Stricter Residential Building Codes Drive Green Construction Acceptance

Dec. 13, 2016

Despite the number of voluntary green building certification programs, the biggest driver of green building are the local building codes that govern practices within local jurisdictions.

In most areas of the United States, the governing code is the International Energy Conservation Code, which is updated every three years. The current version is the 2015 code; the 2018 code is undergoing development. Often local government mandate use of codes that are several versions behind the current version.

The International Code Council, a non-profit organization dedicated to developing a single set of comprehensive and coordinated national model construction codes, oversees the International Energy Conservation Code. The codes are designed to deliver through model code regulations that will result in the optimal utilization of fossil fuel and renewable resources in all communities.

This code contains separate provisions for commercial buildings and for low-rise residential buildings (three stories or less in height above grade). Each set of provisions, IECC—Commercial Provisions and IECC—Residential Provisions, is separately applied to buildings within their respective scopes. Each set of provisions is to be treated separately. Each contains a Scope and Administration chapter, a Definitions chapter, a General Requirements chapter, a chapter containing energy efficiency requirements and existing building provisions applicable to buildings within its scope.

This comprehensive energy conservation code establishes minimum regulations for energy-efficient buildings using prescriptive and performance-related provisions. It is founded on broad-based principles that make possible the use of new materials and new energy-efficient designs.

At the 2016 EEBA Conference and Expo, building science experts discussed the benefit of the incorporating green building techniques and outcomes into the IECC code, and the benefit of additional voluntary green building programs.

Bill Fay, executive director, Energy Efficient Codes Coalition
The codes set the bar for what some people say is the least efficient home you can legally build. So in the span of two code cycles we boosted the efficiency of the IECC by 38 percent. It was a historic success. Some efficiency opponents are very powerful and they're trying to roll back some of those codes. But it really brought to light the fact that nearly everyone is united behind more energy efficiency for our nation, for localities, and for the individual homeowner.

The NAHB conducted a poll and found that 9 out of ten Americans want an energy efficient home with permanent features and will pay 2-3 percent more for that home. You would think that there would be no builders out there that are against that. But there are lot of builders that are frustrated and strongly opposing the efficiency gains, particularly with the code because when you raise the code it raises all the homes in the nation and it improve the energy efficiency of the whole nation.

It all comes back to eliminating waste for the homeowner, and for the builder it really talks about the quality of the home they're building and the quality of the home they're selling. In every state in the nation we find there are great builders building green and saving their customers tremendous amounts of money and helping to stabilize our national energy policy at the same time.

Sam Rashkin, chief architect with the Building Technologies Office, U.S. Department of Energy
If we look at the federal government there's a really good set of programs that all work as a staircase to higher performance. It starts with the energy codes themselves, which have really improved over time and even an energy code building is a great start to doing a better building. But there's so much more we can do. So the next increment is to do Energy Star certified homes. That starts to integrate a comprehensive approach to building science, particularly you're looking at the water management, the HVAC systems, better enclosures, so Energy Star is a great way to go above code.

But then zero Energy Ready Homes are the next jump. That takes the great work of Energy Star certified homes and adds extra best practices from the Building America program, including things like getting air ducts inside conditioned space, building to the next generation of code, have a comprehensive indoor air quality system, including a comprehensive package of energy efficient components inside the homes, now that they represent more than half the load of the house and need to be addressed. And also having the house so its zero energy ready with a solar-ready construction set of details that are low cost, no cost and effectively avoid disruption and cost penalties in the future for adding a solar system.

Then there are really important programs like Water Sense that make sure the whole house has water conservation throughout, and the indoor Airplus is encumbered in the Zero Energy Ready Home Label and stands on its own as another label for improved indoor air quality.

Suzanne Shelton, president and CEO of the Shelton Group
In our surveys, 45 percent of the people say they want to be seen as someone buying eco-friendly products, and 90 percent of us believe we have a responsibility to do the right thing for the environment, so the desire and beliefs are there, but we're not seeing a lot of actions yet.

I think that's where builders and manufacturers have the opportunity to be that bridge from desire into action. If you can make it normalized, you can make it easy. I tell builders to make it automatic. Don't make energy efficiency optional, make it part of the house.

Claudette Reichel, extension housing specialist with the Louisiana Cooperative Extension Service and director of LaHouse Resource Center
There's a pathway to get to high performance home building and it can be a gradual approach but building codes are raising the bar, and I think the market demand is really building at this point. People really want comfort and they want comfort without having to spend a lot of money for it on their utility bills, and they also want health and durability. The consumer has the Internet now and they are much more educated and want to assert their own power to affect what they get for their money.

And so we see that a growing consumer trend that is helping to fuel the adoption by the housing industry. In the housing industry there's a disincentive to produce something there's not a market demand for, so the codes raise the bar but also the market demand are really fueling the progress. But as you raise the bar of high performance and energy efficiency, there's a much smaller margin of error, it has to be done right. If you do one thing and don't consider all the moisture in the air and heat dynamics that happen along the way so you can end up with moisture problems, I'm from a hot humid climate so that's a really big deal for us.

Daran Wastchak, president, D.R. Wastchak, LLC
I'm a home energy rater and I'm on the EEBA board of directors and I'm on the RESNet board of directors. The energy-rating index is baked into the 2015 code, so HERS ratings are burgeoning industry. A lot of the other programs like ENERGY STAR, LEED for Homes and many others use the HERS index as a measure of energy efficiency. It gives people that instant opportunity for people to say, how does my house compare? You give them a HERS score they'll start to understand how their house compares to their neighbor's house.

