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Energy Code Enforcement is Part of the Foundation

Posted by Caitriona Cooke on March 04, 2015
Energy Code Enforcement is Part of the Foundation Using a duct blaster. (Conservation Services Group)

Smart building design and construction professionals know that a building is more than a sum of its parts—it’s a complex system. For example, a poorly designed HVAC system can turn an otherwise efficient home into an energy hog. The understanding that a home is a complex system is reflected in today’s building codes, and proper compliance ensures that we’re building better energy performance into the process from the moment the first permit is pulled. But are we doing enough to educate the industry about the always-evolving code landscape?

The Institute for Market Transformation estimates that if we achieve a 25% improvement in compliance with energy efficiency building codes in Massachusetts for five consecutive years, the lifetime savings would exceed $278 million. The same effort in Rhode Island would generate savings in excess of $35 million. And these are the “low case” estimates; the “high case,” which envisions 75% compliance, or ¾ of the buildings in the state, nearly triples the expected return.

Can you imagine if Massachusetts and Rhode Island could achieve 90% energy code compliance? That’s exactly what Conservation Services Group (CSG) seeks to do as the lead vendor in both National Grid’s Code Compliance Enhancement Initiative in Rhode Island and the Massachusetts Code Compliance Support Initiative, sponsored by a coalition of Massachusetts Program Administrators through the Mass Save program. With these programs, CSG hopes to change the way code officials and building professionals approach code enforcement.

The initiatives in Massachusetts and Rhode Island can potentially serve as models on a national scale. Historically, these two states are already leaders when it comes to code compliance. In Rhode Island, a statewide Code Compliance Enhancement Initiative offers a similar range of code education resources, and CSG designed and developed Field Guides with funding from National Grid in RI and the Massachusetts Program Administrators to make it easier for contractors and builders to follow energy codes throughout the design and implementation process. The Massachusetts Green Communities Act in 2008 sparked a renewed emphasis on technical support programs and improvements in green building code compliance. Already, through the Massachusetts Code Compliance Support Initiative, builders, and code officials can access specially designed energy code training, circuit rider technical assistance, and new tools supporting code compliance.

"By setting the precedent of supporting energy code compliance initiatives in both Rhode Island and Massachusetts, National Grid is further enhancing our services to our customers,” says Eric Beaton, senior analyst, codes, and standards (MA and RI) at National Grid. “Newly constructed buildings that meet or exceed the energy code use less energy, which translates into significant financial savings to our customers over the life of the building.”

Addressing Code Enforcement

Adherence to energy codes should be second-nature to design and building professionals. One recent program, funded by the Massachusetts Department of Energy Resources (DOER), demonstrated that an improved curriculum and training experience can indeed deliver meaningful changes in the way professionals address energy code enforcement.

But education and training programs cannot be static—they must keep pace with new codes, new technologies, and new construction methods. In other words, education and training must be dynamic and ongoing if we expect energy code compliance to keep pace or, even better, improve.

Veterans of code compliance initiatives, including Caitriona Cooke, a program director for CSG, have seen firsthand the positive transformation in recent years. “We’re starting to see a lot of familiar faces at our training programs,” says Cooke. “Code officials are also proactively asking us about opportunities to learn more about a range of code topics. This is exactly what’s needed to reach lofty goals of 90 percent code compliance in states such as Massachusetts and Rhode Island.”

Success in code compliance also requires professionals to go beyond simple “paperwork compliance” that demonstrates understanding but doesn’t embed it into the way they work. LEED and the U.S. Green Building Council certification, for example, are important, but the training provided by organizations such as CSG goes much further. It emphasizes practical ways to achieve code compliance that complement a certification such as LEED, but focus more on real-world demonstrations and testing in a hands-on learning environment.

New energy efficiency codes, advances in building science, and new materials all make the job of design and building professionals more challenging. Many states are looking at “stretch codes” for building efficiency that require builders and contractors to be even more aggressive about energy code enforcement. This, combined with new energy codes from the Department of Energy likely in 2015, will require professionals to be even more attuned to energy codes than ever.

The ambitious goal of 90% code compliance may be a stretch now, but the benefits coming close will be far-reaching. Even the low case estimates from the Institute for Market Transformation would deliver benefits that would delight future homeowners—and save billions in energy—for years to come. But it’s not the codes that make this possible. They are a means to an end. It’s the design and building professionals.

Are we doing enough to educate the industry about the changing code landscape? We’re at least on the right path. The industry has a chance to show that energy efficiency isn’t about checking boxes—it needs to be a part of the process from the time the foundation is poured.

 

Caitriona Cooke is the director of Building Performance Consulting at Conservation Services Group. 

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