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Musings of an Energy Nerd

Are Energy Codes Working?

To reduce greenhouse gas emissions, energy codes will have to become more stringent — and they’ll need to be enforced

Get ready for the 2009 code. In jurisdictions that have adopted the 2009 codes, residential builders need to complete an air-barrier checklist or conduct a blower-door test.
Image Credit: International Code Council

Residential energy codes have evolved rapidly over the last two decades. The origin of many of our current energy codes can be traced back to the Model Energy Code (MEC), which was first introduced in 1992. The MEC eventually evolved into the International Energy Conservation Code (IECC).

In jurisdictions that have adopted the International family of codes, residential builders can usually use the IECC to fulfill energy code requirements. But most home builders choose instead to follow the simpler energy requirements found in the International Residential Code (IRC). Confusingly, IRC energy requirements are similar but not always identical to requirements found in the IECC.

The 2004 Supplement to the IECC included radical revisions to the existing energy code. These revisions were designed to simplify the code, in hopes that a simpler code would lead to better compliance by builders and easier enforcement by building officials. These 2004 revisions were designed to be “stringency neutral” — that is, to result in homes that were neither more nor less efficient than homes built to earlier versions of the code.

The 2004 revisions were fully implemented in the 2006 versions of the IECC and IRC. The latest version of the codes — the 2009 IECC and IRC — include revisions designed to increase energy code stringency. (For more information on changes adopted into the 2009 codes, see Exceeding the Energy Code.)

The window-to-wall ratio

In pre-2004 versions of the IECC, builders were required to calculate the ratio between a home’s window area and its solid-wall area; this ratio was usually called the window-to-wall ratio (WWR). No matter which compliance path a builder chose — the prescriptive path, the component trade-off path, or the performance path — there was no escaping the requirement to calculate the WWR. Some builders grumbled at the need to make this calculation.

Homes with a low WWR usually use less…

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  1. doug_horgan | | #1

    What if they held an energy efficiency code, and nobody came?
    Interesting article. I hadn't realized that there was so much evidence of non-compliance as you referred to in all those studies.
    Our local building officials are not fans of the 2009 IECC, or especially the 2012 revisions. They've complained in public to builders that the inspections will be too complex, all the staff needs new training, builders will fail and complain to staff, managers, and even worse to the politicians above them. In one jurisdiction they didn't even do an insulation inspection before, so they had to change their process and figure out how to staff it. (Luckily we keep building less and less so we're helping as best we can with their staffing issues!)
    As a longtime fan of good building and energy-efficient building, I personally thought the 2009 upgrades were not much. Even the 2012 requirements are below our normal standard.
    But, many builders and code people seem to be very anxious about these changes. I think third-party inspections probably makes a lot of sense, since the blower door guys actually know what they're doing, both regarding inspections and in helping builders meet requirements like ENERGY STAR and green building programs.

  2. xKoTkyMNnD | | #2

    More reality
    Martin, you make some good points here, but there are economic and education realities worth of pointing out that are happening in most states we do work.
    1. Most states and municipalities are going broke and simply do not have the money to hire new plan review personal or building inspectors nor train the ones they have now.
    2. To rely on third party inspections now would be a huge undertaking, their industry is not ready yet. The majorities of raters have recently finished their 3-4 day training and have very little experience in the field for any municipality to rely on; I know most of them I would not want on my jobs. Most municipalities are not ready to take on that risk and liability and we are going to have to give more time there.
    3. The building industry lobbies around the country have become very effective in slowing down the implementation of new codes because the economic realities of cost increase on buildings, and the few municipalities that have “implemented” the new codes are not enforcing it 100% yet for all reasons above.
    4. Building Industry education is way down. Most members do not have the money for education and many others do not attend until they are forced to change.
    5. And last but most important and I’m sure the most controversial, the great majority of the design and building communities have no training or education on codes, sad but true. Most do not even own a code book; just ask for in any gathering of industry professionals. Most architectural schools do not teach codes; “it’s not in the national architectural school curriculums to teach” I was told by the dean of a high-end school. Large firms have few employees’ code knowledgeable and those few do their “team” reviews, but the majority of their architects have no clue. Home builders around the country are not required code education and most depend on subcontractors to know the code, which in many cases they don’t. Things are done “because this is the way I was taught and done it for 30 years”.

