Better buildings soon? Energy and climate bill would set national energy codes

The Waxman-Markey bill has a very strong set of building efficiency codes (see Section 201, page 214 of the bill — a big PDF).  Our guest blogger, Craig A. Severance, discusses what the bill requires in a post first published on his blog.  Craig, a practicing CPA and former Assistant to the Chairman and to Commerce Counsel, Iowa State Commerce Commission, did one of the most detailed cost analyses publically available on the current generation of nuclear power plants being considered in this country (see “Exclusive analysis, Part 1: The staggering cost of new nuclear power“).

The greenhouse gas cap-and-trade title of the Waxman-Markey bill gets most of the attention, as it should, but the bill has many other provisions, some good, some lame.

It’s important to “get things right” when a new building is constructed.  More so than perhaps anything else we create, new buildings will be with us for a very long time.

Mistakes We Have to Live In. Our gas guzzler cars and trucks will rust away to the scrap heap in little more than a decade.  Appliances and machinery share a similar fate.  This quick turnover assures us our mistakes of the past will not stay with us very long.

Not so with buildings — an energy hog building will likely still be around a hundred years from now.  Thoughtlessness in design and orientation of buildings creates inefficiencies that are often impossible or prohibitively expensive to fix.  As energy costs rise, such buildings will be a burden to their owners and renters.

Almost Half of Our Energy Use. While it is fashionable to talk about wind farms and hybrid cars, buildings are the “elephant in the room” seldom discussed, though they are responsible for almost half of U.S. energy use.

Climate scientists have concluded we must cut global warming emissions by at least 80% within just 40 years, or face catastrophic climate disasters.  If we don’t start making better buildings now, we have no hope of meeting this goal.

Stop Doing Things Wrong. For all of these reasons, strong measures are urgently needed to stop new buildings from being built the wrong way, when we know how to build them right.

I know many builders who would like to build better, more energy-efficient houses.  They don’t do it, because “the builder down the street” is not doing it.  Most energy efficiency measures are literally invisible. Since the added advantages don’t “show well”, they are not perceived by buyers to add value. No builder can add extra features without recovering the cost, so we keep “building stupid buildings” even though we have known for 30 years how to build smarter.

Getting All the “Builders Down the Street” On Board. The way improvements in building technology achieve widespread adoption is through building codes.  If everyone has to do it, everyone does it.

When the Waxman-Markey comprehensive energy & climate bill (which is also known for its “Cap and Trade” program for greenhouse gases) was first introduced as a Discussion Draft on March 31st, many criticized its failure to take strong action on buildings.   Though the draft called for a national “model” energy building code that states should adopt, it had no teeth. An arduous campaign would have ensued for adoption in all 50 states, where special interest lobbying campaigns would likely stop or delay many.  If someone like Alaska Governor Sarah Palin wanted to grandstand and oppose requirements for better energy efficiency in buildings, there was then nothing in the bill that could be done about it.  Pockets of America would continue with no advancements in building energy codes.

This might be acceptable if there were no overarching national and global crisis. However, global warming now threatens to inundate our coastlines and turn vast stretches of fertile American farmland into dustbowls.

The Committee “got it” and strengthened the bill.  The bill (H.R. 2454) that passed the full House Energy & Commerce Committee last week no longer speaks of a national “model” energy building code.  Instead, it establishes enforceable “national energy effficiency building codes” for new residential and commercial buildings.  States and local governments will be required to adopt the new national codes, or codes that achieve equal or better energy savings.  Noncompliance will result in loss of significant funding.  If they still do not do so, the Federal government itself will step in and enforce the national energy efficiency building codes.  (Nobody actually wants that to happen, but you have to be willing to do it to enforce compliance.)

In other words, if the bill becomes law in its current form, new buildings around the country will actually need to be built better, to achieve greater energy savings.  It will actually happen. (The building energy efficiency codes are contained in “Section 201” of the Bill).

How Much Better Buildings? Major reductions in building energy use are required by the Bill — over time, reaching 75% reductions from current energy use standards.

The Bill begins with “Baseline” standards which are the minimum energy efficiency requirements in the 2006 IECC code for residential, and the 2004 ASHRAE code for commercial.  It then sets “Target Dates” for % reductions from these Baselines.

