Building Energy Code Compliance

November 14, 2016

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After previously discussing what building codes are, how they are developed, and how they are adopted, we now explore the final, and perhaps most important, stage of the building energy code cycle: compliance. Compliance is where “the rubber meets the road” for energy codes. Without it, no energy is saved, and all the work done during the development and adoption phases is for naught.

Builders and Designers

The legal obligation to comply with the energy code (meeting all the applicable requirements) rests squarely on the professionals who design and construct buildings. On the residential side, homes are often designed by a licensed builder or other design professional (although this can vary depending in the complexity and customization of the home). While the builder may ultimately carry responsibility for code compliance, many subcontractors and trades play critical roles in ensuring compliance with the energy code. For example, lighting requirements may fall to the electrician, and tightening residential envelopes can affect a broad range of trades—from the foundation, to framing and insulation contractors, and even to the painting or finishing crews. In commercial buildings, the design team typically includes an architect and engineer, and is responsible for ensuring compliance with the relatively more complex commercial energy code requirements, from building shell and envelope features, to the internal electrical and mechanical systems.

Role of Enforcement

In most areas of the country, local governments have building departments that require builders to obtain permits before they can start construction. Detailed plans and specifications must be submitted, which are reviewed by building officials to ensure that all requirements are met. After the plans are approved, field inspections occur at multiple intervals during construction to verify that the plans are followed. These vary depending on the building design, but typically they will be scheduled before the slab is poured (if sub-slab insulation is required), before drywall is installed (to check things like wall insulation), and after lighting fixtures are installed. For many requirements, building officials depend on third parties to conduct tests or inspections. An example of this is air leakage. It would be very rare for a building official to run the actual leakage test, but the builder can provide the results from a qualified tester (e.g. an energy rater), and the official can deem the building compliant based on that documentation.

The Importance of Training and Technical Assistance

Compliance is generally associated with the enforcement provided by local building officials, but achieving high levels of compliance requires participation by many local actors and a variety of supporting resources. First among these are education and training. Neither builders nor building officials are usually energy experts, so, when a new code is adopted, they need to be taught the requirements. The best trainings go beyond the dry recitation of specific code language and explain the intent of new code requirements and how they can be met with materials and techniques already common in the building industry. When people understand why a requirement has been put in place, they are more likely to see its value and attempt to comply with it. Other critical resources are forms and tools to help verify compliance or track common issues. In addition, codes often have accompanying users’ manuals that can provide more detailed technical explanations. Help lines are also available in some places where an energy code expert can be contacted directly to assist with project-specific issues.

How Energy Codes Are Different than Other Codes

It’s important to note that building officials and builders in some parts of the country see the energy code as fundamentally different from the historical “health, life, and safety” codes that were created primarily to protect occupants from fire, flooding, and collapse. Energy codes are a more recent addition to the building codes family, with the first having been adopted in the late 1970s, while structural and fire codes have existed for hundreds of years. In some areas, this has resulted in energy code enforcement having a lower priority. This issue is receding as the energy code gets older and societal awareness of energy-related issues increases. But when resources are limited at local building departments, which is often the case, the energy code is likely to get less attention. To address this, many code developers have begun to focus on new alternative compliance paths, or are exploring new ways to reduce building officials’ work load, such as by shifting some enforcement responsibilities to third-party inspectors.

DOE’s Role: Helping to Ensure Savings through Technical Assistance, Tools and Better Data

DOE’s Building Energy Codes Program produces innovative materials and tools to help the building industry achieve, document, and verify compliance with codes. This is provided through the following:

  • Technical assistance for the construction industry, state energy offices and policymakers. BECP’s Resource Center provides a collection of information and resources to answer questions and address issues related to energy codes. State Technical Assistance helps local code enforcement jurisdictions adopt, upgrade, and enforce their building codes through various forms. The Help Desk responds to individuals’ and organizations’ specific questions about energy code and compliance-related topics.
     
  • Compliance software and web tools. REScheck and COMcheck are based on the most recent editions of the model codes. These tools help simplify and clarify compliance with model energy codes, and are used by thousands of builders, designers, architects, and contractors each year. Both REScheck and COMcheck are available free of charge. 
     
  • Compliance and savings opportunity measurement. DOE has developed an affordable methodology for states and cities to determine energy and dollar savings opportunities with increased energy code compliance in single-family homes. Field studies based on the methodology have been implemented across eight states through DOE’s residential energy field code study, and by several others states who have initiated their own studies. The resulting data will help to focus education and training programs, and will provide a basis for utilities and states to determine whether those programs will be cost-effective. Assistance is available for other states wishing to use the DOE methodology. A methodology for commercial buildings in being tested in 2017.

DOE supports increased efficiency through building energy codes. Today's codes offer significant savings, lowering utility bills for home and business owners, and reducing U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. For more information, visit energycodes.gov.