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Decoding energy codes

December 21, 2020

By Shahrzad Pedram

Taking a progressive and holistic approach to high-performance buildings

The construction industry has taken significant strides in tackling the climate crisis, with high-performance buildings taking center stage across North America, including British Columbia, Massachusetts, California, Denver, Toronto, and New York—to name a few. Here’s a snapshot of what is happening:

  • British Columbia adopted the BC Energy Step Code for new construction, with four energy targets each increasingly more stringent
  • The Toronto Green Standard is divided into tiers, with Tier 1 having mandatory energy performance targets for all new buildings, and voluntary adoption for Tiers 2-4, each with increasing stringency
  • The Massachusetts Stretch Energy Code requires new buildings/major renovations over 100,000 square feet to reduce site energy by more than 10% above existing code baselines
  • California requires all new buildings/major renovations over 10,000 square feet to follow strategies that move facilities closer to Zero Net Energy
  • Denver rolled out their Green Buildings Ordinance requiring new buildings over 25,000 square feet to include green roofs and photovoltaics
  • New York is reducing carbon emissions through Local Law 97, which places a carbon cap on buildings over 25,000 square feet to reduce emissions by 80% by 2050.

While commendable, global temperatures are still rising. Thus, their adoption is a stepping stone—not a victory lap—towards meeting 2050 global greenhouse gas (GHG) reduction targets. Society must aim higher by promoting carbon positive design, construction, and operations in a holistic way that supports building occupants to thrive.

Are high performance buildings expensive?

No! High-performance buildings may increase capital costs by a small percentage, depending on the typology, market, and certifications. However, this is a small investment over the life of a building, specifically since the highest capital expenditures, and potential profits, reside with the occupants inside. In fact, these marginal investments can readily be recouped through reduced operating costs and productivity gains via better acoustic performance, increased thermal comfort, and optimized indoor air quality.

With energy costs and carbon taxation rising, the payback period for investment in higher-performing buildings is shrinking. As nations shift their utility infrastructure away from fossil fuels, all buildings will need to take action to support adaption towards carbon neutrality by, or before, 2050. What is voluntary today may become mandatory (code) tomorrow.

What about design?

Architecture is the art—and science—of creating livable spaces for people and the functions they undertake. It is our role to support and facilitate optimization within a set of parameters and limitations to transcend merely meeting functional requirements to achieve beauty and inspiration, as well as uplift the human spirit. Rating systems like WELL and the Living Building Challenge support this beyond best practices. They tie in place, craft, and biophilia. While these are more stringent to create, they offer greater impact. Passive House offers prescriptive parameters based on occupancy and climate, which are used, like codes, to push higher performance in buildings, limiting the guesswork associated with other systems targeting percentage-based improvements.

With energy costs and carbon taxation rising, the payback period for investment in higher-performing buildings is shrinking.

While some may feel sustainable design compromises aesthetics, there is in fact the opportunity to redistribute funds from mechanical support systems back into the architectural envelope. The envelope components are the longest lasting elements of a building—they are what is seen, touched, experienced, and remembered. It also drives energy performance. So, aesthetics cannot be ignored when pursuing emissions reductions. High performance represents a shifting from generic buildings and spaces towards place-based solutions, a sort of “technological vernacular.”

Our neighbors in Europe have understood this for decades through codifying passive design. The oft referenced “Nordic Model” mandates no regular occupied spaces be over 20 meters from an operable window. All buildings are designed for passive daylighting and ventilation—something remarkable in comparison with North America. It is no wonder that European buildings use far less energy than their North American counterparts.

What’s next?

For a century, modern architecture flourished through cheap fossil fuels and the public’s lack of awareness about carbon emissions from buildings, the highest greenhouse gas emitting industry. By promoting enhanced codes and voluntary rating systems, buildings can reverse this trend, heal their communities, and strive for increased resiliency.

Enhanced energy codes are excellent starts, but they are not the solution for runaway greenhouse gas emissions, especially when the worst emitters—outdated, existing buildings—need to be brought into the carbon reduction conversation. Municipalities are leveraging carbon taxes to wean existing buildings off fossil fuels while incentivizing deep green retrofits. They are levied upon greenhouse gas emissions and verified through required annual reporting. This means emitters will be required to pay the social costs of their emissions through offsets—already playing out across Canada where carbon taxation is escalating from $20 per tonne in 2019 to $170 per tonne by 2030. That’s an 850% increase!

This is a game changer, as every building must play an active role in combating emissions. Such a scenario could encourage energy efficiency through economic growth by redirecting investments into major carbon sequestration projects, such as renewables, buildings, and land management. Another example, Boston’s Carbon Free 2050 Masterplan, highlights a roadmap whereby, by 2050:

  1. The utility grid will transition to 80-90% renewables (it is 17% today)
  2. New/existing buildings will feature high performance standards and strategic electrification
  3. Transportation systems will electrify, simultaneously with enhancing alternative transit options
  4. Waste management systems will close their emissions loop through recycling, reuse, and lowering embodied emissions.

This massive undertaking is perhaps the most ambitious program of our lifetime. However, it can mobilize job growth and a “Climate Revolution” based on synergizing economic and ecological prosperity. Canada recently announced it is investing approximately $2 billion in large-scale energy retrofits, which would generate an estimated 60,000 jobs. Canada Infrastructure Bank’s Growth Plan also includes $2.5 billion in renewable energy generation and $1.5 billion in zero-emission buses. We will see similar activity with the US, poised to reenter the Paris Accord in 2021.

This is not our grandchildren’s’ problem to solve. We can no longer feign ignorance and must decide if we will play an active role or be oblivious bystanders while the health of the planet and civilization itself rests on our next move. There are 70 meters of potential sea level rise encapsulated via polar ice, which need to remain as such, despite a warming planet. Buildings are one of the many ways we can manage this challenge. Enhanced codes and voluntary rating systems are useful tools we can use while transcending this existential threat so the civilization we are sustaining is one our grandchildren would want: Beautiful, biophilic, resilient, and equitable—for starters.

  • Shahrzad Pedram

    Shahrzad is a building science engineer working with our team in Vancouver. There, she uses her expertise in building science and enclosure expertise to address energy efficiency in new and existing buildings.

    Contact Shahrzad
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