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Understanding the Connection Between Energy Efficiency and Building Codes

All of us have experienced the predicament of wanting to do something and yet not knowing how to do it. That’s when you either give up or start looking for help. Fortunately for those of us who want to become more energy efficient and are looking for a guiding star, there is ASHRAE, “a global society advancing human well-being through sustainable technology for the built environment.”[1]


ASHRAE’s mission is “to serve humanity by advancing the arts and sciences of heating, ventilation, air conditioning, refrigeration and their allied fields” through “research, standards writing, publishing and continuing education.” The organization has a long and venerable history:


ASHRAE was formed as the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers by the merger in 1959 of American Society of Heating and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHAE) founded in 1894 and The American Society of Refrigerating Engineers (ASRE) founded in 1904.

ASHRAE’s backstory is relevant because it demonstrates clearly that the pursuit of energy efficiency isn’t a new trend or passing fad. I find it reassuring to know that people have been thinking seriously about energy efficiency since the days of Queen Victoria.


ASHRAE and the International Codes Council (ICC) develop the energy codes used in commercial and residential buildings across the U.S. Many people are surprised to discover that private organizations such as ASHRAE and the ICC draft the codes, but that’s the way it works here in the U.S., which has no formal national energy or building codes.


Here’s a quick overview of how the process works: ASHRAE develops a model code known as 90.1 for commercial buildings and the ICC develops a model code for both commercial and residential buildings called International Energy Conservation Code (IECC).


ASHRAE and the ICC update their code model every three years. The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) participates in drafting and reviewing the updated models. The DOE also provides technical assistance, helping states and cities adopt the updated model codes.


In the U.S., states and local governments are free to use the model codes developed by ASHRAE and the ICC. Some jurisdictions adopt parts of the model codes, and some develop their own codes.


New Buildings Institute (NBI) also plays an important role in developing model codes for improved energy performance in residential and commercial buildings. NBI works collaboratively with governments, utilities, energy efficiency advocates and building professionals “to promote advanced design practices, innovative technologies, public policies and programs that improve energy efficiency.”[2]


NBI also helps local jurisdictions develop technical measures, evaluation techniques and implementation plans necessary for enabling stronger codes. From my perspective, organizations such as NBI are essential to the widespread adoption of meaningful energy codes.


I had a fascinating conversation recently with Kim Cheslak, NBI’s associate director of codes and policy. “Our vision is a transformed built environment that is carbon-free, sustainable and energy efficient – and supports thriving economies that benefit people and the planet,” Kim says. Translating that vision into reality, however, requires energy codes that are thoughtfully developed and carefully tested in the real world.


“Model energy codes are that final push to market transformation,” she explains. “We test out early innovations through a voluntary process. We select the ones that have shown success and present them to organizations like the ICC. Our role is helping move those innovations that we know are working on the ground, in the vanguard cities and jurisdictions, and pulling them into national model codes that everyone can use.”


After speaking with Kim and delving into the NBI website, I gained a deeper understanding of the code creation process and its ultimate impact on the built environment. I also recommend visiting the DOE website and reading two excellent articles posted there, “Energy Codes 101: What Are They and What is DOE’s Role?”[3] and “How are Building Energy Codes Developed?”[4]


One of the reasons I’m highlighting the efforts of organizations such as the ASHRAE, ICC, NBI and the DOE is to demonstrate the nuances and complexities of the processes required to drive our economy toward greater energy efficiency.

This blog post is excerpted from Elena Cahill’s new upcoming book, POWER ECONOMICS: An Executive’s Guide to Energy Efficiency, Conservation, and Generation Strategies (Wiley, 2021). You can purchase or download copies of the book from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Wiley and other online booksellers.

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