Performance versus Prescriptive Compliance for Meeting Energy Codes

During some recent travels to work with builders, I spent time with a builder who was in the process of constructing walls and building envelopes with very little R value. These were thermal mass walls but with little R value. The builder was meeting the state energy building code through the performance path, which allows for more design freedom but involves more complex energy simulations and tradeoffs between systems, by using a highly engineered, very sophisticated, very expensive, high efficiency heating and air conditioning system.

The building when it’s completed will meet the code and the intent of the code which is to reduce energy consumption.  However, the weakness of this approach is that the equipment which is being used to meet the energy reduction goal codes will eventually wear out.  When that time comes, the owners of the building will be able to replace this high end equipment with a less expensive option since they are not under the jurisdiction or ‘watch’ of the building inspectors. This will decrease the energy efficiency of the building and possibly compromise its building code compliance.

This is one of the good things about the prescriptive path to the building code – that the elements that we choose, when properly installed, will meet the code and goals of energy reduction for the long term.  Things like thermal insulation when installed during the initial construction will always be in place, will always work and will never wear out. It will continue to perform over the life of the structure.

So while it is good to have options, remember not all options will give you the desired result over the life of the structure and that is worrisome.

 

Builder Beware: Code Changes Require Cover Up of Exposed Beams

download (1)Recently at an event where I was giving a continuing education presentation, I sat in on a presentation given by a manufacturer of wood framing materials. We usually talk in terms of dimensional framing (2×4 or 2×12) lumber as opposed to manufactured wood framing materials.

Today it is common practice to use manufactured wood products such as TJI’s (Truss Joist I-Beams–) These have become very common and popular because they are straight and flat while a 2 x 12 is a natural piece of wood that can warp and twist and then needs to be straightened out at the jobsite. Manufactured wood has gained in popularity because of these properties and others.

However, in fires, manufactured wood burns differently than traditional dimensional framing products. This can be a problem because very often, at the homeowner’s request, builders will leave the basement unfinished for the homeowner to complete at a later time. What is happening is that in these scenarios, if there is a fire in the basement, firemen can fall through the unprotected floors because the exposed manufactured wood joists and beams may be burning faster than traditional framing materials.

For that reason, a code change, Section 501.3 of the 2012 International Residential Code (IRC), has been developed mandating that all manufactured wood floor framing be covered by a 30 minute radiant barrier. That means that all those basements with unfinished ceilings will need to be finished.

I strongly recommend that builders and contractors contact your building code officials to make sure you know what you are required to do to cover the exposed beams for safety. Installing and finishing a gypsum ceiling may be one of the most affordable and practical ways of providing our emergency responders with the protection they deserve.

 

Walking the Walk with the Better Buildings Challenge

John Marrone is Vice President, Energy Initiatives for Saint-Gobain North America

On December 2, 2011, 60 key employers in America were invited to participate in a roundtable panel regarding the Better Buildings Challenge.  The Better Buildings Challenge is part of the Better Buildings Initiative that President Obama launched in February 2011.  Led by former President Bill Clinton, through the William J, Clinton Foundation and the Clinton Global Initiative, together with the President’s Council on Jobs and Competiveness, the Better Buildings Challenge supports job creation by catalyzing private sector investment in commercial building and industrial facility updates to make America’s buildings 20 percent more efficient over the next decade and save American businesses about $40 billion per year on their energy bills.

One of the key objectives of the round table was to share ideas about how to improve energy efficiency while helping to stimulate the economy and promote jobs creation.  There were a number of valid ideas presented to the Department of Energy (DOE) and Presidents Obama and Clinton during the meeting. But what was most impressive was that the focus was on both Clinton and Obama asking questions and listening to the business leaders.

The challenge is that companies must work with both the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) on regulatory issues and with the DOE on the energy initiatives and often these two entities are on different sides of the conversation. The government needs to understand the impact on business to balance compliance to regulatory issues while improving energy especially for the manufacturing sector and this meeting was a good and productive first step.

