Code Green

Code Green

The greening of the construction and retrofit markets may finally have progressed to where greenness is no longer really the issue. Where does that leave us in the evolution of high-performance buildings?

The growth of the greener side of the electrical market has helped a lot of electrical distributors, reps and manufacturers find a way to grow in spite of a sometimes torturous economic downturn and slow recovery. Where new construction has moved ahead, environmental concerns have helped shift preferences to the most recent technologies, which typically has meant higher-cost products and more margin dollars.

Whether you're talking about LED lighting or addressable controls or variable-speed drives, demand for products with a green sheen has been growing as well or better than the rest of the market. Expand that to include solar panels, wind turbines and electric vehicle charging systems — markets that didn't really matter to the mainstream electrical trade a decade ago — and it's easy to see why so much of the electrical industry has become fluent in greenspeak.

Along the way, however, the green sales pitch seems to have grown a little stale. What once was a radical differentiator can now make you look dated. The good news is that it may not matter.

Say you're an electrical distributor salesperson walking into a customer's building. You've got a presentation ready about new lighting controls. You had better know something about the person you're going to see and about their priorities. Do you focus on reducing the building's impact on the environment? Do you focus on improving the nation's energy independence? Do you avoid the green angle altogether and go for the financial pitch?

Fortunately, you have the flexibility to play this any way the customer wants, because the benefits of high-performance buildings spread out on all sides. A distributor salesperson must have the knowledge and the skills to make the case for more energy-efficient products from a variety of perspectives. Depending on where you live, the local building code officials may give you a hand.

Just as the U.S. Congress helped the transition to newer lighting technology by setting minimum efficiency requirements on lamps, a new model code for construction of buildings could help with the transition to a greener way of designing and building overall.

Last month, the International Code Council, Washington, D.C., an organization created by building inspectors and code officials to create unified, nationwide model codes for building safety and performance (it now includes architects, engineers, builders, contractors, government officials and manufacturers among its membership), released the second public version of its International Green Construction Code (IgCC).

The IgCC has been heralded as a potential game-changer in the environmental community and the construction industry. It's poised to shift the regulatory focus away from the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) program that has dominated the green construction conversation since it was established a dozen years ago. This is by design, as the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC), which created and administers LEED, had a hand in the IgCC's creation.

The path that led to the IgCC began with a conversation between officials from USGBC and the American Society of Heating, Refrigeration and Air-conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) in 2005. USGBC had been in existence just five years at that point, but already had begun to see its LEED voluntary rating and certification program used by local building officials to create new building codes and policies.

“Over the first five years after LEED was introduced, we started to see policy makers set up quasi-regulatory frameworks based on LEED,” says Brendan Owens, USGBC's VP of LEED, who was part of that original conversation. “Some of those efforts were effective, and at first most of them were incentive-based. But then a couple of people said, ‘We're going to turn it into a code,’ and they forced it into a regulatory framework. LEED wasn't built to be a code, and it doesn't perform particularly well when used that way.”

USGBC approached ASHRAE at the Greenbuild conference in Atlanta that year seeking insight from an organization with a long history of writing standards. It turned out ASHRAE had been having similar conversations with the Illuminating Engineering Society (IES). That was the start of the initiative that created ASHRAE Standard 189.1 “Standard for the Design of High-Performance, Green Buildings Except Low-Rise Residential Buildings.”

The IgCC is a model code based on ASHRAE 189.1, which in turn was created to specify the details of design and construction beyond the base-level, widely adopted energy codes and standards, the International Energy Conservation Code (IECC) and ASHRAE 90.1 (see “Key Energy Codes” on page 22).

IgCC creates a regulatory framework for new and existing buildings, establishing minimum green requirements that local and state governments can adopt or modify as they choose. Maryland, Rhode Island, Oregon, Florida, Illinois and various local jurisdictions throughout the United States have adopted IgCC as an optional building code or as a requirement for special green development areas. (Other states have mostly adopted the baseline IECC and ASHRAE 90.1.)

IgCC programs are often paired with incentives for achieving documented levels of energy-efficiency, renewable energy production, water use reduction, waste control and siting to minimize environmental impact. Some of the incentives come in the form of tax abatement, reimbursement of certification costs, income tax credits, utility rate reductions, permit variances and expedited permitting. In some jurisdictions, new buildings that qualify receive incentives while new buildings that don't gain enough points pay a penalty.

That's why the introduction of a new model green construction code may make a huge difference to your customers. New model codes will be adopted based on local and regional values and politics, so you'll need to track them locally. You'll need to understand them well enough to know which of your product lines can help a builder meet the terms of the codes.

A couple of websites track code adoption at the state and local level ( is a good place to start) to help you see where things stand now, but pay attention to local news and look for opportunities to get involved. There's also a place on the DOE's website where you can search a database of federal, state and local tax credits and rebates:

Since the USGBC launched the LEED program in 2000, it has become the most visible force for green construction in the U.S. market. The U.S. Department of Defense and several other federal agencies set minimum LEED ratings for their buildings (though the Army recently said it was shifting away from LEED and adopting a modified version of ASHRAE 189.1). A LEED Gold or Platinum building comes with bragging rights as well as the competitive benefits that can come from lower energy costs and more comfortable work spaces for employees.

More than 12,000 commercial building projects and almost 30,000 homes have been certified under the program's familiar tiered rating levels. LEED has registered and certified a total just over 137,000 projects covering more than 8.4 billion square feet of space.

LEED for Existing Buildings is the fastest-growing realm in LEED Land now, having surpassed LEED for New Construction late last year in terms of total certified square-footage. Although the rating system was originally developed to guide choices in new construction, it's no surprise that the nation's vast inventory of existing structures — estimated to be roughly 80 times the new construction space — is the more enticing play for gains in energy efficiency and reduction of environmental impact.

