With today’s conspicuous promotion of green building and sustainability, it is easy to forget that most commercial buildings simply do what they have always done: meet local building energy codes. While these buildings are more energy efficient than if there were no code at all, they are far from the best we can do.
The lack of any Congressional action to reduce energy consumption as part of climate change or energy legislation means the opportunity for improving building efficiency standards falls into different, yet still powerful hands: state and local building code officials.
At the end of October, local government representatives gathered in Charlotte to vote on changes to the International Energy Conservation Code (IECC), a national model for energy codes available for adoption by local jurisdictions. New Buildings Institute (NBI), the American Institute of Architects (AIA) and the U.S. Department of Energy have partnered on a comprehensive proposal for the commercial chapter (EC 147) of the IECC.
The measures outlined in EC 147 are not untested or new-to-market ideas. The upgrades to equipment specifications and design strategies are already in the marketplace and affordable. Buildings that meet the proposed code will be at least 20 percent more energy efficient than those complying with the current version. Additional proposals could increase efficiencies up to 30 percent—the largest single-step increase in IECC history.
Similar code requirements have already been adopted by Massachusetts and New Mexico and are being considered by Oregon and Vermont. And for years, NBI has been working with utility efficiency programs that promote the construction of buildings designed on the exact same principles.
Some might argue that in today's economy, improving codes simply passes extra costs on to the commercial building industry. We think energy efficiency is a prime example of what our economy needs to resume growing. Higher performing buildings can be built for little or no premium, and changing codes to use readily-available technology and building techniques keeps additional costs nominal and quickly recoverable through year-after-year energy savings—money that can go directly back to businesses.
Buildings already consume about two-thirds of the United States’ power supply and account for 40 percent of our greenhouse gas emissions. Our energy independence goals cannot be met without significant gains in energy efficiency, and codes for commercial buildings are the most powerful tool around to drive these gains. Now is the time for code officials to seize their historic opportunity to build an economy that is less reliant on fossil fuels — now and into the future.
Jessyca Henderson, AIA, is director of sustainability advocacy for the American Institute of Architects, the leading professional membership association for licensed architects, emerging professionals, and allied partners.
Dave Hewitt is the executive director of New Buildings Institute, a nonprofit organization working to improve the energy performance of commercial buildings.