High performance homes and buildings is absolutely where we're going, there is no retreating from that because the building science is getting built into codes, and the codes drive it. Now it's not an "If we need to do it, it's a we must do it."

There are lot of things being added into codes, and when the codes say you have to build a wall a certain way and it has to have a certain level of insulation and a certain level of tightness and the ducts need to be build a certain way, and you have got to have a certain energy efficiency in that, all of that is about the future. We're not going backwards and that's because energy is not getting any cheaper and or more prevalent. When that is our reality, making a building more efficient becomes all the more important.

Dean Gamble, technical manager for the ENERGY STAR Certified for Homes, U.S. EPA
ENERGY STAR is the largest voluntary market transformation program in the residential sector for energy efficiency. So day to day we're working with builders around the country to build more efficient homes that deliver that efficiency without sacrificing other attributes in the home who want to make sure that homeowners are happy, not just for the efficiency but also with the improved comfort and improved indoor air quality that ENERGY STAR can deliver.

Eric Tilden, program manager of green building and sustainability, National Association of Home Builders
The National Association of Home Builders is very much in favor of voluntary, above-code green building programs, and especially incentive programs to help builders build green homes and make it cost effective for them. We definitely promote anything that's above code and voluntary.

We don't necessarily promote anything that's in code or non voluntary we still want to leave that choice up to the states and local municipalities and so we really are focused more on promoting a builder's growth in the voluntary above-code fields, such as the National Green Building Standard.

One of the NAHB Smart Market reports specifically talks about green and the residential sector, single family and multifamily and remodeling, and the report indicates there's an increase in residential green home building among builders nationwide, and a lot of those builders see their business in green growing, whether that's inherently through their own choices or inherently through government restrictions or the market is just taking them there. With consumers more and more educated about their homes, specifically with the Internet and the availability of information, a lot of builders are seeing an increase and bright future for green home building across the country.

Gord Cooke, Construction Instruction Inc.
Over the past three years, things that were experimental 30 years ago are now pretty common place, and the most exciting part to me of this industry is now builders have this amazing opportunity to jump on board without having to be pioneers.

The research has been done, it's been set in stone for about 30 years so now we have the science of how things work and homeowners want it. Let's be clear, the expectations of homeowners have changed. In fact homeowners think builders should already by doing this stuff, they are surprised to find out they're not doing it, so that's both an opportunity and a risk for a builder. It's an opportunity to satisfy the needs and expectations of homeowners or the risk if I don't do it, and homeowners find out, they'll ask the builder, what do you mean you're intentionally leaving holes in your walls and you're not using the best window technology? It's both a risk and an opportunity for a builder and what's really exciting to me is that builders are way more proactive than they used to be. In the past I found that builders were reactive, they would wait for code changes. Now builders are coming to me and saying what's next?

Jim Larsen, director of technology marketing, Cardinal Glass Industries
In my career we've gone from low-E glass being an oddity, to where it's pretty mainstream today. It's required in code across the country, so we have that level of performance established. It's been organizations like EEBA that have helped to explain the product and get that out to everyone with an understanding. The next steps to me is we need lower U factors in the north, for better comfort levels. This is where I would go to in helping deliver that message and moving it forward.

The market demand for green products is still a niche, and the programs change and we have to adapt. Right now it's just an informational piece. The products are by definition green because they are energy efficient but it's a matter of putting the information together in the formats that are needed for these green tools.

Jonah Schein, technical coordinator for Homes & Buildings, WaterSense Program, U.S. EPA
Finally we're seeing that in terms of codes and legislation and local ordinances, which has mandated in the past and will continue to put pressure on the building community to be come more efficient. The most extreme examples of this are not just in California any more but also in other parts of the country is the net zero concept, if you want the entitlement to build a new community you have to go out and either through efficiency measures at that community or efficiency measures you might pay for elsewhere, you have to show that you have a net zero impact. That's being codified into a base standard right now.

Were seeing this manifest itself in a lot of way. The other place that we see legislation, ordinance, and codes picking up on this is through the mandatory use of water efficient products. There's six states now that have requirements for plumbing products that are typically at the Water r Sense certified level of water efficiency. So there's the level of efficiency beyond the federal maximum. Builders are going to have to continue to adjust to that as we move forward.

Michael Baechler, National Accounts Partnership (NAP), manager Pacific Northwest National Laboratory
A major portion of my work is to support the DOE's Building America Program, a program that conducts research and helps to stimulate the market for energy efficient homes and other aspects of homes that make them higher performance.

A recent study by the codes program at the DOE show an an example of what builders are facing.
There are about 30 percent of builders who can't hit the air tightness requirements in the new codes. So a third of builders are not hitting air tightness requirements. If you're in the Building America world or the above-code universe, we've meeting those requirements for 20 years, and it just reminds me that there's never an end to the need to inform people about how you conduct these building practices.

Gene Myers, CEO Thrive Home Builders
The codes are advancing, but it's hard to just flip a switch. Today where I live we're building to the 2012 IECC code. Soon we'll be building to the 2015 code and it's a big leap. They're saying the 2018 code will likely disallow just putting solar on the roof to get to net zero.

The industry, one way or another, is being forced to learn how to build houses that are high performance, so how much better is it to get ahead of the curve and build above code and be sure that when the codes advance and that every house you build for a customer already complies with that new code.

Topics: Building Green, Certification / LEED, Energy Star, Going Green, Passive House

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