The Bill is complicated to read, and might give the impression of earlier action than will actually occur.  Each date below is the date the Target must be set by the Department of Energy (DOE).  and the national codes to enforce each Target would need to follow within one year, with state adoptions to be achieved by one year later than that.  So, if you add 2 years to each date below, you will be at the probable time of actual enforcement:

  • 30% reduction from Baseline –  immediately upon passage of the Act. — i.e. enforcement probably by 2012
  • 50% reduction from Baseline – for residential by 2014 and for commercial by 2015– i.e. enforcement probably by 2016 and 2017 respectively
  • 55% reduction from Baseline – for residential by 2017 and commercial by 2018 — i.e. enforcement probably by 2019 and 2020, respectively
  • 60% reduction from Baseline – for residential by 2020 and commercial by 2021 — i.e. enforcement probably by 2022 and 2023
  • 65% reduction from Baseline – for residential by 2023 and commercial by 2024 — i.e. enforcement probably by 2025 and 2026 respectively
  • 70% reduction from Baseline – for residential by 2026 and commercial by 2027 — i.e. enforcement probably by 2028 and 2029 respectively
  • 75% reduction from Baseline – for residential by 2029 and commercial by 2030 — i.e. enforcement probably by 2031 and 2032 respectively
  • Further reductions? – beginning in 2033, DOE is to evaluate if further reductions should be set
  • Zero Net Energy buildings are to be supported by DOE efforts to support “distributed renewable energy technology” as part of this entire process

Actual Standard Set. While the Bill sets the above % Targets, the actual standard set by the Bill is the “maximum level [DOE] determines is life-cycle cost justified and technically feasible”.  That’s a mouthful — basically it means does it cash flow, in other words do the energy savings more than pay for the cost of doing them.

If DOE determines that greater amounts of energy savings are feasible and cost-justified, it can set new codes that achieve more savings than the above Targets.

On the other hand, if DOE determines the above Targets are not feasible or cost-justified, it doesn’t have to meet them. It can instead set new codes that achieve less savings than the above Targets.

Congress is punting here to the technical experts — setting % Targets that Congress wants to see achieved, but allowing for better or worse results if the DOE says so.   I think a lot of these “technical” determinations will actually depend (more than they should) upon what political party controls the White House at the time.

Implications. The only reason I am bothering to write about a Bill that still has a very long way to go (i.e., the Senate), is because of the sweeping changes to be wrought to the energy and building industries if Section 201 of this Act actually becomes law.

Some initial impressions:

  • Enormous boost to jobs related to making buildings more energy efficient — e.g. Energy Raters, insulation contractors, blower door air leak-tightening contractors, manufacturers of high efficiency windows, high efficiency furnaces and air conditioners, high reflectance roof coatings, etc.
  • Changes by lenders to incorporate energy savings may be needed. The DOE methodology will likely require boosts to energy savings if the cash flow from energy savings exceeds the extra mortgage payments to pay for it.  However — will lenders be willing to loan the extra dollars up front?
  • Utility forecasts of growth in energy demand from new buildings will need to be drastically adjusted downward.  This will eliminate the need for billions of dollars in new power plant construction that otherwise would have been required.
  • Achieving the higher levels of savings (e.g. >50%)  is likely to involve renewable energy resources such as solar hot water, and solar photovoltaics.  Many of these are already cost effective so they should meet the DOE test. (More jobs — lots of more jobs – in these fields.)  Also, regional differences in codes will be needed – and this is anticipated by the Act.

Something to Fear, or Promote? Change can be frightening, and this Bill will definitely require major changes in how buildings in the U.S. are designed, built, and possibly financed.  There is likely therefore, to be intense lobbying against the strong provisions described in this article. Many builders will be reluctant to change practices, and fearful of how well they can prosper with the new code requirements.

Although every one of the changes will actually have zero or negative cost — they will have a life cycle cost less than the life cycle energy savings — the biggest fear voiced will be that these measures will make buildings cost more.  Congress and the lending industry need to work together to develop solutions to this “up front cost” stumbling block.

In the end, we must keep in mind why this Bill exists in the first place. The threat of climate catastrophe from global warming is real.

Do I want my new home to be energy efficient, or under water?

15 Responses to Better buildings soon? Energy and climate bill would set national energy codes

  1. PaulK says:

    Chicago Architect Howard Alan is a leader in energy efficient building design.

    Ground temperature assisted heat pumps (also called geothermal) can cut energy use in half and is cost competitive with conventional HVAC systems.

    There may be significant political resistance to national building codes.

  2. K L Reddington says:

    I spent a day with an architectural engineer last week. I am having a cabin designed outside the grid.

    My Mennonite relatives live in and build new green buildings like the drawing with only one exception. In bolivia and mexico They don’t have photovoltaic electricity generation.
    Sod houses which are local materials. They build their own window frames out of local pine wood. for lighting control they use the light switches when they leave the room. They have grey water collection systems we used to call cisterns.

    I have toured this building and know the buuilders

    Greensburg kansas is the leader now in buuiilding to LEED

  3. Phil Eisner says:

    I agree with PaulK; there will be great resistance to Federal building codes. I have seen from local and state politics that all new building codes meet a virtual stone wall of “No-no” at first. Yet buildings present a great energy conservation opportunity for our nation. We have the technology to greatly improve the efficiency of lighting, hot water heating, air conditioning, and heating. This is true for old houses as well as new. Sustainability Committees is many of our cities in New Jersey are trying hard to save energy in their existing housing stock through education and state supported subsidies for energy audits.

