Building Energy Codes: A (Slightly Wonky) Way to Construct a Cleaner, Safer World

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Designing our homes and communities to be resilient in the face of natural disaster is becoming increasingly important. President Obama emphasized this last week with the announcement of a variety of public and private efforts to increase the resilience of communities against the impacts of climate change through building codes and standards. Many of us have experienced devastation from recent natural disasters firsthand, whether it's been caused by Superstorm Sandy, the wildfires raging throughout the west, flooding in Texas and throughout the south and Midwest, or ongoing droughts. Increased emphasis on resilience aims to ensure that, as weather patterns become more severe, buildings and communities are able to prepare and adapt to keep inhabitants safe and secure.

Preparing for greater risk of natural disasters due to climate change is absolutely critical, but wouldn't it be even better if we could halt climate change in its tracks? The good news is that building codes also give us an important tool to fight climate change, not just respond to its effects: the building energy code. The building energy code is aimed at cutting energy waste within our homes and offices, thereby reducing the need to burn fossil fuels to generate the energy needed to run them—and also avoiding the harmful carbon pollution fueling climate change. Unfortunately, the model building energy code is under attack and is at risk of being substantially weakened, at a time when its stringency and impact has never been more important.

I'll get into more detail below, but first, some history.

Building Codes Matter

Building codes have been an important part of construction practice for literally thousands of years. The first known written code was established almost 4,000 years ago and doled out some pretty harsh penalties for unscrupulous builders. Penalties ranged from correcting shoddy construction at the builder's expense (sounds reasonable) to the death penalty for a builder whose building collapses and kills the owner (and the same applies for a builder's son if the owner's son is killed—talk about construction risk!) In more modern times, the code has evolved into a mechanism to ensure the health and safety of building occupants, by setting regulations for things like fire prevention, earthquake resilience, electrical and plumbing requirements, and (my personal favorite) energy efficiency.

Building energy codes have proven to be an incredibly effective tool to reduce energy use in homes and businesses, saving Americans money and reducing harmful pollution. A home built to the 2012 code uses about half of the energy as a standard home constructed in 1975—but there's still room for improved efficiency.

Buildings and the equipment within them use about 70 percent of the nation's electricity and account for 40 percent of overall carbon pollution emissions, so reducing the energy use of buildings means reducing carbon emissions and mitigating the harmful effects of climate change.

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The American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy recently concluded that the adoption of the 2015 model building code could save 96 million metric tons of carbon equivalent by 2030, which would be like erasing the emissions from 25 coal-fired power plants. And that's just with codes that are already on the books—as my colleague David Goldstein explains, NRDC advocates for continuous improvement in every subsequent cycle of the building code. Steady but incremental improvement to codes in this same time period could save upwards of 160 million metric tons of carbon, the output of 42 coal-fired power plants.

As shown in the chart below, building code improvements under two sets of building code standards (ASHRAE and IECC) have led to immense decreases in energy use in the past 40 years. Such advancements are not only technologically feasible and cost-effective for the homeowners and businesses that pay the energy bills, but continually improved energy codes are absolutely crucial for the health of this planet we all call home.

Moving in the wrong direction

Given how critical strong building energy codes are in the fight against the dangers of climate change, recent events in the residential energy code development process are very troubling. Code officials, builders, energy efficiency advocates, and others met last month in Louisville, KY for Technical Advisory Committee hearings for the development of the 2018 International Energy Conservation Code (IECC, the model energy code recognized by the Department of Energy and cited in federal law, which is updated every three years through a stakeholder process. It's then up to local jurisdictions to adopt and enforce the codes). Unfortunately for those of us who recognize energy efficiency as an unequivocal win for both homeowners and the environment, the advisory committee was beholden to the desires of the building industry to stick with the status quo—or worse. Advisory committee members not only rejected just about every proposal that would increase the energy efficiency—and therefore, the important climate benefits—of the energy code, they also took steps to roll back its efficiency.

If these proposals ultimately make it through the rest of the code development process, the 2018 IECC will be the first code to ever move backward on energy efficiency. Builders argued that requiring more energy efficiency will increase the purchase price of the home. While that's true in some cases (and is something that NRDC and other energy efficiency advocates are very sensitive to), the advisory committee's decisions simply didn't take into account the fact that the cost of a home isn't just about the purchase price. Home energy bills are estimated to cost the average family around $2,000 each year—that's more than $70,000 in energy costs over a 30 year period. Energy efficiency measures are easiest and cheapest to install at the time of construction and ensure that homes are more comfortable, more resilient, and don't waste energy and money. Efficiency pays for itself! The results of the advisory committee hearings could mean that the 2018 energy code would be a very bad deal for homeowners and families.

Thankfully, this isn't the end of the road for the energy codes. NRDC and other efficiency advocates will get another chance to revise and re-submit our energy-saving proposals over the summer before another round of code development hearings in the fall. Ultimately, local and state government officials get the final vote on which proposals are adopted (the vote will take place after the fall hearings)—it's just a lot more difficult for a proposal to pass if it has gotten an unfavorable recommendation from the technical advisory committee.

But, we're not deterred. Strong building energy codes are a slam dunk for energy efficiency: they save consumers money and they help mitigate the impacts of climate change. That's worth the fight.

About the Authors

Lauren Urbanek

Senior Energy Policy Advocate, Energy & Transportation program

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