A number of questions have been raised about LEED's value and specific applications of its program. Do LEED points actually lead to energy savings or better buildings? Does the benefit of being certified justify the expense?

Some say that certification costs should be spent instead on further measures to improve the efficiency or reduce the environmental impact of the building. Other criticisms focus on the performance of the buildings as compared with expectations.

A 2008 study by the New Buildings Institute, Vancouver, Wash., showed that average performance of LEED-certified buildings was consistent with USGBC's objectives in terms of measured energy savings compared with the ASHRAE 90.1 energy standard, but found a broad range in the performance levels of individual buildings. It found that 30% of the buildings it investigated performed significantly better than anticipated, but 25% performed significantly worse. The NBI in its study suggested that USGBC rework its quality controls and feedback mechanisms to make its anticipated savings more credible and to learn from both under-performing and over-performing buildings.

“This variability between predicted and measured performance has significant implications for the accuracy of prospective life-cycle cost evaluations for any given building. Better feedback to the design community is needed to help calibrate energy modeling results to actual performance outcomes. Follow-up investigation into the reasons for the deviations could help improve future modeling and benchmarking,” the NBI study said.

USGBC incorporated some of NBI's suggestions into its 2009 version, and further improvements in its measurement and feedback processes and changes to its recertification program are part of the 2012 rewrite of the LEED rating system that's underway now. USGBC closed its third and final comment period on the new version in March, will put the new documentation up for a vote in June, and will release LEED 2012 at USGBC's Greenbuild conference in San Francisco in November.

Among the other changes in LEED 2012 there are ratings for new market sectors including data centers, warehouses and distribution centers, hospitality, existing schools, existing retail and mid-rise residential, and a serious effort to expand LEED's reach into the international market by making it more applicable to building codes and practices used in other countries. LEED is used now in about 120 countries around the world.

USGBC's 80 local chapters take the lead in local advocacy, and will be promoting the use of IgCC in their cities and states. The group's hope is that widespread adoption of the IgCC would establish energy efficiency and environmental performance levels that once seemed extreme as the new mainstream building practice. What was the ceiling becomes the new floor, as Owens puts it.

Electrical distributors looking to make the most of the green market also need to go beyond LEED. They'll need to be familiar with other rating systems such as the residential HERS Index used by the federal government.

Going beyond the code is the realm of truly high-performance buildings, extending through the market for net zero energy buildings and beyond even that to buildings that produce net positive energy and other benefits in terms of health and well-being. Net zero energy buildings - high-efficiency buildings that have enough onsite power generation to supply all the energy used by the building over the course of a year - is a rapidly growing sector of the construction market and is poised to grow faster over the next decade, according to a recent webinar by Pike Research.

In some contexts, IgCC is considered “Beyond Code” in that it goes well beyond the IECC and ASHRAE 90.1. But the real goal of many of the organizations in the green construction movement is to make net zero energy buildings the norm. Actually, there's widespread belief among the greenbuilding faithful that building practices can be moved beyond even the net zero level to where buildings become net positive contributors to the well-being of their occupants, their communities and the surrounding environment.

This is applicable to the electrical distributor's sales pitch we discussed earlier. The benefits of green buildings can go well beyond a cleaner environment and lower energy consumption. They can extend to better productivity, safety, security, health and in some cases better financing terms.

“We are still in a situation where we're encouraging project teams to do less bad,” says Owens of USGBC. “We want to get to where the certification system is encouraging people to do good. To where projects are seen as a community benefit. They generate more energy than they use, they're a net exporter of clean water, improver of air quality, enhancing the quality of life for people in them. The great thing about IgCC is that, as LEED figures out how to do those things, there's a place where we can bring that to the rest of the market. It's a virtuous cycle what we were hoping to create.”

Key Energy Codes

Here's a list of the codes and standards the green champions among electrical distributor salespeople need to have down. Look for further programs at your local and state level.


The International Energy Conservation Code for residential and commercial energy code has been adopted by most states, and is enforced in tandem with provisions from the IBC and IRC. DOE recognizes the IECC as the minimum residential code but references ASHRAE 90.1-2007 as the minimum commercial energy code.

HERS Index

A more comprehensive approach for residential development requires a specific HERS Index. The HERS Index is a scoring system established by the Residential Energy Services Network (RESNET) in which a home built to the specifications of the HERS Reference Home (based on the 2004 IECC) scores a HERS Index of 100, while a net zero energy home scores a HERS Index of 0.


Developed by the Department of Energy and the Environmental Protection Agency, under the ES Version 3 program for residential construction, homes may earn ES certification by following the Prescriptive Path or Performance Path.


A program developed and administered by the U.S. Green Building Council. Each LEED program for commercial buildings includes points addressing energy with points for a percent savings above ASHRAE 90.1.

NBI's Core Performance Guide

The Core Performance Guide provides a guided path to achieving energy performance that is up to 25% above the performance called for in ASHRAE 90.1-2007.

ASHRAE/IESNA Standard 90.1-2007

This is the reference point for most of the rest. It provides minimum efficiency requirements for the building envelope and mechanical and lighting systems for all commercial buildings and residential buildings of four stories or more. Standard 90.1-2007 is recognized by DOE as the reference commercial energy code.

ASHRAE/IES/USGBC Standard 189.1

This is a prescriptive standard for attaining energy savings of 30% above the 90.1 reference point, written in code-enforceable language with performance options for most measures.


The International Green Construction Code was developed by ICC in cooperation with USGBC, ASHRAE, IES, the American Institute of Architects (AIA) and ASTM International. It's the first model code that includes sustainability measures for the entire construction project and its site.

Primary source: Going Beyond Code, U.S. Department of Energy Building Energy Codes Program, Nov. 2011.

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