Earlier this year, I attended the 2016 National Energy Codes Conference in Tucson. As a Conquer the Energy Code instructor for Urban Green Council, I felt sufficiently interested in the subject to make the trip to sunny Arizona. Organized by the Department of Energy’s Building Energy Codes Program, the conference represented the nation’s core community of professionals who care deeply about energy codes and aren’t afraid to get into the weeds.
About 200 attendees—many of them “code nerds”—arrived from building departments, non-profits, manufacturers, and architecture and engineering firms from across the nation. Many knew one another after spending years together in the trenches of code development, application and enforcement. Based on the sessions I attended and the discussions I had with other attendees, the conference offered three key takeaways:
Moving Towards Renewable and Net-Zero Energy
Opening remarks by David Cohan (U.S. Department of Energy), looked ahead to the 2018 International Energy Conservation Code currently being developed. After the substantial leap in stringency between the 2012 and 2015 iterations, Cohan expects a more modest set of changes with the forthcoming release—raising the bar here and there but not necessarily introducing major new concepts.
The issue of renewable energy, only addressed as one of the Additional Efficiency Package Options (AEPO) in the 2015 IECC, is one point very much under debate right now. There is a growing recognition in the codes community that buildings will move toward net-zero goals and outcomes. Voluntary rating systems will have to become more ambitious (or require Net-Zero Energy (NZE) outright, as the Living Building Challenge’s energy petal does), and ultra-efficient or net-zero energy buildings will have to be built or retrofitted en-masse to reach climate-driven policy targets, like NYC’s 80 by 50 goal. Cohan described a community that was somewhat resigned to the notion that codified NZE targets will eventually be a logical endpoint, though there is not (yet) a broad consensus that this is necessarily a good idea.
Small Towns Can Be Big Challenges
Several industry professionals and code officials reported from the “energy codes frontier”—rural, sparsely populated areas. It may be a bit difficult for those of us in cities like New York to relate to small towns and rural communities across the U.S. facing strong economic headwinds and an often-conservative political environment. Many building departments in small towns are one-person shops overwhelmed by the complexities and internal contradictions of overlapping codes and regulations. We heard from code officials that “throwing the book” at project teams seeking to obtain permits in these economically challenged regions—i.e., expecting compliance with sometimes arcane or technically challenging code provisions—can be politically untenable when working under administrations that are trying to attract development. In those regions energy efficiency requirements are often seen as a hurdle to a project’s viability and potential for investment and employment.
State of Adoption
The state of energy code adoption across the nation is a very mixed bag, with more than 20 states still using the 2009 IEEC or even earlier/other/no energy codes, 17 states using the 2012 version, and the “avant-garde” of a handful of states—including New York—are in the process of adopting the 2015 version.
How did we arrive at such a fractured national picture? Varied political environments greatly affect individual states’ enthusiasm for pushing for the adoption of the latest, most stringent energy code. Coupled with the limited ability and desire of the federal government to force states’ hands—despite bright spots like NYC and other major cities, as well as California and Washington State—it seems that the U.S. is not yet on the path to engaging the building industry as the major player in combating climate change that it ultimately is.
For the substantial segment of the design and construction market that is beyond the reach of voluntary green rating systems and the cultural currents transforming much of our industry, building energy codes will need to play a critical role in raising, or even establishing, the floor of minimum building efficiency.