  4. Omega Centauri says:

    I tend to be a fan of making requirements apply to whole developments, not individual units. For instance -especially in the case of zero net energy, it is inoptimal to require every single building to comply. Allowing some building net energy positive to offset some others that are net energy negative would allow potentially less costly solutions. For instance, if solar panels are used, some buildings may have more favorable exposures, and it would make sense to place the panels in the most efficient locations.

    Similarly, rather than an ironclad requirement for efficiency, you could allow a builder to buy his way out, i.e. to pay a fee to build to a lessor standard. The fee, must be large enough to capitalize other savings, or zero-carbon energy. That way, the cheapest way to find the desired reductions can be made. Perhaps this could be called -energy-inefficiency cap&trade.

  5. hapa says:

    in a slow construction market, renovations and retrofits will maybe have greater impact. some cities already have green standards for non-minor renovations, and i loved something i saw from monbiot, namely requiring the greening of vacant apartments. i’m not somewhere i can get to the bill now; are there (currently) standards for such?

  6. Jim Beacon says:

    As someone who has personally built the last 4 houses he has lived in with his own hands, I have always strived for energy efficiency in my construction. So you would think I’d be all in favor of this rush to put in a whole bunch of new energy-efficiency rules and regulaions, yes? Well, not exactly… at least I have grave reservations.

    Sure, we simply must build more energy efficient buildings and homes, but as someone who has actually had to create something while adhering to the building codes I know two things:

    1) Legislators start with good intentions when they set out to add new rules to the building code, but as with any sausage-making political process, what actually ends up in the code often tends to be overly-complicated, overly-expensive and something that in fact does not do the intended job or get the desired effect as well as something more simple and less expensive. I offer the current version of Waxman-Markey as a perfect example.

    2) The minute something gets required by the building code — even if it is a good regulation and something that should be required — the price of that something jumps through the roof.

    And building affordable housing is already a nightmare in the U.S. — actually it’s a bad joke. Aside from the good work of Habitat for Humanity, no one and no agency is really building truly affordable housing in this country anymore. Part of the reason is the effect of all the revisions to the building code, most of which have added cost but not really added much more efficiency, value or safety.

    So, if we are going to add all these new rules and requirements to the building code there has to be a very solid, well-reviewed process for taking the politics and philosophy out of the proceedings and make it only about what really works and makes sense. And you have to put some kind of price-controls on the new stuff you are requiring so that rampant price-gouging doesn’t occur and drive the cost of construction even higher than it is already. Manufacturers and suppliers should not be handed a bunch of new windfall profits because they can now sell something for 4 or 5 times what it used to go for just because “now the code says you *must” have this or do that.”

    This may be an impossible task, but there must be a serious attempt to tackle it in order to try to ensure that most of the new requirements make sense and don’t produce opportunities for price-gouging. The devil is in the details.

  7. Pierre Bull says:

    And then there’s the problem of actually implementing the codes. For starters, building energy code enforcement tends to be much lower on the priority list (life safety and health being the most immediate need) for code enforcement officials. And there’s the issue of local politics, red tape and development. No code official is going to stand in the way of “slowing down” progress.

    This is why we need to accompany improved building code laws with better building code enforcement and “upstream” education. Building energy codes need to be ingrained in the minds of building design architects and building development engineers.

  8. Wes Rolley says:

    Pierre Bull has it right. That is why I have been an ardent supporter of Architecture 2030 ever since I first heard Ed Mazria speak. That effort does not get the focus it deserves. Instead, we have Architeture Critics fawning over the likes of Frank Gehry and never giving an inch of ink to the practical aspect of building sustainable buildings.

    According to Mazria, “By the year 2035, approximately three-quarters (75%) of the built environment will be either new or renovated.” If we don’t make this work, we will have completely failed and Earth 2100 will be here.

    Wes Rolley
    CoChair, EcoAction Committee, Green Party US

  9. PaulK says:

    Jim Beacon,

    Habitat for Humanity builds affordable and energy efficient. I’m hosting a 21st century energy forum on June 23rd in Chicago at the Beverly Arts Center. One of the speakers will be David Tracy, executive director of Habitat in the south suburbs. We’ll also have experts on residential geothermal and retrofit foam insulation.

  10. GreatGreat piece here on the national building code dimension of the current Waxman-Markey version. Absolutely vital stuff.

    While far, far too many architectural critics and journalists still treat visual aesthetics as an independent and paramount consideration, not all do. At ArchWeek, though we are a general architecture magazine and not a green specialist publication, we try to include sustainability considerations in every building feature article. We’re proud to count Ed Mazria among our authors, to cover the relationship of building and the global climate crisis on a frequent basis, and of course it is our great pleasure to include Climate Progress in our design-and-building-related blog center.

