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The Role of Energy Codes in Resilient Construction

Published: Nov 27, 2012 Blog Post

On October 22, I was in Portland, Ore., to give out the first ever Excellence in Energy Code Compliance Award at the Annual Conference of the International Code Council. The first-of-its-kind award, sponsored by IMT and the Global Buildings Performance Network, recognized jurisdictions that are doing a superior job making sure homes and buildings are built in compliance with their local energy code.

While manning IMT’s booth during the conference, the very first code official to come over asked: “What do energy codes have to do with health and life safety?”

This is a fairly common question asked by code officials. The belief that energy codes do not impact health and life safety is one of several barriers to comprehensive enforcement. Ironically, just one week later, a natural disaster would help make the case for just how important energy codes can be to health and life safety.

A late-in-the-season Hurricane Sandy, combined with a cold front sweeping in from the west, meant that more than 8 million people would be left without power and in the cold. More than two weeks after the storm, tens of thousands were still without power and fighting the cold temperatures.

So what do energy codes have to do with their predicament?

Energy codes contribute to resilient design and construction practices. According to the Resilient Design Institute:

Resilience is the capacity to bounce back after a disturbance or interruption of some sort. At various levels—individuals, households, communities, and regions—through resilience we can maintain livable conditions in the event of natural disasters, loss of power, or other interruptions in normally available services.

Energy codes address minimum requirements for insulation and air leakage in the building envelope as well as mechanical systems, hot water systems, and lighting. Of course, in a power outage, none of the mechanical, hot water, or lighting systems will work. But there’s one component of the energy code that has a big impact on resilience when the power goes out—the building envelope.

The energy code requirements for the building envelope include insulation in the wall, floor, and ceiling as well as energy-efficient windows and doors. In addition, the entire building envelope is required to be sealed to limit air leakage into and out of the home.

Some say that codes and rules are meant to be broken. But when they keep you warm or cool and improve your wellbeing—especially during a disaster—they become something to live with and live by. The benefit of building new homes and retrofitting old homes with well-insulated and well-sealed envelopes is that they will maintain a much more thermally comfortable environment when the power is out.

So whether you just experienced the worst ice storm in a decade, or if a derecho has knocked out your power for a week during a 100 + degree heatwave, you don’t have to immediately evacuate your living space. Meeting code requirements keeps extreme temperatures from seeping through your doors and walls.

In terms of health and life safety, extremely cold temperatures within a home can mean burst pipes, even hypothermia and the possible death of occupants. To fight cold temperatures, occupants will often resort to fires and portable gas heaters, which can also lead to home fires and carbon monoxide poisoning, another serious health threat.

As local governments contemplate devoting resources to enforcing the energy code, they should recognize that the benefits extend beyond just saving their citizens and businesses money on their energy bills. It also saves lives.