January 26, 2022 | Amy Boyce

Last Friday, the White House announced the formation of the National Building Performance Standards Coalition, through which 33 local government leaders are committing to working alongside their communities to co-design and pass equitably retrofit policies by Earth Day 2022. These commitments also raise many opportunities for advancing building codes. Here’s why.

Achieving climate goals require breaking down silos

Building operations make up approximately 40% of energy use and 28% of emissions worldwide, making energy reduction in the built environment critical to meeting climate goals. Both energy codes and building performance standards (BPS) are tools that can be used to achieve building decarbonization, but they are frequently discussed as separate entities, overlooking their relationship to one another.

Codes and BPS should be intertwined elements of a holistic policy, with codes setting minimums for new construction and BPS helping existing properties to achieve their full potential. If codes and BPS are managed in silos, newer buildings may discover they are not compliant with BPS, setting the stage for owner frustration and failure of the city to meet its policy goals.

Energy codes versus Building Performance Standards

The primary role of energy codes is to reduce energy consumption in new construction. Attempts have been made to incorporate performance requirements into code—referred to as “outcome-based codes”—but these have run up against verification issues. In order to measure real world performance, a building must be occupied, but in order for a building to be occupied, it must obtain its Certificate of Occupancy, which is granted when the building has been shown to meet code. A bit of a catch-22. Not to mention that building departments’ regulatory authority generally ends once the Certificate of Occupancy is issued.

BPS meet the intention that outcome-based codes aimed to fill, using a new and still evolving policy structure which is better suited to enforcing compliance in occupied buildings.

Does code compliance mean BPS compliance?

In short, probably, but not always.

While codes and BPS affect buildings at different points in their lifecycle, all new buildings become existing buildings once occupied. Drawing a direct relationship between the energy code and BPS is key to setting buildings up for long-term success. Aligning codes and BPS doesn’t simply mean more energy efficient codes—though that will help—but instead focuses on achieving a more thorough understanding of the level of performance that a code-compliant new building is likely to achieve, and making sure that a newly occupied structure doesn’t require major upgrades to meet BPS targets.

It’s important to remember that codes set the floor for building performance; a building built to a better code has the potential to perform better, but it’s not guaranteed. Better code adoption and enforcement are keys to setting that floor, starting with the newest model code as the lowest acceptable standard.

Adoption, enforcement, and the path to success

What happens when a city adopts a BPS and its energy code is over a decade old? Most energy codes are adopted at the state-level while most BPS policies are being adopted at city and local levels, creating the potential for misalignment. Updating the energy codes will make a significant impact on energy use and carbon emissions in new construction, and will also pave the way for more local jurisdictions to adopt BPS without concern that their newly constructed properties will fall short. Additionally, BPS policy and the support structure it requires provide an opportunity to re-think and strengthen the existing energy code enforcement infrastructure.

A successful effort to reduce energy use and emissions from buildings will require collaboration among local and state elected officials, as well as building, energy and sustainability departments. Working together, they can develop, implement, and enforce both energy codes and BPS, creating an integrated building performance lifecycle that will provide benefits to owners, occupants, policymakers and citizens.

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Senior Director, Building and Energy Performance

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