Published in Energy

Statewide building code update an opportunity to tackle efficiency, climate change

BY Sunday, January 17, 2021 06:18pm

Michigan’s statewide building codes are set for an update this year. While there could be some new energy efficiency measures added, the codes are far behind where they should be to address climate change, according to some local design firms and environmental advocates.

Buildings are some of the biggest contributors to climate change, and codifying various energy usage requirements can help address the issue, said Charlotte Jameson, program director for legislative affairs, energy and drinking water at the Michigan Environmental Council.

Building construction and operations generate nearly 40 percent of annual global greenhouse gas emissions, according to the Global Alliance for Building and Construction’s 2018 Global Status Report. Electricity generation and transportation are other top contributors. 

“The critical piece from our perspective is the energy efficiency provisions and that we’re making sure our buildings are more efficient and are working toward things like electrification-ready requirements,” Jameson said. 

Electrification-ready buildings are built to allow homeowners to switch appliances to run on electricity rather than natural gas if they prefer. The building electrification movement is already taking off in states like California, and counts on a growing clean energy electricity supply to help reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Michigan’s state building code is significant because provisions within it prohibit local governments from adopting building codes that are more stringent than the state codes, Jameson explained. 

“Cities like Grand Rapids, Ann Arbor and Traverse City are looking to ramp up climate action, so there will be some advocacy to make sure there are some of those (environmental efficiencies) in the state code,” Jameson said. “Cities can still negotiate with builders, but it would definitely still be up to the builders to decide at the end of the day. And they are allowed to do what they want as long as they are meeting the baseline state code.”

Ready for updates

Michigan’s building code is on a six-year cycle but is based on energy requirements adopted eight years ago, said Matthew VanSweden, director of consulting at Grand Rapids-based Catalyst Partners. As co-chair of the local American Institute of Architects chapter’s environmental committee, he works to promote and advocate for higher performance buildings.

Michigan’s construction code was last updated in 2015 and will be updated sometime in 2021. The energy portion of the state code is based on the International Energy Conservation Code from 2018, which references standards from 2013 created by the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air Conditioning Engineers.

Some contractors prefer the six-year cycle and the inability for municipalities to override the state with potentially more restrictive local building codes. 

Brad Laackman, president and CEO at Honor Construction Inc., said the relative lack of local control lets his firm more easily keep up with code

“It is a confluence for me, because in terms of technology improvements in building, six years is like millions of years,” Laackman said. “Either the code would have to be simplified if it was updated more frequently, or keep it on this same cycle where it’s a heavy lift every time it’s updated.”

VanSweden noted, however, that Midwest states lag behind others when it comes to building sustainability requirements.

“From a building best-practice perspective, the coasts are 10 years behind European codes, and the Midwest is 10 years behind the coasts,” VanSweden said. “Building something to code is really the worst building you can legally build.”

He added that the prevailing attitude in the market is to build something to code, which most assume includes strong efficiency measures, for example. But that’s “a backwards way of thinking,” VanSweden said. 

Going above and beyond

Some initiatives and local incentives can guide projects to be built with efficiencies that go above and beyond the code, which VanSweden and his committee at the AIA advocate for. 

For example, housing projects that use low-income housing tax credits — a key U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development tool to build affordable housing — are required by many local agencies to also meet certain green building certification programs.

“That’s driving the effort in the residential market because if low-income housing can do it, it looks bad if market rate can’t” meet the same green building requirements, VanSweden said. “We also try to advocate for larger incentive policies and we can work with the city to incentivize higher performance buildings.”

In 2006, New York architect Edward Mazria launched an initiative called 2030 Districts. The goal was adopted across the U.S. architecture industry with a mission to change how buildings are designed and constructed as a central way to help solve the climate crisis. The intention was to carve a path toward building carbon neutral, or net zero, buildings by 2030.

“A lot of these codes set their sights on that (2030) target as they have been incrementally updated,” VanSweden said. “The long arch is trending toward being net zero by 2030, but we won’t quite meet that with the codes unless something significantly changes.”

Grand Rapids in 2015 joined the 2030 District initiative, a public-private partnership committed to increasing building efficiency on a local level.

“Work that’s happening out there right now, we could be better and doing more currently in construction, but we are tracking in the right direction,” said Cheri Holman, executive director of the U.S. Green Building Council of West Michigan, which manages the program. “We need to make sure that everybody understands the benefits that can be hard to quantify.”

Return on investment, racial equity

Holman said some misconceptions still exist among developers and builders that higher efficiency equate to higher project costs. Part of the solution is getting more incentives to developers for projects because not all projects are owner-occupied, which makes it harder for longer-term return on investments to be seen, she said.

“There is always a balance between the cost to build and the benefits you’ll see in operation,” Holman said. “We know that if you build a high performance building you’ll see your investment come back to you through operation, and that will always happen.”

The cost of adding energy efficient amenities to buildings has come down significantly in recent years, said Zachary Verhulst, founder and managing principal of PURE Architects in Grand Rapids. PURE Architects as a firm has made a 2030 commitment, and has committed to its own metrics for building efficiencies and green building practices that are considered 80 percent better than the current state code, Verhulst said.

Verhulst tries to appeal to developers or business owners with the long-term economic return that comes with green buildings.

“At the outset of each project, we create a framework for goal-setting that is a new way to look at the overall project that’s not just project construction,” Verhulst said. “Many times for us it’s how much does your building cost well into the future, not just when you build it. Then it starts to become a math problem and not so much an emotional decision.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has led to a heightened focus on how indoor spaces are designed when it comes to things like indoor air quality, as well as equity in how buildings and communities are designed when the occupants are largely made up of people of color. Verhulst’s firm is also trying to address that gap in the code.

“Many times these codes are not written in the context of the community you’re building for,” he said.

VanSweden refers to this issue as a lack of “humanization” in codes. 

If codes are not humanized, they just become this burden that you have to design to, he said, leaving a racial equity component to building and design.

“Connecting our consumption to the populations that consumption disrupts has been the main driving factor for why this work matters,” VanSweden said. “We’re able to connect those dots a lot more regularly and clearly. At Catalyst, we’re trying to create content that helps people do that.” 

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