  3. DpoLgqeUVK | | #3

    In response to Industry Member
    Regarding #4 -If you are a builder and don't have the money for a few classes to keep up on building codes then you have bigger problems. Contractors should see building as a profession that requires and deserves the time required to keep up on building science and education. Most professions require annual continuing education and inspectors. Estheticians are required to take more education and are inspected more often than contractors in our state.

    Regarding #5 - Great point! Some of the most expensive plans we've seen are darn pretty, but with very little substantive details.

    Martin, great article. Our last home is NAHB Silver certified and in our sales book I included the 16 page Final inspection Report from the verifier and the 1 page, large type city inspector check-off sheet for comparison. Homeowner's don't even know their home is minimally inspected, and only in those jurisdictions with building codes and officials.

  4. EJ Palma | | #4

    Martin this is a a very
    Martin this is a a very relevant expose. The evolution of the 2009 IECC and the complimentary section of the IRC is a response to the lack of effort that has been displayed by both Builders and Building Officials to the education and enforcement of energy standards. The section on the "simulated performance alternative" is section 405 of the 2009 IECC. As I read the comments above I am not surprised that there is much resistance to these changes. As Barbara explained in her comment, Builders have the responsibility to educate themselves to the codes and standards of building as well as the contemporary theories of building science. Anyone who does not keep up with the contemporary codes as well as building science is short changing themselves and their clients. The result may be a good looking building, but it will provide mediocrity or less in energy efficiency and moisture management, create mold and mildew issues sacrificing the indoor air quality and occupant health, in general providing an inferior product to the consumer. It may look good but it is not going to perform well. Building Officials that are resisting this standard and complaining about the complexity of inspections are also short changing the public and in the end themselves. We as officials and builders, of which I am both, are afforded the education to the contemporary codes and standards. In Connecticut, my home state Building Officials and Assistant Building Officials are required to maintain 90 CEU hours every three years to maintain certification. Electrical, Plumbing, and Structural Inspectors are required to maintain 30 CEU hours every three years. The state has included many seminars on high performance buildings and energy efficiency, contemporary energy codes and standards of the IRC and IECC, moisture management and occupant health as it relates to the codes, and many other vital contemporary building issues. The ICC has run numerous free three day seminars on the 2009 IECC Fundamentals, performing IECC energy plan reviews and inspections , and ASHRAE 90.1, and they include a copy of the 2009 IECC and workbooks with it. The education is there, it is up to the individual to participate in and learn it. This education is offered for free to design professionals, builders, and the general public also. Many that are responsible for code enforcement are philosophically opposed to these stringent codes because they are either old school and think that it is ridiculous, do not understand the ultimate ramifications of inefficient buildings as it relates to Climate Change or occupant health, or simply do not care. Many in the field of building fall into these categories also. This is primarily a personal attitude problem not a lack of educational opportunities for any of them. It runs hand in hand with the ignorance and apathy of the general public,and corporate control of the industry which drives the writing and subsequent adoption and implementation of the codes. These dysfunctional aspects of the building industry and environment need drastic changes. When the philosophy changes from code enforcement of the "minimum standards" to making everyone build to the same stringent energy and building codes there will be a marked improvement in the efficiency and quality of the new and existing building stock. When decisions are made by the excellence of personal quality and efficiency standards in ones product guided by stringency in the codes this will be a positive factor to beneficial change. When decisions made only by cost, or corporate control of the government and industry, or corporate lobbyists, are eliminated then there will be major changes in the quality and efficiency of our building stock. The ultimate result will be a positive impact on the health of our planet and our society.

  5. kevin_in_denver | | #5

    Prescriptive Methods are Lacking
    Building Codes should be primarily about life safety.

