Whenever the Kempton energy festival rolls around each September I always scan their nice booklet with map to see what events and speakers catch my eye. This year was no exception. In perusing the impressive array of speakers to appear in the various tents strewn throughout the festival one caught my eye in particular. It was titled something like: “The Future of Building Codes”. The Future of Building Codes? Are you kidding me? Is this a promotion for the cure for insomnia? At the very least, I thought, this festival is in dire need of a marketing firm. Hell yeah! I’ve been dreaming about building codes all my life and now finally—a public speaker on my passion. Okay. So I never thought about building codes. And neither does anybody else. But after hearing David Neiger speak, perhaps we should.
Now the festival scheduled David’s presentation at 9:00am Saturday morning—well before the majority of the fair goers had arrived. So I got up early and drove to Kempton in hopes that this tent would be occupied by someone other than the speaker and I. I was pleasantly surprised to find the tent more than half full. I settled in to find out why I should care about building codes and what a presentation on building codes is doing at a sustainable energy festival.
David Neiger is a Principal at Populus Sustainable Design Consulting which operates out of Boulder, Colorado. Now if I had looked through the festival booklet to find an explanation of each event I would have understood the pertinence of David’s presentation. They described it better than I could:
The Future of Building Codes: Learning from Boulder, Colorado’s Energy Efficient Green Building Codes – David Neiger, Principal at Populus Sustainable Design Consulting Boulder, Colorado
Municipalities throughout the world are adopting green building codes that address issues from indoor air quality to energy efficiency. This new generation of building codes is performance-based in nature, providing flexibility to create green, energy efficient homes. Learn about the implementation of cutting-edge energy efficiency codes in Boulder, Colorado and how municipalities nationwide can drastically reduce home energy consumption and carbon emissions.
Dave began his presentation with a little background. He was a carpenter and framer for a number of years and then worked as a kitchen, cabinetry, and furniture designer in Boston. He moved to Boulder, CO. about three years ago and worked for an architectural firm for about a year. While employed there, he had the opportunity to work on some cutting edge green building projects. He learned a lot about what it was he wanted to be doing. He left the architectural firm to start Populus Sustainable Design Consulting. His wife Laura is an attorney who previously practiced as a commercial litigator in an international law firm. As Managing Principal and General Counsel for Populus, Laura helps David navigate the ever changing legal pathway as it relates to building codes. Laura and Dave are both originally from Pennsylvania and now live and operate their business in Boulder.
Populus is primarily a consulting firm that helps builders, architects and homeowners to comply with the optional and mandatory elements of the green building programs that are popular in Colorado and around the country. One of the things that attracted Dave to Boulder are their building codes: “In Boulder we have very strict green building codes which are required for anyone building new construction or remodeling in that area.”
Why performance -based building codes?
Dave believes that the building codes in Boulder provide the framework for what will be the future building codes everywhere. Some municipalities have already adopted similar codes. Dave launched into the meat of his presentation by answering the Why? building codes question:
“In 2006 The Green Building Council (GBC) reported that homes are responsible for 20% of the U.S. CO2 emissions. Beyond that buildings in general are responsible for consuming 76% of the electricity created in the United States. And so our building sector is largely responsible for our carbon emissions and our energy consumption. It’s also a place where we can make drastic efficiency improvements and drastic carbon emission reductions fairly easily. At current rates most scientists agree that CO2 will cause temperatures to rise by 2 1/2 to 10º Fahrenheit in the coming century. Reducing our CO2 emissions is the only way most feel that we will be able to exist. Average homes last from about 50 to 100 years. There will by approximately 12 million new homes constructed in the U.S. by the year 2015. 85% of homes will be new or majorly renovated by 2030, because we have an aging housing stock in the country and we have an exploding population. This all culminates in a lot of tear down and new construction. If we were to enact more stringent codes now, inside the next 20 years we would be hitting roughly 85% of the homes in the country.”
“Resources are becoming more scarce as well. So beyond the carbon question we also have depleting supplies of energy. We know they are not going to last forever. Energy supplies have become more costly and more difficult to extract. So obviously the prices rise. To defend ourselves against rising fuel costs we need to make more efficient homes. In Colorado our electricity is generated primary by coal-fired power plants. That’s offset a little bit by gas plants and a little bit of hydro. But for the most part it’s coal burning plants. And we get a lot of that coal from Wyoming. It’s dirtier coal than what we’ve been accustomed to burning. So beyond getting more expensive and harder to extract, it’s also getting dirtier. Moving away from coal and electricity as much as we can, we preserve the resources for the future and also reduce the effects of global climate change.”
