Seattle’s Energy Code Bests National Standard

August 7, 2014 By Duane Jonlin

Duane Jonlin

Energy codes, the complex regulations that limit the energy consumed by new buildings, vary widely between states and even between cities. Not coincidentally, this distribution bears some resemblance to that familiar red state/blue state map from election season. More conservative regions of the country sometimes provide little or no regulation of building energy use, while more progressive areas shepherd their building construction towards increasing levels of efficiency. Cities and states in the vanguard continue to develop and implement the most promising concepts, and these concepts then make their way into subsequent national standards.

The national benchmark for energy codes is known as ASHRAE 90.1, a 270-page guide specifying building energy requirements in mind-numbing detail. The Department of Energy requires each state to enforce an energy code at least as effective as the current ASHRAE standard, although only a dozen have managed to do so thus far.

A recent study of the 2012 Seattle Energy Code concludes that new commercial buildings in Seattle will not only meet the 2010 edition of ASHRAE 90.1, but will exceed that standard by a substantial margin. The report by Mike D Kennedy, Inc., Comparison of the 2012 Seattle Energy Code with ASHRAE 90.1-2010, finds the Seattle code to be 11.3 percent more efficient in aggregate than the ASHRAE standard.

Among the many advanced measures in the Seattle code are:

  • Improved insulation and air leakage control
  • Lighting controls that respond to daylight and occupants
  • Automatic plug load controls
  • Graphic displays of sub-metered energy use
  • Extensive commissioning of new equipment
  • Rooftops prepped for future solar panel installation

Even with Seattle’s exceptionally low electricity rates, these measures typically pay for themselves with their own energy savings. They will become even more affordable after the initial transition period, as the new code requirements become standard practice and Seattle designers and contractors gain experience to competitively provide “above-code” features elsewhere. Although opponents had predicted that such an advanced energy code would put Seattle at a competitive disadvantage with surrounding cities, the construction cranes filling Seattle’s skyline tell quite a different story. In fact, most of the cities on the Urban Land Institute’s annual “top ten” list of US real estate markets are consistently found in the states with the strongest energy regulations.

Seattle’s energy code not only supports our environmental goals, but it helps building owners and tenants save money and supports a growing market for green building and technology.

One challenge for the study’s authors was to estimate energy savings for the code’s commissioning and metering measures. Seattle’s commissioning rules ensure that energy-consuming systems are optimized and problems uncovered during this process are fully resolved. Seattle’s code also requires sub-metering of several energy use categories within the building. This data is graphically displayed online, giving building managers a quick overview of the building’s energy use patterns for the current day, week or year in comparison with earlier time periods. Metered data from a newly-commissioned building provides an enduring baseline that building managers then can use to rapidly detect when any system drifts out of its optimal performance range. The study utilized conservative estimates for the two measures – about 2.5 percent savings for each. Future analysis will be needed to verify whether higher levels of savings are realized in the field.

Seattle’s elected leaders have established an ambitious set of carbon-reduction targets for the coming decades, culminating with zero net carbon emissions from the City’s entire stock of buildings and vehicles in the year 2050 – just 36 years from today – even as Seattle’s population approaches a million. In that sense, the 2012 code is a precursor to more substantial strides needed in future code cycles. Buildings last for generations, so the long-lived portions of each building – especially the building envelope and basic mechanical and electrical systems – must be built to support the extraordinary degree of efficiency that will be required to reach carbon neutrality in 2050.

Even given the ambitious reach of Seattle’s code, more work will be required to catch up with the world’s leaders. California’s recently-enacted state energy code is deemed to be just as effective as Seattle’s, and dozens of California cities have enacted local energy codes that go at least 15 percent beyond their state code. New residential construction in California will be required to reach zero-net-energy by 2020, followed by non-residential buildings in 2030. The European Union has mandated carbon-neutral buildings by 2021, albeit with mixed levels of progress among the various countries, and several Asian countries have established such policies as well. The advanced technical and operational strategies being developed in these large economies will help boost Seattle’s own progress towards zero-carbon status in the years to come.

Each new energy code edition generates intense controversy during its development. While building code provisions that protect occupants from fire and earthquake hazards are broadly accepted, some people question whether governments should concern themselves at all with energy use. New energy regulations are decidedly unpopular among design and construction teams, and the economic benefit of reduced energy use tends to flow to the occupants rather than to the developers who shoulder the initial costs. However, strong energy codes reduce the amount of money sent out of state for fossil fuels, while a portion of those savings are reinvested locally for additional construction and system maintenance. This favors a stronger local economy and greater employment. The larger question is whether individual cities and states should make it their business to reduce energy waste in buildings in order combat global warming. In Seattle’s case, the answer has been a resounding yes.

One of the best opportunities to improve building energy performance and reduce greenhouse gas emissions is at the time of construction. Seattle’s strong energy code is a powerful tool to ensure that new buildings are designed to be energy efficient for decades to come.

Duane Jonlin is Energy Code and Energy Conservation Advisor with the City of Seattle, Department of Planning & Development.

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