are three code questions you should be asking

1. Why do building codes matter?

Building codes affect your everyday life, sometimes without you realizing it. From the materials within the walls of your home, to the light fixtures in your office, building codes have the capacity to determine every aspect of your indoor environment. 

Additionally, in the U.S., buildings account for about 40% of all the energy consumption and 70% of electricity consumption. A significant portion of a building’s energy usage is effectively locked in during design and construction (by building orientation, insulating materials, heating, cooling, lighting and control technologies and so on). Many other factors will contribute to a building’s performance over its life (like smart calibration of systems, careful management, ongoing measurement, the behavior of those pesky occupants, and more), but it’s clear that how a building is designed and built has a big impact on its overall energy consumption.

Since the 1970s, building energy codes and standards have been our answer to this energy efficiency opportunity. Many other codes and standards — like building, plumbing, fire and mechanical codes — establish norms that help our buildings be safer, more accessible, and also fairly standardized so that manufacturers can produce quality, cost-effective component parts. Slow, but steady uptake by federal, state and local governments has made most of these codes and standards nearly universal in the U.S. today, even if many states and cities reference outdated versions.

2. Where does the U.S. stand?

The U.S. Department of Energy tracks state adoption of building energy codes across the nation (here).  According to DOE’s records, 13 states have adopted the most recent versions of the widely-accepted national model energy codes. Some states (like Arizona and Missouri) don’t have a statewide energy code, and some states (like North Carolina) are backsliding on their energy codes, too, but most states are moving forward. Energy codes, therefore, are left at the discretion of local jurisdictions. Compare energy policy decisions for new buildings, like building energy codes, to some cities and nations around the world (here) and you’ll see we still have far to go!

In the U.S., the two prevailing codes for energy efficient buildings are:

  1. The International Energy Conservation Code (IECC), written by the International Code Council,  establishes prescriptive and performance-based requirements for all buildings to achieve a certain level of energy efficiency.  The code is updated every three years by ICC’s government members and the public in an effort to save energy, maintain safety and cost-effectiveness, and generally improve the usefulness and effectiveness of the code.  
  2. Standard 90.1, written by ASHRAE, establishes today’s ‘standard of care’ for design professionals and industry for energy efficient commercial buildings.  The standard is referenced in the IECC, and is also updated every three years to adjust to better, more efficient practices.

Energy codes are intended to make buildings more efficient (read more from IMT), but these codes are only as good as they are understood, applied and enforced. While some building departments have the resources in-house, many defer to a third party to ensure that enforcement and compliance happens. This research paper reviews several successful strategies.

Ultimately, there’s a continuum of attention that our buildings need that doesn’t stop at the Certificate of Occupancy. That’s why USGBC has been focused on optimizing the performance of existing buildings, too, through benchmarking, retro-commissioning, and greening again and again... enter the LEED Dynamic Plaque!

3. What can I do?

The adoption of the most energy efficient building codes in the U.S. lies in the hands of people like you. Link up with your Regional Energy Efficiency Organization or with your local USGBC chapter to join in our Build Better Codes Campaign. The Building Codes Assistance Project, too, is all energy codes all the time.

You can also stay tuned for updates as our new green code collaboration gets up and running. It is sure to have important spillover into every aspect of baseline building codes and standards. We’ll most definitely need your help!