Building codes set the standards for what buildings must be to be safe and usable by occupants. Codes not only address structural integrity and fire hazards, but also provide guidance on healthier indoor air and improving energy. IMT’s newest Associate Director for Codes and Technical Strategy, Amy Boyce, is a mechanical engineer with expertise in designing HVAC systems, energy efficiency and cross-sector collaboration. In this Q&A, she shares the importance of climate change to her career choices, and offers insights into the challenges and potential of using codes to lower the climate impact of the built environment.
What is one defining moment in your life when the reality of climate change became personal to you?
I didn’t hear climate change in many discussions, even as recently as the early 2000s. When I graduated from college, I became much more aware of how individual decisions have a larger impact. I started to notice in the built environment how everything was about oversize and overdone by default, rather than tailored to the needs of a specific place. Then, while I was at the U.S. Green Building Council working on LEED, I saw there was so much potential for building design to mitigate climate change while also creating the best possible product.
I believe that buildings can be places you want to be rather than you have to be. If engineers and architects and all the building creators collaborate, they can build a place that not only has the right HVAC and safety features, but also looks attractive, keeps people healthy and awake, and allows emotional connections with the natural world through lighting and design choices—all while lowering energy use and carbon emissions.
What role do codes play in mitigating climate change and making buildings more equitable for people?
Building codes are a minimum. They started out focused on safety, often after a disaster had shown existing codes were inadequate. The worst-affected buildings are obviously the ones in the communities with the least means. After Hurricane Katrina, for example, a lot of codes were rewritten because the communities that only built to the minimum found that wasn’t enough.
Building codes also ensure that buildings are comfortable for the people in them, able to address climate and internal loads, and also healthy in terms of ventilation and lighting and structure. The energy codes are meant to work in tandem with the mechanical, plumbing, fire and other codes.
Codes also help buildings stay relevant longer. When I was getting my MBA while at USGBC, I heard a speaker on the topic of “doing well by doing good” who argued that you can be personally successful and still do good at the same time by just taking a longer view. That’s really my philosophy for how to combine buildings and climate change: take a long-term perspective and build something that lasts and that provides a positive experience for the people using the building.
At the end of this pandemic, it’s quite likely we will need fewer commercial buildings, so the ones left are going to be competing for occupants. Lower-performing buildings are likely to struggle more because they weren’t as well conceived to meet tomorrow’s needs and because energy inefficiency has to be passed on as a cost somehow.
What are the barriers to using building codes effectively?
Building codes are challenging in a number of ways. They are difficult to understand and apply because of the technical jargon, and because they need to be written for a generic building rather than a particular one. They are also inconsistent across jurisdictions and they change over time. Municipal building departments vary in the level of support available, so it can be hard to get clarity on the codes, especially if you have buildings in multiple locations.
Additionally, for smaller and medium-size buildings, achieving high performing, energy efficient buildings can be expensive. For example, to maximize energy savings, it’s best to look at the building holistically, but that can require access to sophisticated software to do a custom model of how a building’s systems interact, which means hiring someone to do that. Compounding that, the savings potential is greater for larger buildings, which means a less favorable return on investment for the smaller buildings. That said, addressing all buildings is really critical to decarbonization. We need to find ways that are affordable and manageable for these buildings, even if that means taking a more piecemeal approach and, say, focusing on HVAC equipment improvements.
It’s worth saying that if we had been more aggressive regarding code updates and adoption, more buildings would be set up to be high-performing properties. We haven’t done that and now we’re paying the price. It’s similar to mileage standards for cars; companies focus on the minimum action required. What if we raise the baseline? We already know many of our buildings are wasting energy and contributing to health and economic inequalities in the form of pollution and utility bills. We need to acknowledge that and raise the bar. Codes are the mechanism to do that.
I find working in codes can be super frustrating at times, but someone has to do it and it feels great to be part of the solution, especially when something works. When an initiative shows promise, there’s the potential to replicate and scale and to feel I really had an impact.
What are you most looking forward to in the next year?
I look forward to a happy hour with co-workers in person and having spontaneous conversations. It’s been hard starting this position remotely and I miss out on the human interactivity.
That said, I’m really excited to be back in a mission-driven environment and to be focused on energy efficiency. It’s also fun to be the engineer on staff and to have the opportunity to exchange ideas with people who aren’t engineers, but maybe are geeky in a different way.
My goal is always to know more today than I did yesterday. I want to understand the perspectives of non-engineers on codes, and the role that building codes play in their work. And there’s always the hope we find a new scalable, affordable solution for energy efficiency and climate.