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New ASHRAE standards tip the balance toward net zero buildings

October 25, 2023

By Beth Tomlinson

How will a new standard on whole building life cycle emissions influence the built environment? ASHRAE Standard 240P looks at embodied carbon.

A key change is coming soon—and it will drive everything in our buildings industry going forward. It’s going to flip building performance expectations on their head. New ASHRAE (American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers) standards will revolutionize the built environment.

In recent years, the design industry has increased its efforts to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. It has embraced high-performance buildings.

But often decisions to embrace climate change mitigation project solutions come down to dollars and cents. Owners have a certain bucket of resources and capital expenditure funds. They must make hard choices.

But if GHG regulations are the law, that becomes a key factor in their decision making. The organization can no longer say, “I don’t need to fund those low carbon efforts. That’s not my priority.” The law makes it a priority.

The Bunibonibee Cree Nation new school, which is part of the Manitoba Schools Initiative in Canada.

New ASHRAE standards are going to change the equation. Why? Because ASHRAE standards are largely what governing authorities base their building performance codes on.

What is ASHRAE and where did it come from?

Founded in 1894, ASHRAE has more than 50,000 members across nearly 130 countries. The society includes a wide variety of professionals. They include engineers, architects, contractors, building owners, manufacturers, researchers, and members of government. ASHRAE’s mission is to “advance human well-being through sustainable technology for the built environment.” Its volunteers develop and support over 200 building standards.

ASHRAE’s energy standard was born out of crisis. During the 1970s oil embargo, the society accepted a challenge to create an energy performance code for new buildings. In 1975, ASHRAE launched its first energy standard, ASHRAE 90.

Later, as part of the 1989 edition, ASHRAE 90 split into two. Standard 90.1 focuses on energy performance for new commercial and high-rise residential buildings. But 90.2 puts the focus on low-rise residential buildings.

These energy standards have been successful. ASHRAE renews them every three years. And the energy standards increase performance expectations. The ANSI (The American National Standards Institute) certifies ASHRAE standards, so they meet certain criteria. Government authorities can simply incorporate ASHRAE standards as their code. 

Southline in Boston, Massachusetts.

What’s new in Standard 240P?

The building industry knows it’s urgent to address GHG emissions. It has made great progress with energy efficiency standards. For example, high-performance buildings can now reach net zero energy operational emissions. By achieving energy efficiency, we avoid energy consumption, which is the primary decarbonization strategy for the industry. So, energy standards and codes will continue to play a role in the industry’s climate change mitigation.

But what can we do about the energy that buildings consume elsewhere? We need ways to reduce GHG from residual consumption. We (ASHRAE with the International Code Council or ICC) are creating a new standard to address GHG accounting. A group of leading building experts is developing Standard 240P—the P stands for proposed. I am serving as co-vice chair of the joint ASHRAE/ICC Standard 240P–Evaluating Greenhouse Gas and Carbon Emissions in Building Design, Construction, and Operation. We proposed standardized emissions calculations and reporting prospects for the global building industry. Our goal is to approve and publish the new 240P standard by 2025.

With the new standard, the industry will continue to account for GHG emissions from building operations. But now it will also account for embodied carbon emissions. Embodied carbon is all the emissions associated with building materials and their manufacture and disposal.

The new standard looks at the whole building over its expected lifecycle. It provides a way for the industry to calculate and report emissions from the building’s products, materials, construction, and disposal. Jurisdictions have begun to regulate embodied carbon of high impact systems such as concrete and steel. But ASHRAE understands that mechanical, electrical, and plumbing systems add to a building’s embodied carbon because owners often replace boilers, air conditioning systems, and carpeting several times over a building’s life. 

The new standard looks at the whole building over its expected lifecycle. It provides a way for the industry to calculate and report emissions.

What effect will new ASHRAE standards have?

This new standard supports the decarbonizing of the building industry.

The whole lifecycle GHG standard will address embodied carbon of all major systems that contribute to building emissions. It will drive suppliers to document their product’s embodied emissions through product declarations. Manufacturers will recognize that low-emission products can be market differentiators. And this will drive supply chain changes within mining, transportation, and other subsections that feed into the building industry.

Alternate routes to ASHRAE code compliance

Many states and countries rely on energy performance standard 90.1. ASHRAE just created a new appendix, and it offers an alternative route for compliance.

Why an alternate route? In some states, the solutions ASHRAE recommends aren’t available or feasible. In Las Vegas, Nevada, evaporative cooling and water-cooling towers are banned. This effectively mandates air-cooled systems. Why? The area is living through extreme drought. But air-cooled chilling will consume more energy and may not follow stringent standards. Now, designers in Las Vegas will be able to show GHG compliance through the alternate path. If a system consumes more electricity but is connected to a 100 percent clean energy grid, the building can meet GHG performance targets. ASHRAE’s 240P will provide a consistent reporting process for emissions-based compliance.

“Fuel agnostic” ASHRAE standards

With “fuel-agnostic” standards and methodologies we can minimize conflict and costly court battles. Regulations needn’t specify a fuel preference.

With this approach, we can make room for creative solutions in the market. Picture a natural gas provider supplying renewable natural gas from waste or an agency incentivizing hydrogen adoption.

Making steel accounts for 8 percent of global carbon dioxide emissions. New ASHRAE standards will look at the embodied carbon in projects.

A resource for performance regulations

Some governments have passed laws requiring embodied carbon reporting. A new local law in New York City requires that contractors present embodied carbon figures for all new municipal projects. And California just launched new embodied carbon permitting requirements. When available, 240P will be a resource for governments that want to pursue embodied carbon regulation. It will serve as a reference for calculations and documentation.

An essential tool

Our international committee is moving quickly. We are developing and completing the ASHRAE/ICC Standard 240P faster than any before it. 

The building industry is targeting net zero emissions by 2050 across the whole life cycle. We must supply the tools and resources to help our designers know how to get there. They need to know how to document compliance. Those that review and issue permits need the right resources to verify designs. The industry needs a consistent methodology that it can reference. It must be repeatable and code enforceable. That is the intent of 240P.

  • Beth Tomlinson

    Beth has 20 years of experience in research and building design, resiliency, commissioning, and energy auditing. She is currently focused on integrating climate change mitigation and adaptation, commissioning, and energy transitions within projects.

    Contact Beth
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