While Saint-Gobain is certainly interested in promoting the objectives that come out of the Better Buildings Challenge, I feel that the critical issues are:

  • Creating stronger building codes to promote energy efficiency
  • Freeing up the capital for investments in energy improvements
  • More prominent branding of the Better Buildings Challenge to encourage wider support, commitment and participant recognition 

Companies need to be recognized in an ongoing, visible way for making the changes to conserve energy and natural resources.  This is not a short term, quick fix.   Energy efficiency needs to be a cultural change that takes place over time and becomes imbedded in the fiber of a business. With the commitments made by these initial employers, we are making a significant first step.

Take a Peek at the Future of Building Codes – International Green Construction Code

It’s about time! The International Green Construction Code (IGCC), subtitled “Safe and Sustainable: By the Book” has just completed the public comment stage.  The draft code is a joint effort of the International Code Council (ICC), the American Institute of Architects (AIA) and ASTM International. The AIA and ASTM have played a vital role in the development of the IGCC.

The AIA presence guarantees a focus on the AIA’s 2030 Carbon Neutrality Goal. ASTM International, which carries a worldwide reputation as a standards developer, strengthens the scientific basis that will drive the Code. The American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE), the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) and the Illuminating Engineering Society (IES) joined the ICC/AIA/ASTM team in reviewing and commenting on the Code.

This model Code focuses on new and existing commercial buildings and addresses green building design and performance. It creates a baseline for green building by making our basic practices more sustainable while leaving plenty of room for improvement. With many of the lessons learned from the sustainable construction evolution to date being made code, it gives us an opportunity to push the targets of more advanced programs “further down field.” Can you imagine what we may learn or what innovations may come from that?  You can download a copy of the proposed code for review or you can view the video.

We need a green building code.  Up until now, we have only had green standards to define and support the sustainability movement. A standard is just an agreement but a code can be enforced.  The USGBC and NAHB paved the way toward making a solid commitment to build responsibly but creating a Code on a national and international level really changes the game.

Once we have a Green Construction Code the states will need to adopt or amend it to suite their unique requirements. But at least now we have a model Code to put in front of them as a starting point. It couldn’t get here soon enough. 

What are your thoughts as to the pros and cons to an International Green Construction Code?

 

Lucas Hamilton

Lucas Hamilton is Manager, Building Science Applications for CertainTeed Corporation.

Adjusting the Thinking of Lenders

Lucas Hamilton

Lucas Hamilton

As exciting as it is to see Vancouver’s Olympic Village with energy efficient dwellings, long-term green initiatives that will become permanent sustainable features of the community, and the great publicity that provides, sustainable building projects continue to struggle to secure mortgages from lending institutions.

The struggle relates directly to justifying the costs to produce a more energy efficient building and the money saved over the life of the building. From a life-cycle perspective it makes perfect sense and is justified. But from an economic perspective it is more difficult to justify the added costs.  The reality is, on average, mortgages held by lending institutions are sold every seven years.  The banks are not concerned with life-cycle analysis; all they consider is upfront costs.  This becomes a negative when you start talking about creating sustainability. 

The building community needs to help rephrase that discussion. The truth is, in many parts of the country, homes are not built to the 2009 building codes but are built to 2006 or even 2003 codes. Take the average starter home. Building to the most current codes would generate a positive cash flow of $23 per month in energy savings into the homeowners’ hands. Enforcing the code can reduce the size of the mortgage by about 2 percent, which further insures loan repayment. Lenders should prefer that new homes be built to the most current codes, not only for life safety issues but because that saved money can help to repay the mortgage.

For the banks and lending institutions this is a great way to alleviate some of the concerns they have about borrower volatility, because building to the current codes increases borrowers’ income and insulates them from one of the most volatile expenses they have which is fuel costs.

For the average homeowner, energy bills have more than doubled over the last 15 years.  This is largely because of lifestyle. We live in bigger houses with plasma televisions, computers, surround sound systems and many more conveniences.

According to a recent study from Cornell University, if all existing homes and buildings were retrofitted to 2009 building codes–including upgrading systems–and improvements were made to transportation and industry, over the next 10 years we could eliminate 32 quads of energy, which is equivalent to the annual amount of oil imported into the United States. Think about that.

Lucas Hamilton is Manager, Building Science Applications at CertainTeed Corporation.