Decarbonize: The Clean Energy Podcast

What's up with building codes?

September 15, 2022 Fresh Energy Season 3 Episode 18
Decarbonize: The Clean Energy Podcast
What's up with building codes?
Show Notes Transcript

What are building codes, and how are they critical tools in driving progress toward a healthier, more resilient, more efficient Minnesota? Fresh Energy's Eric Fowler and Briana Kerber dive into the details on what building codes are, who writes them, how they impact our lives, and how Fresh Energy is acting on multiple levels to improve building energy codes for health, savings, and climate.

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Bri:

Hello and welcome to Decarbonize: The Clean Fresh Energy is a Minnesota nonprofit working to speed our state's transition to a clean energy economy. My name is Briana Kerber. My friends and colleagues call me Bri. I use she/her pronouns and I am Fresh Energy's policy communications associate. Today we are going to be talking about something new, even to me, building codes! And in this podcast I have the immense privilege of being joined by Fresh Energy's Eric Fowler, our resident building code aficionado, to give us the inside scoop on how to crack the code, so to speak, for a more sustainable Minnesota via our built environment. And with that, let's jump in. How's it going, Eric?

Eric:

Good. Thanks, Bri. All of this building's work is very applicable. As you know, I'm living in about a one-hundred-year-old house, so we have lots going on. There's lots to think about, and I feel like there's a lot of overlap. We literally had some chimney work done yesterday, so constantly thinking about building standards, building codes with all of this.

Bri:

Of course. Our next podcast episode should just be a follow up dedicated to you talking about all that you've learned going through that process and how applicable it's been to your work in this area of Fresh Energy's Buildings portfolio. But let's jump into our topic at hand. So I think when people think about building codes, it's probably not always immediately clear how they connect to our mission and our vision here at Fresh Energy to get Minnesota and beyond closer and closer to an equitable, carbon-neutral economy. So to kick us off, could you give us some insight into that connection and talk about how building codes are a climate and health solution?

Eric:

Yeah. Thanks, Bri. So I think a lot of people really understand the connection between the tailpipe on their car and climate change. But our buildings actually have multiple tailpipes, sometimes hidden in plain sight. And this is one of the reasons why buildings are a top source of carbon pollution. That's true globally. It's definitely true in Minnesota too, with our buildings contributing roughly 40% of US greenhouse gas emissions. And the other issue is that the trend of those building emissions is going in the wrong direction. So Minnesota's electricity and transportation sectors, those are bigger parts of the pie, but they're shrinking, right. Which is good. They're getting cleaner, whereas pollution from buildings is actually still increasing. So that's a problem. And it needs immediate action on multiple fronts to make sure that we start going in the other direction, start bringing building emissions down instead of up. So improving Minnesota's energy code, both residential and commercial, has a huge impact on the future of our built environment as well as our health, our financial well-being for those who are paying the utilities on those buildings. So it's really an important piece of the puzzle.

Bri:

Definitely. I like that tailpipe analogy. It's a great analogy. I feel like, probably like a lot of folks out there, I have a pretty vague understanding of building codes and all that they encompass. So on the most basic level, I'd love if you could start us off by explaining what the heck they are.

Eric:

Absolutely. Yeah. So the building code is simply the minimum standard for a building's quality, safety, energy use and construction. So if you hear that a building is constructed to code, that means that the building will meet those minimum state requirements and just that - it won't necessarily meet anything else. There are a lot of optional standards that folks will pursue, like Passive House or Zero Energy, but at the base level, all new buildings have to meet code. And sometimes, examples of what's in that code are maybe not super commonly known. One that I think people will recognize is escape windows in bedrooms. So maybe, you know, if you're touring a house and somebody says that there are four bedrooms, but one of them is in the basement and it doesn't have a large sized escape window - that would be a violation of code. You know, you can't market that as a bedroom because it doesn't have a window, which is a key legal piece of a bedroom according to the code. So that's a more well known example. There is everything else in the code too. There is like how many bathrooms does a theater need? You can look it up. How thick does the fireplace hearth need to be? That's in the code. It's minimum four inches. Yeah. And then, the energy examples are going to be things like your ceiling attic border that must be insulated to R-49 or more and "R" just means the resistance to heat transfer. So the higher the value, the more insulating it's doing.

Bri:

Gotcha.