    The current state of the art of energy efficiency technology is changing too fast to have prescriptive codes hamper today's most innovative builders. Local microclimates also muddy the picture.

    The solution is a realistic rating system. Only a built house can be rated. After building a couple homes with miserable ratings, a builder that wants to stay in business will improve his methods and achieve measurable results. Following prescriptive codes will never get him there, and he won't even know if he has gotten there.

    The rating method will save time on inspections, reinspections, and quibbling about reinspections. In other industries, you might call it "management by objective". "We don't care so much how you get there, just get there"

  6. GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #6

    Response to Douglas Horgan
    You wrote, "Our local building officials are not fans of the 2009 IECC, or especially the 2012 revisions. They've complained in public to builders that the inspections will be too complex, all the staff needs new training, builders will fail and complain to staff, managers, and even worse to the politicians above them."

    You have listed some of the tremendous challenges we face as we try to more forward in the direction of greenhouse gas reductions. Clearly, our country is far behind many European countries when it comes to enacting policies to encourage carbon reductions. What is especially frustrating is that even when mild policies are enacted in the U.S., these policies meet tremendous resistance and are poorly enforced.

    The road ahead is rocky.

  7. GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #7

    Response to Industry Member
    Industry Member,
    You wrote, "The great majority of the design and building communities have no training or education on codes, sad but true. Most do not even own a code book; just ask for in any gathering of industry professionals. Most architectural schools do not teach codes; 'it’s not in the national architectural school curriculums to teach,' I was told by the dean of a high-end school. Large firms have few employees’ code knowledgeable and those few do their “team” reviews, but the majority of their architects have no clue. Home builders around the country are not required code education and most depend on subcontractors to know the code, which in many cases they don’t."

    Sadly, your analysis is largely accurate. Of course there are exceptions -- many conscientious architects and builders, including many who visit this Web site, are very knowledgeable on code issues. However, your statements have a strong ring of truth for the vast majority of architects and builders.

    The current state of ignorance among architects and builders is closely tied to the question of code enforcement. Where I live in Vermont, there is no enforcement whatsoever of the residential building code -- so why should architects and builders learn anything about it?

  8. GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #8

    Response to Edward Palma
    Thanks for catching my typo concerning Section 405 of the IECC. I have corrected the blog.

    You wrote, "Many that are responsible for code enforcement are philosophically opposed to these stringent codes because they are either old school and think that it is ridiculous, do not understand the ultimate ramifications of inefficient buildings as it relates to Climate Change or occupant health, or simply do not care."

    Sadly, you're right. Again, this issue circles back to enforcement. As Mike DeWein told me when I interviewed him, “Energy codes can have such a greater impact than the voluntary programs, but it takes fortitude to do them. It’s not like handing out incentives — it’s regulation, and everyone hates regulation.”

    In a large jurisdiction, it's up to the supervisors to enforce the law — and in some cases that may require the supervisors to discipline or educate the "old school" officials who are reluctant to enforce the code as written. Unfortunately, I suspect that these changes will take a long time to achieve.

  9. GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #9

    Response to Kevin Dickson
    You wrote, "Building codes should be primarily about life safety."

    Your statement certainly sums up the old-school philosophy of most building officials, and goes a long way toward explaining why 15-year-old building energy codes have been so poorly enforced.

    However, most home buyers disagree with you. Many home buyers are aware that there is such as thing as an energy code, because they read about it in the newspaper. They assume that when they buy a new home, it is "up to code." Five years later, an energy auditor might crawl into their attic, and explain all of their new home's thermal deficiencies. In some cases, these problems cost $15,000 or more to fix.

    The homeowner screams, "But I thought my home was built to code!"

    So I think your statement -- "Building codes should be primarily about life safety" -- is obsolete by 15 or 20 years. The train has already left the station. We should all be on board by now.

