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Advancing Building Energy Performance

Building energy codes are intended to mandate the highest level of energy efficiency that can be achieved cost-effectively. They set a standard that adjusts as building technologies improve, energy costs vary and the overall importance placed on energy conservation changes.

The recognition of climate change as a serious concern has helped make energy codes more aggressive, and so has innovation in the industry. Widespread adoption of voluntary programs, such as ENERGY STAR and LEED, have designers and owners demonstrating new ways of making buildings more efficient.

Energy codes first appeared in the U.S. in the 1970s, when congress mandated them in response to the 1972 oil embargo and subsequent energy crisis. ASHRAE led the way releasing the first version of what is now Standard 90.1 in 1975. The federal government is not allowed to mandate a national energy code; energy codes are adopted and enforced by individual states. The federal government can, however, link financial support to state energy policies, according to Paul Torcellini of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. “The current requirement for states to upgrade their codes is tied to whether the state accepted American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA) funds,” he says.

States adopt either the most recent version of ASHRAE 90.1 as their code (sometimes with modifications), or they adopt the International Energy Conservation Code (IECC), which is based on 90.1 (except for single-family and low-rise multifamily homes—IECC has its own process for developing the residential energy code).

The 2010 update to ASHRAE Standard 90.1 was the most ambitious revision in the standard’s nearly 40-year history. On average, buildings will have to be 18 percent more efficient to meet 90.1-2010 compared with 90.1-2007, according to a U.S. Department of Energy analysis. In turn, LEED continues to encourage even higher levels of efficiency: under LEED v4, new buildings have to beat Standard 90.1-2010 by at least 5 percent, and most will have to do much better than that to achieve the coveted Gold or Platinum certification levels.

Achieving that kind of energy efficiency cost-effectively requires engineers to expand their view beyond just taking responsibility for a building’s mechanical or electrical system, and instead actively work to address energy use for the building as a whole. Fortunately, that kind of shift in consciousness is underway, as seen, for example, in the 2012 rebranding of ASHRAE that removed the specific reference to “heating, air-conditioning and refrigeration” from the organization’s name. Now ASHRAE members are simply “shaping today’s built environment for tomorrow.”

Great building performance also demands close collaboration by all members of a building’s design and construction team, which is why LEED v4 has a new Integrative Process credit to help coordinate that kind of teamwork. When team members take a broader view of their role and work effectively across the disciplines, highly efficient buildings can have minimal upfront cost premiums and huge returns, both for their owners and for the environment.


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