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May/June 2010

Buildings Matter

Buildings Play an Important Role in Any Discussion of Sustainability

Part 1 of 2

We expect much from buildings and often take them for granted, particularly regarding the role that buildings play in our overall energy consumption. A typical home or commercial building could be consuming energy for more than 100 years, so the sustainability decisions we make now will have an impact that will last for generations.

Buildings matter. We work, live, eat, sleep and play in buildings daily. We expect them to be properly heated, cooled and lighted. We expect them to withstand the typical forces of sun, wind, rain and snow. We even expect them to protect us during the not-so-typical events that nature throws at us, such as tornadoes, hurricanes, blizzards and earthquakes. But we often take our buildings for granted, especially regarding their energy use and their role in our overall energy consumption.

This article provides some background on the key role buildings play in any discussion of sustainability. A subsequent article will discuss the role of standards in helping to accomplish sustainability objectives.

Buildings consume more energy than any other sector of the U.S. economy.1 From initial construction to day-to-day operations, maintenance and repair, the energy consumption of most buildings will have a huge impact on the planet for decades.

Source: EIA 2007

While the various codes that govern building construction continue to improve, we only build about 1 percent new each year. Most energy consumption comes from the other 99 percent — our existing buildings. The typical home or commercial building consumes energy for more than 100 years. So the decisions we make at the start, as well as the improvements we make over time, have an impact that lasts for generations.

Energy Use

While we have done a pretty good job of managing our oil and gas consumption for heating over the past few decades, we have an ever-increasing demand for electricity. Whether for lighting, cooling, office equipment or the latest in home electronics, our demand for electricity shows no signs of abating, so we plan power generation strategies to address the increasing electrical demand of our buildings. While electricity comes from many sources, about three-quarters of our entire electrical production comes from depletable resources (fossil fuels such as coal, gas and oil), making the goal of sustainability even more challenging, especially for future generations that will be using these same buildings.

The problem, however, is not just one of making more electricity — it is also one of timing. Along the Eastern seaboard from Miami to Maine we turn on our homes and offices, so to speak, about the same time each day, challenging utilities to have the power there when we need it. As a result, we have to make utility plans to meet peak load requirements on a hot August afternoon.

So not only do we need and demand more energy, we all want it at essentially the same time. This situation has a huge impact on power planning as well as national and economic security.

The Role of Codes and Standards

We have codes and standards that are specifically designed to address these concerns, right? Plus, our building industry continues to innovate and bring more energy-efficient, durable and sustainable goods to the marketplace, right?

In fact, market transformation in the building industry takes time — sometimes from the “push” of legislation, new codes and regulations, or from the “pull” of marketing forces such as consumer education, tax incentives, utility programs and other inducements to move from the status quo. As a reminder, most of the roof insulation we have added to our homes in the past three decades has been initiated by state, federal or utility incentive programs.

History has shown that the biggest changes to our building codes have typically been necessary responses to disaster.

A Brief History of Building Codes

Throughout history, disaster has often been the catalyst for the creation of building codes. For example, the Great London Fire of 1666 led to the London Building Act, establishing some of the first fire safety standards and codes.

Similarly, in the United States, building codes often evolved as a response to disaster. The Chicago fire of 1871 bankrupted the insurance industry at the time and resulted in that industry helping to establish building safety and fire standards that became code. The 1906 San Francisco earthquake and subsequent fires resulted in strengthening buildings and creating additional fire safety standards to which the structural and fire codes of today are traceable.

The energy crisis of the 1970s was its own disaster of sorts, resulting in regulations, codes and standards that help conserve fossil fuels, from miles-per-gallon ratings on cars to Energy Guide labels on appliances and even to the first national energy code for buildings in 1975 from the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air Conditioning Engineers.

Hurricane Andrew in 1992 resulted in new codes and standards governing the wind uplift of roofs and protection against wind-borne debris.

More recently, the horrible loss and costly damage of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 led to the first adoption of statewide building codes in Louisiana and Mississippi.

Codes, Standards and the Goal of Sustainability

The goal of sustainability creates a new paradigm for thinking about buildings. (Learn more about sustainability lessons from beekeeping: "Sustainability, Standards and Honeybees.") “Green building” is a term that is inherently proactive in its thinking. Not waiting for disaster, code and standards organizations (ASTM International among them) are actively seeking ways to design, construct, operate and manage buildings in a manner that achieves key sustainability goals. From dramatically improved energy efficiency to water use to soil protection and low maintenance materials, “green” is rapidly transforming code and standard agendas around the world.

