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Living Future 2010: Energy Code Overhaul
Julia Levitt, 17 May 10

Vancouver and Seattle are working on new models for outcome-based energy codes, with the potential to change a longstanding bureaucratic framework and improve the energy performance of buildings across North America.

Even if you're not a policy wonk, this is important stuff. More and more people are catching on to the potential of energy-saving technologies, from in-unit energy meters to district energy solutions to simple smart and effective retrofits. Yet buildings continue to be a big problem when it comes to the energy they consume and the greenhouse gases they emit. Part of the reason is that even though the right technologies exist, the regulatory framework for getting them into the built environment (in North America, at least) is at best only minimally effective, and at worst an actual barrier to progress.

The issue and plans for action were discussed by an expert panel on the final day of Living Future 2010. Worldchanging ally Liz Dunn, a Seattle developer and urban policy consultant, moderated the session. Dunn directs the Preservation Green Lab, an initiative from the National Trust for Historic Preservation that works in partnership with city governments to make preservation and adaptive re-use of existing structures a part of their overall strategy to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Presenters were Dave Hewitt, executive director of the New Buildings Institute, Jayson Antonoff, energy/climate change policy advisor to the City of Seattle, and Dave Ramslie, sustainable development program manager for the City of Vancouver. This was clearly a buzz topic for the green building set, who packed the morning session to standing-room only.

Why it matters

Energy codes are in theory a good thing, designed to raise the minimum standard for energy efficiency in buildings on a citywide scale. But it's the way they're designed and implemented that's the problem. The way most work now, a building must meet a prescribed level of energy performance in order to receive its certificate of occupancy, the government stamp that deems it suitable for owners or tenants to use. The obvious reasoning is that this preemptive strategy gives building owners a strong incentive to comply. But energy use is uniquely difficult to measure accurately in the absence of users. Typical energy codes can't govern occupant-driven energy flows like cooking, or the "plug loads" consumed by coolers, computers or other equipment. In a restaurant, a grocery store or the office of a technology company, those can be as much as 90 percent of the energy consumed in the entire building. These codes also don't account for the energy wasted when systems simply don't work as expected; when equipment breaks down, or tenants don’t use systems as intended (ie, they leave the lights on after hours, or crank up the a/c when windows are open).

In sum, when a brand new building hits the market carrying certain prescriptive credentials – whether that's energy code compliance or LEED certification – studies are now showing that no one, from policymakers to architects to developers to tenants, really knows how that building will perform until they begin to use it. And there's currently no framework for using building codes to keep actual, occupied energy use to a standard minimum.

A further problem with existing codes is that they're mainly prescriptive, limiting the strategies designers can use to those that have already been tried and tested. At a time when it's becoming pretty clear that business as usual won't get us to carbon neutral, there needs to be room for innovation to occur that will help narrow the gap. Prescriptive codes also inhibit the retrofitting of existing buildings, because they require adherence to a set of measures without recognizing the strengths (such as embodied energy savings) and weaknesses unique to each building. To give a sense of scale, Antonoff offered the statistic that currently 99 commercial buildings, or 4 million square feet, in Seattle are LEED certified; by contrast, 340 million square feet of existing buildings could be upgraded if policies change.

What's being done

Vancouver and Seattle are both addressing energy codes as a part of their overall comprehensive strategies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Both have approved measures requiring owners of certain commercial buildings to disclose the energy performance of their structures to the City and to other key stakeholders, and this reporting, designed to stimulate a feedback loop in the market favoring more energy efficient buildings, will have the additional benefit of providing lots of needed data on the current state of the built environment.

Both cities are also exploring sub-metering – the metering of energy at the level of specific uses, such as lights or coolers – which will allow analysts to understand what systems are most in need of improvement, and what standards are appropriate.

Though it's obvious we need a better answer, overhauling a framework so firmly embedded in bureaucracy won't happen overnight. Questions of enforcement, accountability, and how to parcel out risk loom large. The potential for outcome-based codes to improve upon the status quo, however, is too significant to ignore. We look forward to seeing what develops as these pioneering cities continue their efforts.

Editor's Note: This post is part of our recap of the 2010 Living Future unConference. Click here for more.

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It would also be useful to mandate sub-metering in leased office space so that each tenant could be held accountable for their consumption. Having no way of determining a baseline consumption is a major obstacle for leasers seeking to implement monitoring and targeting reduction measures.

Posted by: John Hamilton on 7 Jun 10

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