Dave spoke about a recent consulting firm report which states that global investment on the order of 170 billion dollars a year through the year 2020, of which 38 billion would be in the U.S. if we were to devote that money to energy efficiency. That would deliver annual returns at a rate of 17%. As Dave pointed out to those who are not invested in the stock market, annual returns of 17% are unheard of in most places. So there are actually returns where we can capitalize on “low-hanging fruit” in terms of investments. Dave goes on to say: “Further, these investments would reduce energy demands at 1/2 the cost that it would require to build infrastructure to supply that same amount of energy. If we were to build power plants rather than save energy, it would cost us twice as much.”
So really the question to the American people is: Do you want to spend twice as much? Do you want more power plants? Or do you want to adopt energy saving, sustainable practices. There is a hidden side benefit here as Dave goes on to explain: “There’s a bonus here. We will create 600,00 green jobs over the coming 20 years. That’s in the U.S. alone. And the U.S. could sure use 600,00 jobs”
Adopting stricter codes
“So that’s kind of the why that motivated our city council to adopt strict codes. Now lots of municipalities around the nation have begun to enact green building legislation.”
Dave went on to speak about building codes using a projector to illustrate. He showed a variety of codes including the International Building Code, The Residential Code and The International Energy Conservation Code of 2006. The Energy Conservation Code largely governs the amount of insulation that you put in your home. The code is divided into 8 regions that takes into account and reflects the climate of that region. We are in climate zone 5. In climate zone 5 the code calls for R-38 in our ceilings. R-19 in the walls and R-30 over spaces like the garage or crawl space. The R value is the resistance to heat flow. Now remember Dave admonishes—the code is the minimal requirement. As Dave puts it: “The code is the worst home you can build without going to jail. That’s basically what the code is. So building above code is done everywhere except by some very large national builders who are very concerned by the bottom line. Many are building beyond code. What we offer is a way to quantify that.”
“The code as it exists is a lot like a set of directions…ie: turn right, turn left. Do this and that. Take the prescribed freeway or toll road. With the code you cannot dictate your own special interest. You cannot deviate from the road provided. Performance based building codes are different. At the onset of the project you can set criteria. Going back to the analogy you can say we don’t want to take freeways or toll roads. Even though you set your criteria at the beginning, the performance based code remains adaptable and flexible. You might know that there are a variety of ways to achieve your goals, so instead of having a set of prescriptive rules, you have a target and you shoot for it. Performance based codes are built to adapt and respond throughout the process.”
So it becomes obvious even to a dolt like me as I listen to this that you can’t have a target to shoot for (Performance based codes) unless you have a way of measuring your progress towards these goals. So what they use is something similar to measuring a car’s efficiency (miles per gallon). Dave gave this example: “When the government generates the miles per gallon rating for a car they take an idealized course and they put a generic driver in it. So the idea is, not necessarily that you’re going to get the stated gas mileage that’s listed on the car. But if you drive it in an average sort of way through an average course then you should achieve that sort of gas mileage.”
So what is the average miles per gallon for a house? Something called The HERS energy rating system. Houses are given a HERS energy rating as a way of quantifying their costs. Dave goes on: ” In Boulder Colorado we’ve decided to co-opt the HERS system and turn it into our code. We use the HERS system as a thermometer to say this is how efficient your house is. Then we say this is how efficient your house must be. It’s a design tool.”
“The HERS rating works, at least in software, like this: What we have, at least when I begin a project I start with a set of drawings. And I am able to create a model home from that set of drawings. We have two houses now. One is the reference house—the geometric twin of the one I’m going to build, and the other is the actual house. So when I build the reference house we assume that we’re going to prescribe to the code—ie: R-19 in the walls and R-38 in the ceiling. When in reality the house we are designing is intended to have R-28 wall insulation and R-42 ceiling insulation.”
Now to my understanding there are other factors that the HERS rating measures. But if I have this right, and I’m sure I’ll hear from Dave if I don’t, The HERS rating will take the house you are building as if it had been built to code and compares it to the actual house you are building. So if your house has a HERS rating of 39 it means that it is 61% more efficient than the same house built to code. I hope that’s right but if it’s not we’ll learn together. This makes HERS a powerful tool!
Well, we are about half-way through Dave’s lecture at this point. We’ll conclude next month in CS2. We’ll start with a house that has a negative HERS rating. Imagine that. A house that creates more power than it uses. Imagine a society with houses like that and it’s implications for the world. It’s mind boggling. We also hope to corner Dave for an interview.