Historic Vote by US Building Officials

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Reuters reports that US building officials nationwide have voted to support the first building codes that require 30 percent more efficient buildings for every state under the 2012 International Energy Conservation Code.

Delegates also voted to eliminate the weaker Energy Chapter of the International Residential Code, supplanting it with a single nationwide uniform energy code for residential and commercial buildings.

Although some states, like California, have long had energy efficiency requirements in building codes, with a resulting flat-lining in home energy use in the state since the 1970s (to about half the average US use) most states have little or no requirements for reducing energy use. The International code has been the lowest common denominator; compelling safety, but little else in building codes. The minimum standards allowed energy to be wasted in heating and cooling homes in non compliant states by not requiring weather tight walls, roofs, windows or doors.

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“It is notable that the votes that will have the most profound impact on national energy and environmental policy this year weren’t held in Washington or a state capital, but by governmental officials assembled by the International Code Council (ICC) in Charlotte, NC,” said William Fay, Executive Director of the Energy Efficient Codes Coalition.

You can read the entire article here.

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End Use

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This post is part of our definitions series on “eco-lingo” and technical terms.

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Studies frequently segment energy or water use by “end use”,  or the reason the energy was consumed, in order to better understand how the resource is used. For both energy and water, consumption is often first broken down by sector (commercial, residential, industrial) and then by end use (lighting, heating, etc.)

The first graph below is of California electricity use by sector. The second graph below is of California electricity use by sector AND by end use.

The end use categorizations in the graphs above are still pretty broad categories – some analyses break them down even further. The original data in the graphs comes from a CEC staff report. I used the same aggregate categories as Flex Your Power:

  • The Commercial Misc. category includes refrigeration, hot water, cooking, and office equipment.
  • The Residential Other category includes water heating, cooking, pool/spa, clothes washers, dishwashers, and freezers.
  • Industrial Process includes process fans, heating, pumping, and refrigeration.
  • Industrial Other includes material handling and processing.
  • The “Other” category includes street lighting and other government end uses.

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What exactly does “sustainability” mean? How about “green”, “eco” or “environmentally friendly”? The truth is that these terms are just vague enough to mean many different things to many different people. With the staggering array of “green” products, ‘lifestyles’ and concepts being promoted by marketers and environmentalists alike (as well as the necessary coining of new terms to match new ideas) our definition series aims to make sense of the rising tide of “eco-lingo” and technical terms.

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Editorial – How Much Space is Enough?

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Houses have been getting bigger. Over the past fifty plus years (until 2008), the size of the average new house more than doubled, from 1,000 square feet or less in 1950 to 2,265 in 2000 (values from NAHB). The percentage of new homes smaller than 1,200 square feet has been dropping since 1987, while the percentage of new homes larger than 2,400 grew from 21% to 38% between 1987 and 2001 (values from this study). Interestingly, the size of the average new home dropped in 2008 (data here and an article here).

The general trend of larger and larger houses has a direct impact on the environment. Larger houses require more land to build on, more materials for construction, more energy to heat, cool, and light, and result in more waste, both during construction and demolition. While it is expected that there may be some “economy of scale” as houses get larger, there is a widely held suspicion that larger homes consume proportionally more materials because they often have higher ceilings and more complex geometry. Larger houses also require more materials to furnish and decorate.

It should be noted that larger homes are not only increasing in area (square footage); they are also increasing in volume, which may ultimately have a larger impact on the energy consumption of the house. Larger houses are usually constructed with extra features that are not surface area efficient (such as complicated roofs and dormer windows) and which consume more energy for heating and cooling than a compact house of the same volume.

New houses should be both smaller and more compact.

However, it has been difficult to build smaller homes. Aside from the social cache afforded those with larger homes, zoning rules and mortgage practices have also pushed “bigger is better.” For example, mortgage lenders often required the home to be “three times the value of the land,” which then determined a minimum house size for a certain area.

The recent, slight tilt towards smaller home is likely due to the recession and the constrained finances of those building, financing and buying homes. But it is encouraging. When considering what they could afford financially, people chose smaller houses. If we consider what we can “afford” using metrics of energy, water, and materials, we should prioritize building smaller houses.