  11. Ken Levenson says:

    Building performance is even more complicated than legislation and is a big reason why energy efficiencies are so elusive.

    We have LEED Platinum buildings that don’t meet energy code, as a study released last year by USGBC noted. The study concluded: “energy performance displays a large degree of scatter”. And Energy Star homes are hitting only half their projected reduction goals, on average, per a study by Michael Blasnik.


    So it’s great to get the standards tightened – but how do we actually build to them and actually achieve the required reductions!!?!?!?!????

    The #1 impediment toward achieving these reductions has been the lack of a sophisticated and clear design/construction methodology for hitting dramatic energy cuts.

    Until now…..

    The PASSIVE HOUSE energy building standard and methodology closes the loop and can deliver up to and even surpass 90% heating and cooling energy savings NOW.

    Developed in Germany in the 1990’s, over 15,000 buildings have been built around the world to this exacting standard. It has been tested and verified with the E.U.’s CEPHEUS program in 2000 and 2001.

    Passive House is not a style or a building type.

    Passive House is:
    1. focused on being ECONOMICALLY AFFORDABLE (under 10% upcharge and 5 to 8 year payback – it avoids costly renewable systems such as PV, wind and geothermal, concentrating on what is essential to building, the thermal envelop and ventilation systems)
    2. focused on HIGH COMFORT LEVELS (the highest interior air-quality and thermal comfort levels around today)
    3. focused on PREDICTABILITY (with the Passive House Planning Package, the most sophisticated energy modeling of its kind today, mandatory blower door testing and rigorous review by PHIUS and certification – the buildings relentlessly meet or the goals.)

    We should be going to 90% reductions today.
    With Passive House, 90% reductions are affordable, doable and predictable.

    Our imperative should be to make Passive House standards building code ASAP.

    Find out more about Passive House at:

    The Passive House approach, I think, qualifies as a “core climate solution”.

  12. Pangolin says:

    It would be rather simple to implement a green renovation requirement for apartments by requiring code compliance before utilities get turned on. For landlords that have already met the standard this could be as simple as providing a code password to give to the utility.

    Rentals are frequently the worst offenders with old and degenerate doors, windows, appliances, light fixtures, and HVAC units. I don’t see why they shouldn’t be required to meet minimal standards of energy efficiency.

  13. Monkey boy says:

    Being a keen environmentalist and a civil engineer I support the development and encouragement of more efficient houses, the use of rainwater harbesting, green roof etc…

    Unfortunetly I know these come at great cost, and I fear this could price people out of the housing market. Great work is required to incorporate all this technology and yet be cost effective and comparable to normal construction techniques.

    Driving more fuel efficient cars however is a no brainer, I do not understand why americans have such a problem with light small engined cars, I drive a 1000kg 1.8 litre car, it does 0-60mph in 7 seconds and has a top speed of 145mph, yet I can get 35mpg out of it easily on the motorway and its solid enought to protect me in a crash

  14. Christopher Yaun says:

    I second Ken Levenson and Passive House. A friend has just moved into her new house designed and constructed to meet passive house standards.

    It is now possible to build homes in cold winter climates that have a near zero heating bill. (I am not familiar with application in warm climates.)

    There is no reason to ever build another home that requires an active heating system and an huge monthly heating bill.

    What is a Passive House? “Passive” refers to a house that does not require and active heating system. The house is designed and carefully constructed to a level of energy efficiency that eliminates the need for an active heating system. The $$$ saved by eliminating the heating system are invested in improved envelope, insulation and window quality. The $$$ saved in heating bills go into the owner’s pocket.

    Elements of a passive house include:

    envelope, envelope, envelope: The building envelope is carefully constructed to eliminate all air leakage and minimize thermal bridging.

    insulation: R40 Walls, R70 attic

    window: R7, triple pane, coatings reflect infrared heat back into the house, no glazing on north walls

    passive solar with carefully designed ratio of glazing to floor area and sufficient heat sink to store the solar energy.

    low energy appliances including induction cooktop.

    Active heating system is a small (30,000btu propane) “fireplace”. House is expected to require less than 50 gallons of propane to heat in a climate where typical home uses in excess of 1000 gallons of fuel oil.

    Air to air, balanced heat recovery system. A house this tight has almost zero air infiltration and gets stuffy rapidly. A small (less than 100 watt) air exchanger exhausts stale air and distributes fresh air while recycling 70% of the heat that would would otherwise be exhausted.

    After future addition of photovoltaic panels we expect this house to be a NET ZERO ENERGY house.

    Construction cost less than $200 per square foot.

    I also recommend the Wikipedia Passive House page. It has links to many other useful sources.

  15. Chris Stewart says:

    “There is no reason to ever build another home that requires an active heating system”

    A propane stove and air intake are “active” systems.