Eric:

Another example is you can't have more than Minnesota. And air changes is like a measure of leaky-ness. Right. How much air are you losing? You spend all that money conditioning the air, and now it's just going out cracks into the outside. And the biggest impact of the code really is on new buildings. Every new building is legally supposed to meet the minimum standards established in the code. The place where the code has less of an impact is on existing buildings. There are requirements, so if you renovate, you will need to follow some building codes if you're doing a major renovation. But it might be you update some electrical wiring and you have to do that up to code. But that doesn't mean you have to bring your plumbing or, you know, literally anything else up to code, so those can be narrow and still leave you with a lot of old buildings that don't meet current requirements.

Bri:

Ah, I see. Okay. So you mentioned things like ceiling and attic insulation as well as a few other things being in the code. What else might we find in it?

Eric:

Yeah, I guess the main kind of buckets when going to be a lot about your envelope, which is like the fancy way of saying what separates you from the outdoors when you're indoors. So that's air leakage right around your doors, your window, quality insulation, stuff like that. There's also standards for your HVAC, your heating, ventilation and air conditioning, right? How are the ducts designed? What type of thermostat do you have? And then you're going to have water heating, which is another big energy use. And so how efficient is your water heater? Are the pipes insulated? And then that last major bucket is around electrical wiring and lighting systems. And there's been a lot of improvement, for example, in requiring a higher percentage of really efficient lighting so that hopefully we're moving away from incandescent bulbs, which are really just small heaters that put out some light.

Bri:

Yes. Yes. Gotcha. Well, you've written a blog on the Fresh Energy website all about the ins and outs of building codes, which we will link in the description for everybody listening. And in it you wrote that there's both a building code and an energy code, and I've heard you use that energy code term a couple of times already. What is the difference between the building code and the energy code, and why is that distinction important?

Eric:

Yeah. So the full building code lives in by the Department of Labor and Industry (DLI). If you hear me say, Dolly, it's a pronunciation some of us use (and maybe it's not that many of us) for the Department of Labor and Industry. And DLI manages this.

Bri:

Okay.

Eric:

So there's 18 chapters and they cover fire protection, electrical, plumbing - a bunch of stuff that's in there. The energy code is just two of those chapters. One of them is the residential energy code and the other one is the commercial energy code. And those have specific requirements that vary based on climate zones, basically becoming stricter the farther north you go because it's colder and you need to protect your conditioned air even more. And so Minnesota has two climate zones, in the South it is Zone 6, 6A to be precise. And in northern Minnesota, it's Zone 7A.

Bri:

Interesting - I wouldn't have thought that So I guess my next question is, how do those zone distinctions get decided and what does that mean in maybe tangible, practical terms for Minnesota?

Eric:

Yeah, this is fun. I have been learning a little bit more about this. So if climate zones make you think of gardening and like looking up, you know, the hardiness of a plant that you might want in your yard that you hope survives, that is basically the origin of this climate zone map. So Joe Lstiburek, who's an engineer, building scientist, principle at the Building Science Corporation, and I think lots of other things. He is, I think, largely responsible for coming up with those boundaries based on where do different kinds of plants live. And then, you know, just mapping that on to the continent to say, okay, well, this is where you have these temperatures as well as these moistures. So the climate zones reflect both. That's the "A" in our climate zone, it is related to humidity and the number is related to where we are kind of temperature-wise.

Bri:

Gotcha. Interesting. That is some insider content right there, folks, that (more in-depth explanation) is not in the blog that Eric wrote. So we will make sure to link a map showing you those different climate zones in the description of the podcast. Eric, thinking about all that we've discussed so far, what can you tell us about how these building codes get created? Does someone just write them? Are there other people involved in the process besides those who might be writing the code itself? What does that look like?

Eric:

It's so many someones. It's committees of committees. I mean, I'm only half kidding. It is. It's a complicated process because buildings are complicated and they're full of different systems, right. And all of those different systems have different experts who know about the various parts of them. So it starts with a few national organizations that write what we call model codes. And then in Minnesota, again, DLI makes any final revisions. And so I'm not going to talk about like the fire code or all the other codes, but for the energy code, the first draft is written by A SHRAE. This is a bit of an alphabet soup, but ASHRAE is the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air Conditioning Engineers. So every three years, based on a consensus process of their experts, they publish model energy code, which is called ASHRAE 90.1. I think there's some history around that naming scheme that we don't need to get into.

Bri:

Gotcha.

Eric:

But then the International Code Council, International Energy Conservation Code (IECC) and then they package it all up. So ASHRAE only does the energy stuff, right? But the International Code Council publishes a bunch of different types of codes, so that's why they kind of turn to ASHRAE to write the first draft. And then the ICC, the International Code Council, you know, bases theirs on what ASHRAE has started with. So what all of this means in Minnesota is we take that essentially first draft and then through an administrative process where the public and and all stakeholders can weigh in, we basically edit it to what we decide we need in Minnesota. But it's still nice to start with that really detailed first pass by the national experts and then adopt a specific Minnesota energy code that's based on, but may not always 100% reflect, that model code.

