Preservation at the Energy Code Table

Posted on: July 9th, 2014 by Ric Cochrane 3 Comments

What the IECC changes mean for historic building owners.

As the national desire to save energy and conserve natural resources reaches new levels, we are increasingly seeing new regulatory tools to quantify and track energy performance within buildings. This shift, which includes innovative energy codes, provides an opportunity for preservationists to discuss and highlight the contribution that historic buildings make to energy savings, which has not always been in the minds of energy-efficiency professionals. The recently adopted 2015 International Energy Conservation Code (IECC), part of a suite of larger guidelines, includes changes that reveal an increasing appreciation for the contribution that historic buildings can make to energy savings in our towns and cities—and presents opportunities for preservationists to engage the code-development process.

The IECC is a model code that provides base energy-efficiency guidelines to be adopted by states and municipalities that want an off-the-shelf strategy for increasing energy efficiency. Until this year, the IECC placed historic buildings, loosely defined as those listed in a local or the national register, under a blanket exemption. This was based on the assumption that historic structures wouldn’t be able to perform at the same level as new construction, and that energy-efficiency strategies threaten historic character and architectural integrity. As preservationists, we know that historic buildings can perform better than new construction while conserving building materials and resources. Assuming otherwise isn’t expecting enough of the buildings we love.

What’s in the new code?

The 2015 IECC provides a new definition for historic buildings—those that are eligible for or designated at the local, state, and national level as well as buildings contributing to local, state, or national districts. This definition includes thousands of contributing buildings that were not considered historic before.

The new code also provides a more nuanced approach to exemptions. If a building owner, architect, or project team would like to seek an exemption, they need to file a report detailing the damage that the efficiency strategies might cause. This new, targeted approach provides no opportunity for the building official to reject an exemption while at the same time challenging these renovation projects to include efficiency strategies where they can. It’s a win-win for those seeking to improve the energy efficiency of our communities as well as for owners and lovers of historic buildings.

This is an opportunity to further demonstrate that historic buildings are a more sustainable choice than new construction. A blanket exemption for historic buildings isolates the preservation movement from realizing this opportunity in a number of ways—most notably that it drastically underestimates the potential of old buildings. During the past year alone, there has been a major uptick in the number of historic buildings achieving gold or even platinum LEED certification—the highest efficiency rating available. This means historic buildings are capable of more and can compete in a world that seeks increasingly higher performance standards, recognizing the contribution they make to a resilient built environment. If we don’t take this opportunity to prove we can keep up with this trend toward performance, we risk losing the relevancy that preservationists have fought for since the passage of the National Historic Preservation Act five decades ago. These changes:

Recognize the efficiency potential in old buildings. Without this acknowledgement, historic preservation can’t be part of the solution.

Create a viable path for building lovers. By redefining what is possible with the efficiency of old buildings, we are providing people who own, use and live in them the performance they desire, conserving resources and reducing operating costs while continuing to provide protection for resources that cannot meet new requirements.

Bring preservation to the table. Under a blanket exemption, preservation was often ignored as a strategy to create a more sustainable future—or worse, it was considered an impediment. While it’s true that some provisions of energy codes can disadvantage historic buildings, we need to be at the table having conversations about what technical changes can be adopted that improve the performance of historic buildings and value historic integrity.

Preservation Green Lab at the Table:

This change did not come about in a vacuum. Over the past three years, Preservation Green Lab has joined professionals from the American Institute of Architects, the Washington Association of Building Officials, the New Buildings Institute, the Institute for Market Transformation, and the Natural Resources Defense Council to address how to realize the energy-efficiency potential of historic buildings in the suite of codes that includes the IECC. In this coalition, we stressed the importance of protecting historic character because of its contribution to the fabric of communities across the country and advocated for historic preservation to be associated more closely with sustainability planning.

We need preservation to be a tool for sustainable development now and in the future. The fact that some of the country’s biggest minds in energy conservation collaborated on an effort to incorporate—rather than ignore—older and historic buildings shows immense progress.

To truly unlock the potential of historic buildings, we have to tackle energy efficiency—and more specifically, we have to realize the opportunity that lies within historic buildings to demonstrate innovative energy-efficiency strategies. It means smart choices that make our existing assets better and help us manage resources more efficiently so we can preserve them in perpetuity. This intersection of preservation and sustainability can deliver the very best possible future for our communities.

About Ric Cochrane

Ric Cochrane is the associate director of projects, Preservation Green Lab at the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

Sustainability, Urban

3 Responses

  1. Ward Hamilton

    July 10, 2014

    My thoughts …

    Cochrane: Until this year, the IECC placed historic buildings, loosely defined as those listed in a local or the national register, under a blanket exemption. This was based on the assumption that historic structures wouldn’t be able to perform at the same level as new construction, and that energy-efficiency strategies threaten historic character and architectural integrity.

    Response: Many contemporary, energy-efficiency strategies, when implemented in traditional building systems, will destroy historic building fabric. Energy code to date, including IECC 2015, has not yet addressed this issue. See:

    http://www.buildingscience.com/documents/bareports/ba-1105-internal-insulation-masonry-walls-final-measure-guideline

    Cochrane: If a building owner, architect, or project team would like to seek an exemption, they need to file a report detailing the damage that the efficiency strategies might cause.

