Stop avoiding the conversation: Policy makers need to hear from people who design buildings, says the Alliance to Save Energy’s Maureen Guttman.
by Katie Weeks
Maureen Guttman is the vice president for buildings and utilities at the Alliance to Save Energy and the executive director of the organization’s Building Codes Assistance Project (BCAP). As part of the Hanley Wood Sustainability Council for 2014, she will lead the Vision 2020 initiative in Green Building Codes, Standards + Rating Systems.
You’re trained as an architect. How did you get into the codes realm?
I started doing government affairs work for the AIA, staring in Pennsylvania and then at the national level. I was always the codes person. I like that aspect of design. Codes are an enormous tool to promote and grow economic development, but you have to know how to use them and not be led by them. I started to understand that my colleagues didn’t know this or have an appreciation for it.
My focus expanded to how policy issues influence what we do as design professionals and how only a few of us are engaged in these conversations. Whether they are about land use issues, transportation issues, energy issues, or workforce issues, architects are never there [for those discussions]. We should be part of these conversations at every level.
I often tell architects that they don’t understand the things that are happening at the policy and manufacturing level—things that are going to change the way we work. This change is going to happen very quickly and it will leave us in the dust, and that scares me. I don’t like the idea of the built environment losing the influence of architects because they bring a different education and level of sensitivity to the picture. Our culture can’t afford to lose us, but we’re ignoring the changes underway.
How can architects and builders play a role in advocating for better codes and standards?
They have to play a larger role, but the big challenge is engaging design professionals. A lot of the drive for green buildings has come from progressive home builders and a very small slice of passionate design professionals. It’s not mainstream.
A big piece of what I’ve been working on is how to get professionals to understand that there is an obligation as a part of licensure to do the best you can relative to building science—even in the face of clients who may not know to express a desire for it or those who are actively saying no. That’s a huge cultural change. Promoting the adoption and use of more stringent energy codes will help you make these arguments to clients. It’s easy for clients to override you by saying that if it’s not required, they’re not going to do it. Help us get the requirements in place.
So architects and builders should participate more in advocacy efforts with their local representatives?
Yes. That’s not part of the current culture of architects or engineers. They’re inclined to stay out of the mess of politics, but look at where that gets us: Left out of conversations. Policy makers need to hear from people who design buildings.
Why aren’t they more involved? What do you hear from them?
There’s pushback that the codes have changed too much, too fast. Part of that perception comes from the International Code Council (ICC) changing its cycle over the past couple of years, which compressed the energy code’s development. We had big changes in those shortened cycles, so it’s understandable to feel as if too many changes happened too quickly. It’s a legitimate argument from designers, builders, and code officials because it is a lot to absorb. We can’t afford to be buying books frequently, or taking the time out for training. But that was a one-time thing and the pushback of too much, too fast should ease off in the next year or so.
Almost all of the policy resistance seems to be financially based. For homebuilders, it’s the claim that it cuts into their profits. For code officials, it’s that municipal enforcement agencies are underfunded. That’s legitimate: They don’t charge enough for permits and can barely cover their own costs, much less the training and books for taking on new codes. There is also the mindset that energy and resource conservation are not health, safety, and welfare issues so they shouldn’t be included in building codes. There is a solid argument to be made that they are regulatable code issues, but it requires a mindset change from thinking about health, safety, and welfare not just on a building basis, but also on a community basis.
What are some of the biggest hurdles to code adoption and compliance?
That’s what I focus on: What can we do to help? The ARRA [American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009] legislation came with the provision that in order to get the money, you had to adopt the most stringent code and show 90 percent compliance by 2017. To help, BCAP [the Building Codes Assistance Project] started providing strategic planning services to the states to assess where they were and what kind of gap existed between code compliance and where they wanted to be. We came up with a toolbox of ideas that would help move them forward from there.
But it’s difficult to sustain something like that without someone in the state being the champion for it. We started a program called Energy Code Ambassadors where we train code officials to provide technical support for not just their municipality, but also for the municipalities of a broad region. People can ask them questions, have them come out and look at something on site, do a training, or show up to a municipal hearing and advocate. It’s a certificate program and officials love the credential. It’s very popular where we’ve rolled it out. I’d like to expand the program to design professionals that it’s not just code officials talking to one another.
Consumer outreach is very difficult because there isn’t a trade association or representation of consumers. It’s finding municipalities that are considering code adoption or are dealing with compliance issues, and doing a multimedia outreach with newspaper articles, spokespeople, and fliers. In Omaha, we worked with the utility to put informational inserts into the utility bills to try to get people to engage and push for government action. It’s not intended to be a political statement—it’s an understanding that the carrots are not going to get us to scale. If the Federal government chooses to play hands-off on energy policy, it really falls to the States to do something.
Not every state has required continuing education for architects and engineers, but there ought to be a component that addresses codes. Why shouldn’t architects be required to have energy code certification? The last time I looked at it, the licensure exam was not an in-depth evaluation of what you know about codes. The state isn’t licensing you to know about aesthetics; it’s licensing you to protect health, safety, and welfare. You ought to know site, drainage, electrical, plumbing, and structural issues, obviously, but you sure as heck ought to know code provisions, too. Yet it’s barely touched on and most architects aren’t interested and don’t have the expertise.
I’m focused on scale, too. I can pull up beautiful examples of net-zero energy buildings and really high-performing buildings, but it’s one here, one here, and one here. It’s not incorporated into general practice. That’s what I’m shooting for.
Is there anything we can be doing to increase the sense of urgency about changing our codes and our behavior?
We need the Federal government to do it. In this country, we react to money, not what is right or what is good, and until it starts to hurt, people won’t change their behavior.
What about the energy benchmarking legislation?
It’s awesome. It’s a really good toe in the door to start to make the case [for energy efficiency] because it provides consumer awareness. The benchmarking laws don’t cover residential, but they raise the thoughts with the homeowner such as “I bought this house. It costs exactly the same as the one next door, but the energy costs here are twice as high.” It makes people think about what it will cost over the course of a 30-year mortgage.
There are a lot of bad examples relative to adoption and compliance. Code officials are overburdened, they’re often not considered to be a professional arm of the government, and they’re not funded appropriately. Energy falls to the bottom of the list unless producing energy-efficient buildings is a municipal and cultural value.
What are the most critical things we must do between now and 2020?
At the least, we should have everyone on [the 2009 IECC], but we should also be progressively getting people to 2012 levels. I would like 2012 to be in at least half of the states by 2012, and to have the 2009 code in the rest.
More important than getting things adopted, though, is finding a way to show that we’re not only using the codes, but also are complying with them. That’s why benchmarking in such a great thing—it starts to create the understanding that you can’t change something if you can’t measure it. To understand whether we are complying with energy codes and to show we’re pushing them forward will certainly require design professionals. Design professionals are the most important piece of the equation, and a piece that has been ignored and has lagged.
I don’t yet know what I think about outcome-based code proposals. I understand the theory and desired outcome, but it’s impossible for me to imagine who will take responsibility for anything that occurs in a building after it is occupied. Architects need to change the way they think about this—we need to change the definition of design. It isn’t just about pretty buildings. It’s about great performing buildings. It isn’t one or the other and never was. But that’s the perception we’ve created in the public mind. What we do is so much more than the end product of a great-looking building and it disturbs me that we promote ourselves that way.
This article also appears in EcoBuilding Pulse.
Since 2012, Hanley Wood has conferred with building industry experts to establish a timeline of critical goals and metrics that building professionals must establish and meet by the year 2020 in order to preserve our environment and meet large-scale goals such as those of the 2030 Challenge.