Bri:

Gotcha. Wow. That genuinely does feel like it has so many different moving pieces and groups of people who are involved in this process. It feels like it's kind of, it's like a whole ecosystem on its own.

Eric:

True. And actually, I should say: Our actually have a seat on one of these committees with the International Code Council. So he has a vote, one vote among many, on how the IECC, the International Energy Conservation Code, gets written.

Bri:

Awesome. Well, that's really cool. And I feel like I either didn't know that about Michael or I had forgotten it. But thanks for bringing it up. It's fun and it's encouraging to know that we have a voice within one of these big arenas, so to speak, for this whole process. So thank you for walking us through some of the basics of building code, because I feel like I have a much better understanding of some of those foundational elements. And now I think we're positioned really well to try to shift to maybe apply some of that knowledge. So my next question, Eric, is how are building codes used? And more specifically, how might we see them impacting our lives?

Eric:

Yeah. So I'm going to talk about three

Bri:

Okay, perfect.

Eric:

The first one is the first group that uses That first one that sees an immediate impact is manufacturers of products for building and renovating your home. So we talked about that "R" value, the heat transfer resistance in insulation. So an example is if you make insulation you are going to go to the code and you're going to read, Oh 49 is a minimum standard requirement. Great. We're going to manufacture R-49 insulation. We're going to make a bunch of it and we're going to label it on the outside so that it's visible, because the code also requires that you can visually look at it and see, Oh, that's labeled as R-49.

Bri:

Gotcha. Cool.

Eric:

So then we have all these products that are people who use them are going to be architects, builders, contractors. They're going to look at the code and say, okay, I need this type of insulation. We're going to need to do the plans in this way. And, you know, and then the contractors and builders, they will have to install those correctly. So if you have a bunch of gaps in the insulation that you installed, even though you used the right insulation, your building won't be up to code because the gaps, you know, you're not supposed to have those.

Bri:

Right. Gotcha.

Eric:

And so there's also a little bit of There's basically two paths, paths that builders can use to comply with the code. And this is a little bit weeds-y. And like, you know, if everyone doesn't remember every single detail of this, that is okay. But it is interesting to note that a builder, you know, your building team, can use a prescriptive path, which is basically where the code says, if you do this, this, this and this and you just check off all of those components, you will be in compliance.

Bri:

Okay.

Eric:

There's also a performance path and that has It's a much shorter checklist. So you might be able to do a wall or a window that doesn't actually meet the prescriptive requirements for insulation or air sealing. But if you can show in a model of your building that you've made up that efficiency and that overall the building will still perform as well as it needs to - again, that's the performance path - then you don't need to follow those prescriptive requirements.

Bri:

Interesting.

Eric:

So that's like a little in-the-weeds. The place where people may have the most familiarity is when it comes to the third bucket. So we had manufacturers, we had builders, architects, and then the third bucket is code enforcement officials. So when you hear someone talk about, oh, I need a permit, right? I need a building permit or I need a permit to remodel something. That is when we're talking about the code enforcement officials which have kind of that final check, it's like hopefully, everybody before has done all their work and the code official will not have a ton of feedback to give or violations to give, but they are the ones who inspect plans, issue permits, and then conduct inspections on those new buildings and renovations.

Bri:

Gotcha. Well, that makes sense. I feel like the full picture is really starting to come together in my mind of how our building codes are these really critical tools that can help drive progress on clean energy and climate so that we have a healthier but also more resilient future for our state and beyond. But I feel like I'm left with a lingering question that I'm hoping you can answer. It seems like using our building codes as tools for driving that progress that creates healthy communities, creates a healthy climate, would require that these codes are updated on a somewhat regular basis as things change in society, as we make advances in technology or materials or what have you that we use in our buildings. So what is the process for updating codes and maybe how frequently does it occur?

Eric:

Yeah, great question. And I'll just note at the top for any listeners outside Minnesota that this varies a ton state by state, like most US policy, and there are actually some states that don't have a statewide energy code. In Minnesota, we do. So we have a six year adoption cycle. So theoretically, every six years we're supposed to look at that model code, make any adjustments and then adopt it. That said, there are ways to slow down the process, which, you know, I mean, it's great that there are opportunities for input, but unfortunately we are still currently stuck with a code based on the 2012 IECC - again, International Energy Conservation Code. That's the model we start with. So 2012 was more than six years ago, right? And in 2020, the Department did consider, or like, started the process of considering, the 2018 base code. There was a hearing with an administrative law judge who heard arguments for and against starting the process of editing and adopting that 2018 base code. He did recommend against it and so the department did not continue the process.