    Response: This language indicates an acknowledgment that efficiency strategies are known to cause damage to historic building fabric. If so, why must each applicant demonstrate that they—individually—possess that knowledge? Is this some kind of test, and those who fail pay the price?

    Cochrane: During the past year alone, there has been a major uptick in the number of historic buildings achieving gold or even platinum LEED certification—the highest efficiency rating available.

    Response: LEED does not take into account full life cycle analysis (LCA). On its face, that is enough for the historic preservationist or lay person alike to scoff at the assertion that “sustainability” and “green” are the true driving forces behind the quest for LEED certification. LEED encourages the replacement of historic building fabric with non-traditional (i.e., “in kind”) materials. This practice is occurring every day, hand-in-hand with the abuse of “preservation” tax credits. See:

    http://traditional-building.com/Ward_Hamilton/?p=329

    Cochrane: If we don’t take this opportunity to prove we can keep up with this trend toward performance, we risk losing the relevancy that preservationists have fought for since the passage of the National Historic Preservation Act five decades ago.

    Response: Rather than adopting a defensive posture and seeking to disprove these assertions, we should be on the attack. We should be demanding that the USGBC and other “green” building folks integrate LCA into LEED and similar systems that quantify building performance. What is more sustainable than a structural masonry building with a slate roof?

    Cochrane: These changes … Recognize the efficiency potential in old buildings. Without this acknowledgement, historic preservation can’t be part of the solution.

    Response: I’m not sure what this means, but it seems to imply that we should be thankful that those proposing the code changes realize that old buildings have potential where efficiency is concerned. That would seem to be obvious; glad to hear that they are publicly admitting it.

    Cochrane: These changes … Create a viable path for building lovers. By redefining what is possible with the efficiency of old buildings, we are providing people who own, use and live in them the performance they desire, conserving resources and reducing operating costs while continuing to provide protection for resources that cannot meet new requirements.

    Response: This statement would seem to indicate that specific knowledge, as to how this can be achieved, will be imparted to the masses as part of IECC 2015. I’m looking forward to it.

    Cochrane: These changes … Bring preservation to the table. Under a blanket exemption, preservation was often ignored as a strategy to create a more sustainable future—or worse, it was considered an impediment. While it’s true that some provisions of energy codes can disadvantage historic buildings, we need to be at the table having conversations about what technical changes can be adopted that improve the performance of historic buildings and value historic integrity.

    Response: I agree wholeheartedly. I look forward to the dialogue in which the “provisions of [the] energy codes [that] can disadvantage historic buildings” are identified and acknowledged. When, and only when, these “technical changes [are] adopted” and incorporated into the code will I rest easy. Until then, this is just a test to see if the “building owner, architect, or project team” is aware of the potential “damage that the efficiency strategies might cause.” If they fail the test a historic building pays the price. Sounds exploitative and unfair to me.

    Cochrane: We need preservation to be a tool for sustainable development now and in the future. The fact that some of the country’s biggest minds in energy conservation collaborated on an effort to incorporate—rather than ignore—older and historic buildings shows immense progress.

    Response: Preservation is, arguably, already the best tool in the box for “sustainable development now and in the future.” Ever heard of repurposed buildings or the term ‘adaptive re-use’? See:

    http://www.nytimes.com/2014/07/06/realestate/creating-new-york-apartments-from-unlikely-buildings.html?smid=fb-nytimes&WT.z_sma=RE_BWA_20140708&bicmp=AD&bicmlukp=WT.mc_id&bicmst=1388552400000&bicmet=1420088400000&_r=2

    That these great minds chose to incorporate older and historic buildings shows immense progress on their part for sure. The fact that their interest metastasized into a requirement that said buildings must now comply with energy code unless the building owner, architect, or project team is aware of and able to articulate how efficiency strategies might cause damage is far from encouraging.

    Cochrane: To truly unlock the potential of historic buildings, we have to tackle energy efficiency—and more specifically, we have to realize the opportunity that lies within historic buildings to demonstrate innovative energy-efficiency strategies. It means smart choices that make our existing assets better and help us manage resources more efficiently so we can preserve them in perpetuity.

    Response: Agreed. Let’s make sure that modern energy efficiency strategies that will cause damage to traditional building systems are incorporated into the energy code. Make it a violation of code to insulate structural masonry walls and the undersides of slate roofs with closed-cell insulation. The knowledge exists and is supported by empirical; let’s bring folks to the table who can share it.

  2. Jean Carroon

    July 11, 2014

    I applaud the Preservation Green Lab and Ric, in particular, for the many many hours he has spent wrestling with the thorny issue of energy codes and “historic buildings”. It is important that the preservation community be part of these conversations and he and the Preservation Green Lab are ensuring that we are. It is a problem when historic buildings are exempt from energy codes, if for no other reason than, as Ric notes, it fuels the widespread public impression that old buildings are energy hogs. We know they often are and we know they don’t have to be. I welcome the IECC expansion of the definition of historic buildings. I do not expect it to make my life as a preservation architect more difficult and I am delighted that I will be offered a mechanism for ensuring I do no harm by explaining what MIGHT do harm.

