December 1, 2010
A Mundane Approach To A Vexing Problem

AUSTIN, TEXAS — Building codes are not exactly the stuff of a rollicking supper-table conversation. But experts say that they are among the most straightforward and cost-effective ways to cut energy costs in buildings, which account for about 40 percent of energy use in the United States and Europe because of the need for amenities like heating, cooling and lighting.

Governments are tightening their requirements. President Barack Obama’s stimulus package tied some energy-conservation money to promises by states to adopt stricter building codes. This autumn, a group of American building experts — whose recommendations form the basis of many states’ policies — met and approved a code designed to make new homes and commercial buildings about 30 percent more energy-efficient than has been required under a 2006 standard.

And earlier this year, the European Union strengthened its 2002 requirements for new buildings, calling for them to use “nearly zero energy” by late 2020. (This now needs to be translated into law in the various E.U. nations.)

These actions sound impressive. But implementation and enforcement are patchy. In the United States, the usual quick responders — East Coast states like Massachusetts and West Coast states like California— have put strict building code requirements in place. But the middle of the country lags. Ten states, including populous ones like Colorado, Missouri and Arizona, have adopted no statewide residential energy codes at least since 1998, according to the Building Codes Assistance Project, a research group that supports codes.

Europe is ahead of the United States in most areas pertaining to energy-efficiency, and building codes are no exception. In 2002, the E.U. ordered member nations to craft minimum energy-saving requirements for new buildings and existing ones that needed major repairs.

Ireland, Portugal, the Flanders region of Belgium, Slovenia and France have done a “very good” job of implementing the requirements, Marlene Holzner, the spokeswoman for energy at the European Commission, said in an e-mail. Other countries, like Spain, Italy, the Czech Republic and Hungary, do not yet apply the directive in all instances, she said.

Europe has also tried to make progress on the toughest aspect of building codes — enforcing them and getting ordinary people to notice and care. The 2002 directive, updated earlier this year, required regular inspections of boilers and air-conditioning systems. In addition, a certificate program requires quantifying buildings’ energy consumption, which can help to make owners better informed. The European Commission is trying to make those certificates more visible in the buying or renting process.

“Ideally, the energy use of a building can become a factor in the decision-making process,” Ms. Holzner said.

The United States struggles with code enforcement as well. American codes are generally crafted by a Washington-based group called the International Code Council, which comes out with a major new energy code every three years; the group’s work is used by the states in formulating building energy requirements.

Despite its name, the council is a mostly American body. However Michael Armstrong, a senior vice president with the group, says that its codes, which also cover building safety requirements, have been used or are being considered for use by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and some Caribbean nations.

“The bottom line is that there’s a lot of room for improvement on compliance,” said Cliff Majersik, executive director of the Institute for Market Transformation, a Washington-based group that promotes green building. Lack of financing for building inspections is a major hindrance, he said.

A September study by the institute and other groups found that $810 million per year was needed to raise energy code compliance to 90 percent in the United States, though currently less than $200 million annually is spent, according to estimates. The study also stated that every $1 spent on enforcement, like more building inspectors, yields $6 in energy savings.

Of course, given federal and state budget deficits, this is hardly a good time to be lobbying for more money, though advocates hope that the prospect of long-term savings will prove persuasive.

Some states resist building codes because they are effectively a mandate — a politically poisonous word in parts of the United States right now. Last year Sarah Palin, when she was governor of Alaska, tried to forgo some stimulus money because it was tied to state-level commitments to better building codes. She warned that the U.S. government was trying to “chip away at Alaska’s right to chart its own course.” However, the Alaskan state legislature overrode her veto and accepted the money.

Some builders also do not like codes because they increase up-front costs of building new home, thus potentially discouraging clients from buying in the first place. And if the codes are not carefully crafted to account for variations in local climate, they can penalize people living in different locales.

But Mr. Majersik said that in recent years, interest in building codes had increased, amid rising concern about the financial, environmental and security implications of energy use.

A while back, “I couldn’t find anyone in Washington, D.C. or most state capitals who would give me 10 minutes to talk about energy codes,” he said. Now, policy makers are paying attention.

Ultimately, of course, codes are simply one of several tools available to encourage energy savings in buildings. As a study last year of energy efficiency in the United States by the McKinsey consulting company pointed out, alternative policies include financial incentives; better education; better education; and labeling of homes’ energy use, so that prospective purchasers have a sense of the utility bills they will be facing. This is what the European Commission has pushed for.

Moreover, even if buildings get more efficient, there is always more work to do.

Retrofitting existing buildings, especially historic ones, will always be more challenging than building new ones to code.

Moreover, Dave Hewitt, executive director of the New Buildings Institute, a nonprofit based in Washington State that helps commercial buildings cut energy use, pointed out that as buildings’ basic energy consumption falls, the proportion of energy taken up by ever-proliferating electronics will rise.

“Not everything is regulated by building codes,” Mr. Hewitt said.

Source: The New York Times, November 28, 2010

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