Connecting Energy Codes to Sustainable Land Use Practices

This Pace Law School case study was originally published in February 2010.


Energy codes are an effective tool for reducing building energy use. Yet they are insufficient for solving other crucial energy and environmental concerns related to buildings, such as transportation and the distribution of scarce land resources. Communities dedicated to achieving sustainable energy futures must commit to enacting comprehensive energy policies that include innovation land use and zoning regulations in concert with progressive energy codes.

In many ways, land use and zoning regulations do for cities what building codes do for buildings: they determine what can be built and how. Those that address energy and environmental issues go by a number of labels, such as smart growth, sustainable communities, green development, etc. Together, these practices seek to reduce energy use and manage the impacts of the built environment in ways that promote efficiency and equity, foster community, and improve quality of life.

The Building Codes Assistance Project (BCAP) and the Land Use Law Center (LULC) at the Pace Law School have been collaborating to explore the parallels between sustainable land use practices and energy codes. This partnership seeks to emphasize the ways in which energy codes are an essential component of any sustainability initiative, to leverage existing regional land use infrastructure to improve energy code implementation, and inform the national dialogue on these issues.


In April 2009, BCAP gave a presentation on green and advanced energy codes at the American Planning Association’s (APA) annual meeting in Minneapolis, MN.

Pace professors from the LULC attended the APA presentation and afterwards invited BCAP to present at a training program in May for the Mayor’s Redevelopment Roundtable (MRR), an LULC program for the local politicians and counsels who represent the nine largest cities in the Hudson Valley. Started in 2008 to advance sustainable redevelopment practices in the region, one of the MRR’s goals is to “reduce costs and increase livability through green buildings.” The LULC brought in BCAP to advise on a number of energy and above code issues involving the national model codes, green codes, and their adoption in New York State.

Subsequently, BCAP also served on a green building panel for a climate change workshop for municipal officials hosted by the New York State Bar Association and held at Pace in October.

Following these presentations and discussions, the LULC partnered with BCAP on a joint request for funding – attached to a larger BCAP proposal to the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA) – to conduct an energy codes demonstration project with the MRR.

BCAP’s Role

BCAP’s ongoing collaboration with the LULC highlights a number of vital functions that BCAP serves in promoting energy and above/green code adoption and implementation around the country.

One of BCAP’s primary functions is to provide detailed and relevant information to states, local communities, and other interested stakeholders, such as the LULC. BCAP staff educated LULC professors about a number of codes-related topics relevant to the region, including technical aspects of codes, cost data, updates to the New York State energy code, and the difficulties associated with cost-effective energy code compliance and enforcement. Due to strong interest from the MRR in going beyond the state’s baseline code, BCAP staff also addressed a number of green and above code issues, such as the status of updates to the national model codes, energy requirements in LEED and other green rating programs, and best practices for advanced energy code and incentive programs in other cities and states.

BCAP often presents at national and regional conferences, panels, workshops, and other public forums. For those unfamiliar with or unsure of the benefits of codes, such presentations are crucial for entering codes into the greater energy and sustainability discussion as critical and realistic tools for reducing building energy use. Through the partnership with the LULC, BCAP’s presentations clarified the need for the MRR and other local government officials in the region to incorporate building energy codes into their sustainability initiatives.

Such partnerships also support BCAP’s mission to document energy code best practices and lessons learned. Building codes are at their core a local issue, as builders and code officials – not state legislators or national advocates – are responsible for complying with and enforcing the code. Therefore, it is essential that BCAP helps to advance successful code implementation strategies, particularly on the local and regional levels. Documenting demonstration projects, like the NYSERDA proposal (below), will allow other locations across the country to duplicate the successes and avoid the pitfalls of innovative, on-the-ground energy code work.

NYSERDA’s Project Proposal

BCAP’s collaboration with the LULC ultimately led to a joint proposal to NYSERDA for an energy code demonstration project with the MRR on codes enforcement in the Hudson Valley region.

The overarching goal of the MRR is to “achieve sustainable growth” and “maintain a high quality of living” in its nine participating cities through urban redevelopment projects. A major piece of this effort is to improve the energy efficiency, affordability, and environmental impact of buildings – three key measures of sustainable growth – by reducing energy use and greenhouse gas emissions from both existing buildings and new construction in these communities. One important way to do this is to improve the enforcement of building energy codes.

The LULC is interested in exploring the possibility of incorporating energy code enforcement into the existing land use planning infrastructure. In the Hudson Valley region, the land use system requires review boards to conduct detailed assessments of development projects prior to project approval. If the local jurisdiction authorizes and equips these boards to enforce the energy code – and code compliance becomes another condition for approval – then this system could provide another avenue for ensuring effective enforcement of the energy code.

Another possibility is to take an inter-municipal approach to code enforcement. With local government resources perpetually stretched thin, proper energy code enforcement sometimes becomes a logistical casualty. Communities in the MRR could reduce costs and improve the efficiency of the process by pooling their limited resources to establish a regional infrastructure in which the MRR communities train and equip a set number of code officials on energy code enforcement, as opposed to each city having to train its own inspectors individually. The LULC already supports inter-municipal and regional cooperation and collaboration for land use concerns. Applying this basic framework to energy codes is a logical next step worth exploring.

The proposal outlines steps that the LULC will take to address energy code enforcement issues. First, the LULC will study current local enforcement practices and analyze how to overcome existing barriers. Drawing on this research and its knowledge of preexisting enforcement mechanisms for land use planning, it will then suggest enhancements to the State code and the existing enforcement infrastructure, as well as above code incentives to encourage private retrofits and efficiency upgrades.

Based on these findings, the LULC will work with the local jurisdictions of the MRR to conduct a demonstration project that tests these ideas in the field. Finally, the LULC will hold workshops for local jurisdictions to share its findings and discuss regional opportunities for future collaboration and partnership in code enforcement. It will also document its findings for New York State with the goal of informing the statewide effort to achieve 90% compliance by 2017, as mandated by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA).

As a project advisor, BCAP will be in position to support the LULC’s research on local enforcement and analyze the results of its demonstration project. BCAP will then share this information with its extensive network of advocates and other allies across the nation.


Rising global awareness of the need for sustainable development through building energy codes, land use planning, high-density and mixed-use neighborhoods, and other progressive energy and smart growth policies makes cross-sector collaborations such as this one all the more relevant. Both the LULC and BCAP benefit from working together and sharing expertise.

Teaming up with BCAP provides the LULC with national energy codes expertise and support in the form of advice, educational presentations and project collaboration, as outlined above. Underlying each of these functions is the role of credibility. BCAP’s position in the energy code arena gives the LULC additional authority on codes issues with the MRR and other regional partners.

Likewise, one of BCAP’s goals is to work with local and regional advocates who have established relationships with local policymakers and are already in a position to influence policy development. Joining forces with the LULC gives BCAP access to the MRR, a group that represents a half million residents and is eager to advance energy efficiency in buildings through green and above code measures. BCAP also benefits from learning more about land use practices and examining their potential for improving energy code compliance and enforcement.