  10. Expert Member
    CARL SEVILLE | | #10

    Goings on Down South
    Good overview of the problems with upgrading our energy codes. I tend to agree with most comments that it will be a challenge to move towards higher performance through code enforcement, which tends to be lackluster at best. Interestingly, Georgia implemented the 2009 IECC as of 1/1/11, including an added requirement for blower door testing, although it is not rigorous (7ACH 50), and it was postponed until July to allow time for training the workforce. The testing does not need to be 3rd party, the builder can do it themselves, but it needs to be done. A small, but welcome step, in a state and region that is usually well behind the curve.

  11. kevin_in_denver | | #11

    Response to Martin
    OK, you may be right, we can't go back.

    I'm just saying that there will be a lot of time wasted and quibbling with prescriptive specifications.
    The only effective enforcement will be with a post-construction performance inspection.

  12. Jay Walsh | | #12

    A better building does not always result in energy savings
    We cannot expect to transform the building energy consumption profile without transforming the way the occupants interact with it.
    The failures of Energy Star Homes, LEED Homes and conservation programs to produce their projected results have been shown in studies in the UK, USA and Australia to be due in large part to how the occupants, without the education about true conservation, continue with their habits of excessive consumption and undermine the efforts to design and or improve better structures and systems. This is best described in the Jevons paradox, sometimes called the rebound effect, which states that technological progress that increases the efficiency with which a resource is used tends to increase (rather than decrease) the rate of consumption of that resource. I don't know why the Jevons Paradox concept is not taught (emphasized) to the engineers and designers of these various efficiency and energy improvement schemes. The failure to take the occupant (the Consumer) into account and build in an emphasis on conservation undermines the success of these programs/improvements. I have often referred to the occupant as "the elephant in the room” that no one seems to want to talk about. The building occupants need help and educational tools/training to make a successful transition from a :Consumer" to a "Conserver" in order for real change to happen.

  13. EJ Palma | | #13

    Good point by Jay. I believe
    Good point by Jay. I believe that this also falls under the need for an "attitude check" of the general population. When a 7000 plus square foot residence with all of the green bells and whistles coupled with renewable energy technology can qualify as a green building, it is pretty evident that the habits and attitudes of the consumer have to change. I applaud the usage of green in design and renewable energy systems but where do the philosophical ethics of resource management and renewable energy fall when we have such useless amounts of wasted space. The bigger is better philosophy allows the more financially fortunate, the same 6% of the population that controls most of the wealth in our country to build giant residences with useless amounts of space to be heated and cooled. They believe that their residences (in my opinion GREEN MONSTERS) are contributing to change in our energy and resource future, and are beneficial to the cause of reducing carbon emissions and subsequently Climate Change. Technically they are if the home is ZNE, but philosophically they are actually only promoting the " bigger is better" theory. Sadly it also conveys the idea to some that one needs wealth to afford to build green, and may influence the perception of those less financially fortunate to feel that they will never be able to live in or own a green home.The general public comprised of the middle class and the poor, which is the larger percentage of people in our country is still not afforded the benefit of green building. My comments are not a personal attack on the wealthy ,although I vehemently question the ethics and equality of such a small percentage of people controlling the vast majority of wealth in our country. I would like to witness a major change in the wasteful disposable attitude of the public( we still have a problem controlling the basics, like littering for example) with more green technology and benefits for the masses. I believe that a change in our collective social conscience can only be a positive vehicle for this.

  14. YLr6qQs6tn | | #14

    Response to Martin
    Speaking of code enforcement and energy technology in general, it would also be nice to be able to enforce end user/building owner “code” compliance. Building technology I think, is just half the problem of reducing carbon footprints and it necessary to at least get the end user on board to understand code and energy features in the building, how to use them and why their developed. I suppose the only way to “enforce” code on the user is to make it economically desirable to do so such as higher energy costs or tax incentives for lower energy use.
    I have many examples but most recently I was reviewing a new bank branch with very nice green architecture-design features such as many windows and skylights allowing little interior lighting needed. But the bank had all 37 ceiling lights on and some of them were hard to see due to blinding by the sun coming in through the skylight (bank said it was policy to have all lights on). Another home owner client told me “ we used to keep the thermostat at 65 f but now that our house is so much more energy efficient we can afford to keep this house at 73 f. So much for code enforcement but they are a lot better than nothing. Some day building owners might be so motivated to save energy they would seek it out and not have to enforce codes on builders who would have no choice but to satisfy demand for it.