    It is not efficiency strategies, per se, which do harm to existing buildings, but lack of knowledge in applying efficiency strategies and possibly the very constraints we in the preservation community establish. If we care about a sustainable world, why do we often not allow reversible do no harm strategies such as visible photovoltaics and green roofs? To be even more provocative, if we care about stewardship and protecting heritage resources, why we won’t we allow reversible insulation systems on the outside of some masonry buildings?

    I totally agree with Ward that Life Cycle Assessment (LCA), which addresses the full environmental impact of products, should be a requirement within our society. Perhaps someday building codes will address this, but at least LEED v. 4 introduces it. I once complained to a friend active in the U.S. Green Building Council that the LEED system was not embracing key issues like LCA, carbon and water footprinting, and Environmental Product Declarations (EPD) and she very wisely reminded me that you cannot lead the market if you lose the market. (The preservation world could take a lesson here!) LEED v. 4 is a huge step forward and the USGBC is facing substantial backlash from a building industry that is happy with greenwash but doesn’t really want to provide product transparency. Aside from supporting the IECC, this is an important moment for all who care about sustainability in our built world to support the USGBC.

    It is not LEED or the energy codes which encourage the replacement of historic materials, but our economic system. I am constantly confronted by the lower cost of replacing rather than repairing and the replacement, as Ward notes, is usually with lower quality, shorter lived materials. I believe, we need a carbon tax, which makes the environmental impact of a product part of the cost. I hope that this would give value to existing materials and place value on service life, possibly making it more economically advantageous to maintain and repair rather than replace.

    As a preservation architect committed to a healthier world – environmentally, socially and economically – I work within imperfect systems to steward existing buildings. These imperfect systems include building codes which are often prescriptive – in the number and size of bathrooms, the definition and implementation of accessibility, the size of stairs and egress doors, and the types and locations of enclosures. Economically, I am consistently faced with buildings that have not been maintained, because as a culture we do not value maintenance, and we do not value existing materials. And frankly, I am often frustrated by the mandates of historic preservation which I believe frequently focus too much on aesthetics and original details, which when reconstructed may actually harm a building.

    I have a number of go-to places for thoughtful smart advocacy and research which I rely on to help make the world a better place. One is the Preservation Green Lab which has done and is doing some amazing research and is at the forefront of the sustainability conversation in a way many of us only daydreamed of a few short years ago. The second is BuildingGreen, the authors of Environmental Building News. I mention them because of Ward’s reference to a paper by Building Science and spray foam insulation. The conversation about insulation and treatment of existing buildings is energetic and ongoing. It is complex. It involves building and material science and LCA. I encourage those interested in the topic to check out the articles and reference materials at http://www.buildinggreen.com (Note that this is a subscription site, but it is worth it!)

  3. Ward Hamilton

    July 12, 2014

    Thanks, Jean, for articulating the situation more intelligently and eloquently than I could ever dream of. I did not mean for my critique of Ric’s blog to disparage his efforts and hard work. It’s frustrating, to me, that those who work to preserve older building stock need to justify why these less energy-efficient buildings are worth it to the folks who wave the green building flag. It should be obvious to anyone concerned about sustainability and global responsibility that the “greenest building is the one already there.” Perhaps therein lies the crux of the LCA dilemma.

    This is an important issue and necessary direction for the historic preservation world to head in. However, I find frustrating that the new changes allow an exemption when efficiency strategies might cause damage IF the owner, architect or project team KNOWS that it will. This language indicates an acknowledgment that efficiency strategies are known to cause damage to historic building fabric. Many owners, architects and contractors DON’T know this. I see spray foam everywhere it shouldn’t be.

    Case in point: Last March a client contacted me with questions and concerns about insulating his masonry walls. He was engaged in gutting much of the interior space in his circa 1870 brick townhouse in a National Register historic district in Boston’s South End. The building department was demanding that he insulate behind the walls in compliance with the energy code. When we pointed out that the code specifically exempts buildings on or eligible for inclusion on state or national historic registers, he said it didn’t matter if there was a lot of interior gutting; that was his interpretation of the code. He was not aware of the damage that this would cause to the structural masonry wall. Only later, when a staff member from the Boston Landmarks Commission intervened, was the problem straightened out.

    This client is an architect.

    And even he was almost strong-armed into doing the wrong thing. What will happen when the code changes and an exemption is only available to those who know to ask for it and explain why it’s necessary? If those who are proposing these changes in IECC 2015 already know and acknowledge that certain methods and materials are incompatible in traditional building systems why are they creating an opportunity for it to occur? I would suggest that most architects, code enforcement officers, contractors, and owners DO NOT know and understand this. Therefore they will not ask for the exemption and damage will occur. Why can’t the code include language that prohibits the use of specific materials in specific applications? Isn’t that the case in building code?

    Imagine if IECC 2015 included language that explained how traditional building systems CAN be maintained and altered safely resulting in improved building performance. Take the guess work right out of the equation and share the knowledge. That would be an initiative I could get behind.