Codes, Standards and Rating Systems

Are architects unaware of their legal obligations under licensure, or are they simply negligent?

Maureen Guttman, AIA

In the United States, national model energy codes were created in response to the energy and economic crises of the 1970s. In 1978, Congress passed the National Energy Conservation Policy Act, which required states that received federal financial assistance to initiate energy efficiency standards for new buildings. In 1992, Congress passed the Energy Policy Act (EPAct), which upped the ante by requiring states to certify that their energy efficiency standards meet or exceed the most-efficient model energy codes (developed in response to the 1978 mandate), as determined by the U.S. Department of Energy.

ASHRAE Standard 90.1 and the International Energy Conservation Code (IECC) are the national model energy efficiency codes for buildings. Both are developed by membership-based nonprofit organizations in transparent, consensus-based forums that include any and all interested stakeholders. Today, ASHRAE Standard 90.1-2013 and the 2015 IECC are the current versions of these national model codes, and each is updated on a three-year cycle.

For 30 years, the national model energy codes remained relatively static in terms of energy use stringency. But the country’s increasing awareness of our limited reserves of fossil fuels – and thus our long-term national security – required a new attitude toward energy consumption. Given the significant profile of the building sector on U.S. energy consumption (41 percent of our overall energy usage, 54 percent of our natural gas usage, and 71 percent of our use of electricity), the building industry was provided with an explosion of green building tools and rating systems, and some widely embraced policy objectives of producing net-zero energy or net-zero carbon buildings by the year 2030. The energy code community responded to this demand with three consecutive cycles of substantial jumps in energy efficiency requirements. The most current model code for commercial construction calls for energy efficiency levels that are approximately 37 percent above those that were required by the same code 10 years ago.

While it is likely that we can squeeze additional energy savings out of new buildings by using the energy code, the code only covers those systems responsible for two-thirds of a building’s total energy use. But design professionals do hold in their hands complete control of that 66 percent.

There is a growing demand for more policies and programs that can complement the effectiveness of energy codes and thus dig deeper for even more savings. Across the country, cities and states are considering more rigorous building programs that employ “stretch codes” (provisions that are above the standard baseline building codes), as well as more actual building performance reporting and compliance.

Throughout all of these seismic changes in the rules governing design and construction, architects have been remarkably silent. With very few exceptions, architects have not participated in the development of these increasingly stringent codes, and architects have not assisted (and have sometimes even resisted) efforts at the state and local levels to have these progressive codes adopted. Despite this pronounced passivity, the fact remains that code compliance falls solidly within the purview of an architect’s responsibilities. The states license the practice of architecture for one reason only: to protect the health, safety, and welfare of the public. The primary determinants of how that protection must be exercised are the legally recognized “standard of care” and building codes that have been adopted at the state and local levels. An architect’s license and professional liability are inextricably dependent on compliance with the law, i.e. the codes.

And here is the reality: across the U.S., compliance with the energy code is estimated to be between 30 percent and 90 percent for commercial construction. The number of architects participating in the AIA 2030 Commitment (an underlying policy of the AIA, intended to impact the entire profession) is less than 5 percent of the AIA’s membership.

Are architects unaware of their legal obligations under licensure, or are they simply negligent? Sooner or later, someone other than a sympathetic colleague is going to ask this question. Rapid change is upon us.

Increasingly, consumers of design and construction services are demanding reliable metrics for building performance. Mandatory disclosure of building energy consumption is now required in 13 major jurisdictions; the U.S. Department of Energy is conducting a $6 million, multi-state energy code compliance study; and many energy efficiency advocates are encouraging the inclusion of an “outcome-based” compliance path in the model green and energy codes.

Over the next 10 to 15 years, these and other global pressures—cost and availability of fossil fuels, new and affordable technologies for measurement and verification, a tax on carbon emissions—will ratchet up the “standard of care” for building designers.

Can we meet this challenge? Absolutely. In fact, not only can we meet it, we can own it.

Architects are trained in building sciences, and thus no one can make a better case for the equation “superior performance equals superior design.” The changing marketplace is no threat to us … it is a dream come true. Through nothing more than our inherent ability to provide integrated high-performance design, we can achieve the dual objectives of re-establishing the stature and value of the profession while making a lasting and vital contribution to providing for the energy needs of future generations.

Maureen Guttman, AIA, is president of the Building Codes Assistance Project. A licensed architect with more than 25 years of experience in energy efficient and green building design, she oversees a nationwide campaign to support the adoption and implementation of today’s model energy codes.

This article also appears in EcoBuilding Pulse.