  15. Vera Novak | | #15

    It IS all about attitude
    This discussion about the coulds/ shoulds/ wants reminds me of the example of Gil Rossmiller, head of the building dept. of the town of Parker, Colorado (outside of Denver). In the last cycle of IRC code, Gil decided to enforce the provisions of the energy efficiency and MEC, specifically insulation and Manual J requirements. He took advantage of the 1 yr lead time to coordinate trainings for builders and code officials, then ease in this information into plancheck and use inspections as learning opportunities. When the codes did go into effect, and he did "enforce", the results were 20% energy savings in these houses over the previous year. The key? He repositioned the code as a learning tool, the building department as team players, and sought the support and collaboration of the HVAC industry and builders. Not only are these results at NO EXTRA cost to any of the players involved, but all the players know the rules and don't need lots of plan-check revisions or inspections to get it right. Granted that Parker is mostly large builders, but this model is spreading in the Denver area.

    It's all about attitude.

  16. c8N6fEyZfB | | #16

    Yea to a rating system
    I want to add to the comments of Kevin Dickson above. I contend that the use of inspectors using an often poorly maintained and interpreted code should be fazed out. In its place, third party testers using current and future developed tests should rate any structure that is sold, wether it be new or old. The results of the test would then be attached to the deed of the property. This would give the buyer a true picture of what they are buying, serve as a base line for upgrades that an owner may make to qualify for tax credits or other incentives either at the time of those improvements or upon resale of the property and to indicate where their insulation/envelope improvement dollars are best spent.
    The rating should be accomplished by government certified private companies that are re-certified every 2 to 5 years on a state wide or better, regional wide basis defined by climatic realities. (The northeast region, the intermountain west region, the northwest region etc) The code and tests could then be better adapted to the region. At the time of re-certification, updates to the code and their testing requirements would be implemented.
    The rating could be charted against the costs of heating and cooling and other maintenance costs of the structure over time, giving the buyer of the property an objective idea of what those costs are apt to be,
    much like the mpg rating of a vehicle. Only this number would be updated every time the structure changed hands instead of only when it was first built.
    New structures would be required to meet a minimum rating and builders could be required to meet that base line in say 2 tests or they pick up the full costs of any further testing as opposed to passing it along to the home owner or developer (a contractual matter). The rating number could then be used as a tool for comparison shopping of structures wether it be new vs. new or new vs. old or that commercial property vs. the other one. Further, a rating could be specified in contracts for new buildings or renovation work. A more concise tool to decide what improvements to make vs. the cost of maintaining the structure down the road. It could be used as a marketing tool for builders to certifiably differentiate themselves from the competition, regardless of market value, thereby creating competition in structural energy efficiency as well as bed and bath amenities. Not just for new,high end properties such as LEEDS etc. but for all structures. In the selling of old structures, the seller could point to the current rating vs. when he purchased the property to verify efficiency investments made.
    Who would pay for this? It would become part of the process of buying or selling a property, much like a title search and any of the myriad charges that the banks have come up with. And, as the market drives the price of real-estate, it would come out of the pockets of all parties involved, not so much the public and their taxing entities.
    Well, thats my contention.

  17. GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #17

    Response to Vera Novak
    Thanks for sharing the example of Gil Rossmiller's approach in Parker, Colorado. You're right -- that's the way to do it. Training plus enforcement, with plenty of communication between the building officials and the builders.

  18. GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #18

    Response to Thomas Lockhart
    Many observers seem to agree that independent third-party raters need to be involved -- either as contracted inspectors working for local jurisdictions, as Mike DeWein suggested, or as post-construction home raters providing mandatory ratings, as you and Kevin Dickson suggest.

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