Decoding energy codes
December 21, 2020
December 21, 2020
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:
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.