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