Building codes and energy conservation

commonairleaks (EPA)An important AP-NORC poll taken last year asked which of several entities (the energy industry, businesses, individuals, he federal government, or state and local governments) had a large amount of responsibility for increasing energy savings. Only half of the American public attribute that much responsibility to state and local governments. This post examines building codes, only one of the ways state and local governments influence energy usage.

Every jurisdiction has its own building code. Each jurisdiction changes it’s code frequently. It may seem like building codes are a hodgepodge of the whims of local politicians. In fact, all local building codes must conform to state building codes. Most state building codes are modeled on the International Code Council (ICC).

Model building codes

The ICC amounts to a merger of three non-profit corporations that issued regional model building codes in 1994. It was founded on the belief that the US should have only one set of model codes. The “international” in the name apparently comes from the fact that the federal government uses ICC codes for constructing facilities all over the world and that other nations use them as a reference.

The ICC, whose members represent the construction industry, has developed not one model code, but fifteen. Besides one simply called “International Building Code,” there are codes for fire, plumbing, property maintenance, wildlife urban interface, etc.

The sheer breadth of issues that must be addressed in building codes can obscure the fact that they include energy usage. Besides an energy conservation code and a fuel gas code, the ICC also issues a green construction code. Some of the other codes may also affect energy usage. Each model code is updated periodically.

State and local building codes

Most states adopt the model codes. Some use them as a reference for writing their own. In any case, the state codes become legally binding regulations for the entire state.

The various local building codes are therefore not quite the hodgepodge they may appear at first sight. However much they may differ from each other, they must all conform to the standards adopted by the state.

My state of North Carolina issued a revision of its Energy Conservation Code that became mandatory on March 1, 2012. It achieves greater energy savings through requirements in leakage reduction, window performance, lighting efficiency, etc. that are more stringent than those of the 2009 code that it supersedes.

In effect, all new buildings must be 15-30% more energy efficient than those build under the previous code. Local governments are free to adopt more stringent rules than the state requires, but they may not adopt any less stringent rules.

The state building code council proposed these rules in December 2010. Other state commissions and the legislature made changes over the next six months. Once the final bill was passed in June 2011, Gov. Beverly Perdue mandated significant energy savings with the stroke of her pen.

Keep in mind that the ICC has been issuing model codes for nearly 20 years. Its first International Energy Conservation Code appeared in 1998. The new North Carolina Code is not North Carolina’s first revision of that part of the code. It won’t be the last. The other 49 states have adopted some form of that model code. Theirs have become—and will continue to become—more stringent over time, too.

As I say, building codes are only one of several activities of state and local government that play a significant role in energy conservation. And yet half the population doesn’t recognize that significance. I hope this post will motivate readers to see what else their states are doing.


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