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Towards carbon neutrality: Impact of building codes

rogerchangwrl  |  04/06/10 @ 9:00am  |  Posted in Green buildings

Climate change has become a hot button topic for discussion around the world, with many passionate people pushing forward initiatives to address this issue head on. With the Copenhagen summit, it is clear that passion alone will not solve climate change, given concerns over economics and developing countries. There seems to be an underlying question of what is fair for each country to burden in addressing an admittedly complex issue.

At the Ohio Valley Region AIA conference last November, I had the fortune of hearing Ed Mazria, founder of the Architecture 2030 challenge, speak about the tremendous impact architects and engineers will have on climate change. Mr. Mazria's key point was that keeping greenhouse gas emissions in check can be most easily achieved by designing new buildings to be more efficient and upgrading existing building stock (150 billion sf of it) significantly. Investment in energy efficiency measures can also help address the country's stagnant economy by creating demand for building products and a construction industry dying for new work. Reducing energy costs on an individual level frees up income to be spent on other products, further stimulating the economy. While Mr. Mazria's talk was inspirational, I couldn't help but think of one major obstacle: energy codes.

Energy codes have become progressively stricter over the past decade, spurred by the United States Green Building Council's LEED rating system and a stronger message (from the IPCC and Al Gore) that our dependence on fossil fuels was leading to significant, potentially irreversible impacts on climate. Most states reference some version of the International Energy Conservation Code (IECC), which reference energy standards 90.1 and 90.2, developed by the American Society for Heating Refrigerating, and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE). States such as California and Florida have adopted their own energy codes. Energy codes prescribe minimum requirements for insulation, glass thermal performance, HVAC system efficiency, and lighting power. Where the legislation faces a challenge is with the notion of exceeding energy code by a certain percentage. Similar to how we rate the fuel economy of cars, there's a desire to quantify a building's performance with one number.

Honing in on percentage savings requires whole-building energy modeling. Modeling is fraught with challenges. As a design professional, I have seen the variability in results that occurs because of differences in the software tool used, an energy modeler's background, input assumptions, and interpretation of standards. Legislative measures, as well as the Architecture 2030 initiative have proposed increasing the stringency of current energy codes by 30% starting this year and 50% by 2015. One discussed path would take a performance approach, which would essentially require that energy modeling be performed on all projects. A typical energy model, depending on the size of a building can cost $10K to $100K to perform. No energy model can pinpoint actual performance, because of the difficulty in accounting for occupant behavior, maintenance, and actual climate. Ultimately, one wonders if the energy modeling fees would be better spent on proven energy conservation technologies.

In Ohio and other cash-strapped states across the country, energy efficiency must be achieved through clear standards that can be consistently and easily enforced. It would be great to see:

  • National energy code – time has run out for every state to be doing things differently.
  • User-friendly, standardized energy code compliance software – more than a dozen energy modeling programs currently exist, all with shortcomings.
  • Move away from using LEED to equate to energy efficient building design. While LEED has had tremendous impacts on the market, the percentage of buildings certified is about 1%. A recent study showed that 50% of LEED certified buildings would not qualify for an EPA Energy Star building rating.

Energy codes must get stricter for there to be measurable impacts on greenhouse gas emission reductions. Yet, the barriers to successful implementation need to be addressed. Some of the issues described are being addressed by various organizations, but unfortunately, there is no unified effort. Initiatives include:

  • ASHRAE BuildingEQ label – prescribes a standard methodology for energy modeling, but not a standard tool. Buildings would be given a label based on both estimated and actual energy consumption in comparison to a peer group of buildings with similar building use.
  • COMNET – an initiative led by the New Buildings Institute to develop a standard methodology for energy benchmarking.
  • Federal Government – federal buildings must be designed to exceed ASHRAE 90.1-2004 by 30%. Agencies must aim for net zero energy buildings by 2030.
  • Local and State Agencies – in NYC, Local Law 86 requires building projects receiving a certain amount of city funding to exceed 90.1 by 25% and achieve a minimum of LEED Silver certification.

We all have the right goals in mind, but need uniform tools to get to the finish line more easily.

Roger Chang is a Principal and Director of Sustainability for Westlake Reed Leskosky, a national architecture and engineering design firm headquartered in Cleveland.

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