Are Local Codes Taking the LEED?

Energy is a big part of LEED; after all, it’s the first “E”, beating out “Environmental” by a hair. And at its heart, energy efficiency in LEED is based on ASHRAE 90.11, a national consensus standard that’s been updated like clockwork every three years since 19992.

90.1 is also the foundation of the commercial building code, which covers all buildings over three stories (even residential ones) in most parts of the country. By federal law, USDOE must analyze each new 90.1 version when it is released every three years. If they find it more stringent than the last version—and so far, they always have—states have two years to update their commercial energy code to match. Sometimes, states that get behind the schedule must play “catch up”; as a result, New York’s building industry will be governed by three different energy codes in three years (see chart)3. Energy codes: they grow up so fast these days!

OK, so due to the 90.1 update process and the federal requirement, state energy codes are theoretically tied to a three-year cycle. What does this mean for LEED? With code updates coming triennially, if LEED is not updated at least as frequently, there’s the chance it could actually fall behind the energy code.  An example: since 90.1-2010 is more stringent than 90.1-2007, projects that meet the code minimum requirements of 90.1-2010 will exceed the energy requirements of 90.1-2007 and thus of LEED v34. In short, anywhere that 90.1-2010 is the basis of the local energy code, projects filing under v3 might get LEED points just for following the law.

Luckily, USGBC is making sure LEED stays with the times, and as of April 8, 2016, projects that file LEED v3 must achieve at least rough equivalency to 90.1-2010. A recent determination requires projects achieve four energy points5 or use an up-to-date version of 90.1. This shouldn’t be a stretch for most projects; according to Jeremy Sigmon at USGBC, this will require beating 90.1-2007 by 18%, but the average LEED v3 project is already 29% better than 90.1-2007. Or heck—just use LEED v4.

LEED v3 is only open for registrations until October 31, 2016, and this update is valid for the life of that version. However, by the time the sun falls on v3 and USGBC mandates v4 for new project filings, New York will have moved on to 90.1-2013. LEED v4, based on 90.1-2010, could be in a similar predicament once again.

So, what’s needed to keep LEED in sync with federal requirements for state energy codes? It’s complicated: despite the federal law, not all states update at the same time, plus other countries that are eager to use LEED are not subject to the law at all. Could each new DOE-approved 90.1 version automatically trigger a LEED update two years later? Maybe just for projects within the US? Share your thoughts in the comments!


1 Full name: “ANSI/ASHRAE/IES Standard 90.1 -- Energy Standard for Buildings Except Low-Rise Residential Buildings.” No offense intended to ANSI and IES, so I’ll use “90.1” from here on out.

2 OK, there are only two years between 90.1-1999 and 90.1-2001, but that was probably a Y2K problem.

3 Actually, the state energy code is based on the International Energy Conservation Code (IECC), with ASHRAE 90.1 as an allowed compliance path. However, the codes are very similar in terms of energy performance, and ASHRAE 90.1 is more familiar to those certifying LEED projects – if for no other reason than they can use energy calculations for both energy code compliance and LEED submission. So I’m fudging it a little bit for simplicity.

4 What most folks call LEED v2009. USGBC uses both names interchangeably, but it comes between v2.2 and v4, so in later years v3 will probably be easier to remember.

5 Three points for healthcare projects.

About the author

Cecil Scheib
Cecil Scheib is Chief Program Officer for Urban Green Council.