Bri:

Okay.

Eric:

So now basically, it's September of 2022 and a similar determination after a hearing last month in August. But hopefully it won't be similar because hopefully this time the administrative law judge will recommend that we do continue with the adoption process for the 2021 IECC. Tell me if I need to repeat any of those! I know it's such an alphabet soup.

Bri:

Yeah, I think that was great. I mean, it's good to know that there are some next steps for what's happening with with Minnesota's code. I would love to hear how you and the rest of our Buildings team at Fresh Energy are plugged into that process. Maybe some of the more specific things that you guys are doing to try to drive progress in this area.

Eric:

Absolutely. So Fresh Energy definitely shows I, you know, I hopped on one recently. It was a virtual hearing, so I provided oral comments. A lot of partners and allies of ours did the same. And then we also submitted written comments. So we're going to keep showing up in every venue we can and making the case for efficient buildings that have affordable utilities and healthier indoor air. And again, it's like, it can be a little weeds-y and a little boring. But this stuff matters so much because we actually have access to this process in a way that is not as true for some of the big splashy headline grabbing stuff that happens in D.C. The building code, I mean, not that many people are weighing in on the building code process.

Bri:

Right.

Eric:

So if people organize and get involved, it impact than some of the things that are easier to think of if you pay attention to just a lot of the headlines. So anyway, that's my soapbox. But what we're doing is arguing for the adoption of the 2021 IECC, which would provide considerable energy savings to Minnesotans. We're also going to keep an eye out for any amendments that happen that would weaken or reduce that efficiency. We want to protect what is in that 2021 model code. We'll support amendments that strengthen the efficiency of it. We will continue taking part at every process. And we also are involved at the legislature. We have supported previously the effort by cities to be able to adopt what's called stretch codes. I think I said earlier that Minnesota has a statewide code. So, for instance, Minneapolis submitted comments in this code making process, that they would like to have a higher standard of efficiency in the building code, but currently they can't do that unless it changes for all of Minnesota. So a potential option that the legislature has considered and we would encourage them to consider again, is giving cities the opportunity to adopt a stretch code, in other words, a higher than state standard energy code. And I also said Michael Noble has a vote on a committee, it's actually called the Envelope and Embodied Carbon Sub-Committee of the International Codes Council Consensus Committee. I told you it was committees of committees.

Bri:

That is a mouthful.

Eric:

Really is. I wrote it down so that I made And then I'll also just plug - this is not the work that I lead on - but I will also plug the rest of our Buildings team for doing a lot of work on the future of gas, those gas pipelines that end at our stoves and water heaters and are a major source of indoor and global air pollution. And so my colleagues, Joe Dammel and Caitlin Eichten are our experts on transitioning the gas industry towards decarbonization. So we're really trying to look at this from a number of angles.

Bri:

Absolutely. Absolutely. It's a great reminder that almost all of our work is interconnected at Fresh Energy. We're always finding ways that there's crossover between our different departments or teams as we like to call them. And this part of that is obviously a critical conversation or process for you and your team and Fresh Energy as a whole to be part of. And I think it's encouraging to hear that obviously we're making progress to positively impact our buildings and the future of our built environment with health and safety and efficiency in mind. And I think that, everyone, is all we have for you today! Thank you to everybody listening for wading through this complex and technical topic with us, for letting Eric spout off on some alphabet soup fronts with all of these acronyms and long names. And a big, big shoutout goes to Eric for taking the time to sit down with us and walk us through some of these foundational elements that are very complex in such an engaging way. We're really fortunate to be able to learn from you, Eric. And to our listeners, as always, if you are hungry for more information or you want to get involved in Fresh Energy's work, please visit fresh-energy.org for resources and action opportunities. And I would love to invite you to share your morning coffee or tea or orange juice, toast, pancakes, or what-have-you with the Fresh Energy team on Thursday, October 13th, when we are holding our annual Benefit Breakfast . The Benefit Breakfast will be virtual again this year and we will be hearing from keynote speaker, nationally acclaimed journalist Julian Brave NoiseCat, as well as special guest, co-author of the book "Speed and Scale," Ryan Panchadsaram about how to drive an ambitious climate and clean energy agenda at this really critical moment in human history. All the information you need to save your virtual seat can be found by clicking the "Events" tab in the top right corner of our website at fresh-energy.org. I hope to see everybody there, and thanks again for tuning in.