During a recent and very dynamic conference call with all the Vision 2020 focus chairs, Sam Rashkin, chair of Green Building Codes, Standards, and Rating Systems, talked about the exponential development of model energy codes, pointing out that the old 2006 International Energy Conservation Code (IECC) already represented more “... growth and rigor in energy conservation than had existed during the prior 25 years of code development.” Because the code baseline moved so dramatically, voluntary rating standards, including Energy Star for Homes, which Rashkin developed during his tenure at the EPA, also had to step up requirements to stay ahead, resulting in Energy Star Version 2. But in rapid fire, Energy Star had to deliver 2.5 and the current Version 3 because the 2012 IECC doubled minimum code requirements and will double them again in 2015.

This rapid improvement in code standards is represented graphically by the accompanying chart prepared by James Scott Brew, AIA, a principal architect working with the Rocky Mountain Institute. Color coding shows which standards currently exist state by state, and the bar shows the increasing rigor of the model energy code based on a 2006 IECC baseline, with the 2015 IECC expected to achieve a 50% improvement.

As minimum codes begin to move the performance bar up aggressively, builders are forced to improve baseline home performance quickly and voluntary standards push the limits even further to stay ahead of the curve. “Some in the housing industry want a longer time to adopt, but they don’t have it,” said Rashkin. The building industry is pressing forward as if driven by a strong tailwind. For consumers, the accelerated pace of home performance represents a benefit and a risk. The risk is in buying a home built to code minimum. “A code-minimum home will be obsolete in less than five years, and even today’s Energy Star Version 3 will be substandard within a decade,” explained Rashkin. On the other hand, if a consumer buys one of today’s Challenge Homes, a home built under the DOE’s progressive Builders Challenge program, this house already meets the draft 2015 IECC and will remain state of the art for several decades, which makes sense when considering a typical American’s biggest life investment.

Still, the draft 2015 IECC does not raise the standard to the 70% reduction in 2015 envisioned by the 2030 Challenge, and “there is no guarantee code bodies will continue to incrementally push standards 10% every five years until 2030,” pointed out Edward Mazria, Energy and Carbon chair for Vision 2020 and founder of Architecture 2030.

By contrast, the current DOE Builders Challenge home is already 40% over the baseline 2006 IECC. “But you can only go to a certain level before cost effectiveness is compromised,” explained Rashkin. Suggesting that the rest of the way would have to be accomplished through two factors—clean energy, such as solar, and better workmanship. “It’s not just pushing higher levels of windows and insulation, but rather getting this stuff done right,” said Rashkin—so the insulation, window, and HVAC installation actually meet code, rather than just the materials meeting code.

The excitement for code improvement was somewhat tempered as the discussion turned to our counterparts abroad, and Christopher Leinberger, chair of Sustainable Communities, related his experience on a recent trip to France. While touring with a delegation led by Paris mayor Bertrand Delanoë, Leinberger said, “The French delegation took us to see several mixed-use projects in Paris, and their minimum standards today are far and away much more rigorous than anything we do here as a maximum demonstration project.” Several European countries have pledged to achieve the equivalent of the Architecture 2030 Challenge goals by 2020, “They have a much greater sense of urgency as their goals are just eight years away,” said Leinberger.

They may also have a political advantage, as Europeans by and large do not debate the reality of climate change as we do here in America.