But what is green? How energy efficient should a building be? How do we measure it? How do we write codes that can ensure achieving our green design objectives? What materials should we use? How do we determine their green-ness?

These are just a few of the questions driving an unprecedented effort at ASTM International to create new standards (as well as reviewing current standards) that directly address these emerging green code objectives.

The International Green Construction Code

One such new code is the International Code Council’s proposed International Green Construction Code. An initiative launched in June 2009 by the ICC and original cooperating sponsors ASTM International and the American Institute of Architects, the IGCC aims to provide a regulatory framework for green commercial buildings. It seeks to address the broad array of building sustainability issues (energy efficiency, indoor environmental quality, water use, reduced carbon emissions, building operations and maintenance, and waste management, just to name a few) by defining a set of code minimums. Written in normative (mandatory) language, the IGCC uses standards from all areas of the building industry to help establish achievable and enforceable provisions for buildings having sustainability as an objective.

Currently out for public review through May 14, comments on this new green code will be heard in ICC hearings in August of this year. Final action hearings on the IGCC are slated for 2011.

Green Buildings and ASTM Standards

ASTM International has embarked on several initiatives to address this emerging demand for greener building products and greener buildings. Many of these activities are taking place in ASTM Committee E60 on Sustainability and its Subcommittee E60.01 on Buildings and Construction. Within these groups, industry, government, code and sustainability professionals are working to rapidly build and shape an expanding portfolio of ASTM standards for use in this important subject area. From standards to help consumers understand what the term green means to the product attributes and ratings that define green, to the minimum attributes of a green building, ASTM International is at the forefront of this powerful market trend.

The committee is well aware that, for these sustainability objectives to be truly realized, new codes and standards must also address how we treat our huge number of existing buildings. For example, there are more than 120 million existing residential structures in the United States, and more than half of those still have single- or double-glazed windows that would not even meet today’s minimum energy code. Most of these buildings are also poorly insulated, with leaky envelopes and leaky duct work — all energy problems that we have a wide array of proven technologies to address.

Sustainability in the Near Term

Everyone will, in some way, be affected by how well we accomplish these sustainability objectives. From homeowners to policymakers, from architects to tradespeople, from product manufacturers to utility planners — everyone has a stake in these goals. Some of the trends are already under way:

  • Our model energy codes are in for a major overhaul, with energy savings objectives for new construction potentially cutting energy bills in half.
  • Policy makers in statehouses and in Washington, D.C., are crafting new policies that encourage and promote more sustainable construction, from tax policy to financing, from federal codes to product labeling and consumer protection.
  • Utilities are being reminded that buildings define their load growth and power plant needs. Many utilities are starting to realize that buildings are essentially millions of little power plants we have never turned on, with huge excess power capacity available through the most basic energy conservation measures. Achieving any sustainability objectives will necessarily require reviewing how we reward and regulate our utilities.
  • Homeowners who have made efficiency investments are finding their homes more highly valued at resale. Others are finding that potential buyers are more informed and asking tough questions about monthly energy bills.
  • Commercial developers are already seeing green as a key aspect of rental valuation, with more and more businesses seeking greener spaces for their businesses and workers.

From planning new schools to planning the rehabilitation of post-World War II office buildings, codes and standards that address our sustainability goals will be a transformational market force for the foreseeable future.

Coming in the July/August issue of SN: Have you ever stopped to consider how many ASTM International committees have standards that either directly or indirectly impact the buildings in which we live and work? In the next issue, we’ll shed some light on the depth and breadth of ASTM standards influencing the building industry. We will discuss these standards in the context of sustainability trends and objectives, and we will also try to identify key areas where additional standards actions are needed to support truly sustainable buildings.

1. U.S. Department of Energy, Energy Information Administration 2009.


Christopher Mathis has been an active ASTM member since 1985, working on Committees C16 on Thermal Insulation, E06 on Performance of Buildings and E60 on Sustainability. He learns many of his standards and sustainability lessons in his “other” building science job as a beekeeper.