Elevating the Energy Code, Part II: Where We Need to Go

September 24, 2020 | Amy Boyce, PE, CEM, LEED AP BD+C

In the first of this introductory series on the Energy-Efficient Codes Coalition’s (EECC) future at IMT, we covered EECC’s immediate goals, including the 2021 IECC Appeals Process and the move towards adoption. Now, let’s talk about where codes need to go.

The Role of Building Codes

The history of modern building codes has largely been reactionary, with new or more stringent codes developed as the result of tragic fires or devastating hurricanes. These disasters create the impetus for stronger codes in the hope of preventing loss of life and property in the future. Our climate is currently changing at a rapid pace, with wildfires raging along the West Coast and record numbers of hurricanes in the Atlantic, with each year hotter than the previous. In formerly temperate climates in the West, residents must now choose between opening windows and breathing ash or keeping them closed and enduring stifling heat. With this as a backdrop, it is not acceptable for the energy code to be cautious or reactionary. Buildings endure for decades and the ability to protect those in them must endure as well.

Looking to the Future of Energy Codes

EECC is dedicated to using the full scope of energy codes to improve building performance, with energy efficiency as the foundation. Efficiency is key to a sustainable, resilient future because it reduces the resources needed to achieve all the other goals of the energy code – decarbonization, 100% renewable energy generation and a highly reliable, interactive transmission and distribution system for electricity. Together, these will also help to minimize larger societal problems such as air and water pollution and negative health outcomes, all at a lower cost than continuing on our current path.

EECC’s holistic strategy to develop the energy codes of the future will keep efficiency at its core but will expand to meet these other goals. Luckily, many of the necessary changes overlap. For example, advanced controls systems allow HVAC and lighting to respond to changing occupancy conditions, preventing unnecessary energy expenditure, while simultaneously allowing systems to communicate with the grid to curtail or shift consumption in response to peak production or demand. Grid interactivity and electrification are also tied hand-in-hand: shifting usage hours reduces the impact of increased demand, and supports increased levels of renewable generation, which fluctuates depending on wind and weather. From another angle, electrification brings us back to the original purpose of building codes—life safety—as recent studies have shown the detrimental effects fossil fuels in the home have on IAQ and occupant health.

The most cost-effective time to add any of these measures to a building is at the time of construction. While additional efficiency measures can increase first costs, this analysis of the residential energy code shows that home owners can become cash-flow positive in just a few years. High-performing materials and systems, in combination with thoughtful design and construction, have resulted in, and will continue to result in, significant energy and cost savings for property owners and tenants. This is important considering that high-efficiency homes lower mortgage payback risk and that utility bills are frequently higher for people of color.

Incorporating all of these elements into the national model code will aid states and local jurisdictions in meeting their own energy and environmental goals. In the most recent code cycle, leading to the development of the 2021 IECC, the ICC Governmental Members Voting Representatives passed proposals that included electrification and EV-ready requirements. Those proposals; however, are currently under appeal and in danger of being overturned, despite being approved by an overwhelming majority of voters. As discussed in the first part of this series, active and on-going governmental participation in the code development process is crucial to producing the best possible code each cycle. EECC is actively engaged in the ICC appeals process, working to ensure that these proposals are not removed from the 2021 code.

Bottom line: Codes should set buildings up for a lifetime of high performance

The bottom line is that codes should be setting buildings up for a lifetime of high performance: This is a core believe of both EECC and IMT. This includes exploring how these regulations for new construction intersect with and complement new policies aimed at existing buildings, such as the building performance standards (BPS) being increasingly explored across the U.S. After all, while codes are geared towards new buildings, and BPS address existing buildings, new buildings become existing buildings once occupied. It will soon be necessary to address this gap between the code and performance standards, another key connection that EECC will be exploring in its future work.

We’re energized about the path ahead, so to speak. We hope you are, too. To keep up to date on EECC’s plans and advocacy efforts, please sign up for EECC’s mailing list.

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Associate Director, Codes and Technical Strategy

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