Applying 2013 Energy Codes

Looking back at this year’s green projects, it seems architects should have placed greater concern on energy code compliance.

By Dennis Hidalgo, LEED AP O+M

This article was originally posted in Green Home Builder.

Building energy codes mandate design and construction practices, materials, equipment, and systems that are intended to achieve minimum efficiency targets when buildings are initially constructed as well as when renovated. However, the process by which these codes are implemented and enforced makes it difficult to ensure that the efficiency targets are actually met. From the number of stakeholders involved in each building project to the fragmented nature of local enforcement, there are many potential gaps in the code implementation and enforcement process.

After significant gains in energy code adoption, national focus has now shifted to meeting the 90 percent compliance goal set by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE). As shown in numerous compliance studies, including DOE’s pilot state’s compliance evaluations, adoption has not necessarily ensured proper implementation of the code. As a result, buildings are not performing as efficiently as they should.

Architects bear tremendous responsibility in the development of our built environment; they are tasked with delivering safety, functionality, and artistry in their designs. Though their licensure makes them responsible for health, safety, and welfare through code compliance, architects are surprisingly passive in code development. A 2013 survey distributed by the American Institute of Architects (AIA) to its membership revealed an alarming lack of awareness, understanding, and involvement in the building code development process. Increased awareness of the environmental impact of buildings has broadened the responsibilities of architects. The AIA’s 2030 Commitment – which calls for buildings to be carbon neutral by 2030 – reinforces the profession’s dedication to energy efficiency and sustainable design.

Unfortunately, owners, not architects make the final decision on designs, which makes it difficult for them to ensure energy efficiency. Even when both parties agree on the fundamental project goals, their priorities can lead to conflicts. Building energy codes are an opportunity for architects to assume greater control over the impact of the buildings they design. Code compliance is a mandatory requirement for buildings; architects have the opportunity to increase their influence by using the energy code to take ownership of building performance.

The evolution of the energy code clearly shows that energy efficiency and building performance is an increasingly important issue. However, this growth is not only a trend in building policy; the market for sustainable buildings is growing worldwide. Though there are many factors that impact building performance, effective implementation of the energy code is an important step in meeting performance goals. A proactive approach to energy code compliance and building performance could be a means for architects to expand their presence in the market.

The evolving real estate and policy markets have already proven to be a significant test to the architectural profession; and firms that evolve with the market will be most likely to succeed. Policy adoption and technological advancements have increased access to building performance information. As owners continue to monitor this information and demand energy efficiency, the pressure to deliver performance also increases for design professionals. As accountability for building performance mounts, architects that have not dedicated themselves to delivering energy efficiency will be less in demand. Energy code compliance is one way that architects can take control and ensure a certain level of building performance and job security.

Architects need to seize the opportunity to define the value of design in a manner that appeals to clients. The energy code can be a tool in taking responsibility for building performance, meeting the 2030 Challenge, and advancing their practice and the profession. In order for the AIA to motivate its diverse membership community to become active supporters of sustainability and energy efficiency initiatives, it is important to explain how it aligns with their goals and addresses their needs. One step in doing so is ensuring that building energy performance is integrated into the membership’s definition of design. Second, the opportunities for architects to use the energy code as a tool to increase their influence in the decision making process and expand their market services, needs to be expressed to the membership. Lastly, the challenges to implementation such as: lack of clarity about the code content; code compliance efforts not being valued by clients; and the necessary resources required for code compliance efforts; must be addressed. By addressing the immediate challenges that architects face with regard to the energy code, we can start shifting the focus to the environmental and financial benefits that come with embracing building energy performance.