How Are Building Codes Adopted?

September 19, 2016

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Photo credit: NREL.

Photo credit: NREL.

A few months ago, we discussed what building energy codes are and more recently we looked at how they are developed and what role the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) plays in that process. Today, we are going to take a look into the next step—how codes are adopted.

Building energy codes set minimum energy efficiency levels, but those savings are never realized unless states and localities actually adopt them. State adoption usually occurs through either legislative action or through regulatory agency actions. In some states, codes are adopted by local governments (“home rule”), generally through an action of the city or county. In all cases, once the code is adopted, it becomes law within the adopting jurisdiction. While adoption procedures are set by individual states, federal statute provides specific timelines for states to review and/or update their energy codes (based on the model codes), and to submit code adoption certifications to DOE. 

There are almost as many ways to adopt a code as there are states, but the following sections describe processes most commonly used around the country.

Federal Guidance

How it Works: Federal statute directs DOE to review each new published edition of the model energy codes, and to issue a determination as to whether the updated codes would result in increased energy efficiency in residential and commercial buildings. When a code results in increased energy efficiency (based on DOE’s review), statute then requires states to review and/or update their building energy codes based on the new model codes. States are given two years to accomplish this process and certify their new code based on the updated model code. 

State Governments

Legislative Actions: A legislature can adopt a new energy code by title (e.g. the 2015 International Energy Conservation Code) or, more commonly, by directing either a one-time administrative action (“the Building Codes Department will adopt a new energy code by December 31”) or by putting in place an ongoing process. In Maryland, for example, there is a permanent law that requires the state to adopt each new version of the national model code within 18 months of when it is published. In Washington, however, a state law passed in 2009 that requires that energy codes reduce building energy use by 70% by 2031. Like all legislation, there is a process of hearings, public commentary and revisions followed by a formal vote, and ending with an approved bill being signed into law by the governor.

Regulatory Action: Each state that adopts statewide building codes has an agency charged with administering them. To begin adoption of a new code, the state agency typically releases a public notice of its intent, which includes the name of the code being considered, and often convenes a selected group of representative stakeholder interests. In almost all cases, the public then has the opportunity to review the proposed code and formally submit proposals to modify it. These proposals are heard by and voted on by either agency staff or a committee composed of representative stakeholders (such as builders, tradespeople, architects and engineers, product manufacturers, efficiency advocates) selected by the agency, the legislature or the governor. This phase largely mimics the national code development process (described in our previous post). The results of this process are then incorporated into a revised code that the agency staff or committee vote to formally adopt. The adoption process may require a variety of approvals from other state agencies, the legislature or the executive branch to become official. Overall, the regulatory process is lengthier than legislative action, but may allow greater opportunity for local citizen participation.

Local Governments

Home-rule states vary in the authority given to local governments. The range of options are:

  • No statewide code is adopted and the local government can select any code (e.g. Colorado, Arizona, and Wyoming).
  • Statewide code is adopted and local government may adopt that code as-is or may make only strengthening amendments (e.g. Maryland, Texas, the Washington state commercial code).

Regardless of how it is done, the actual process mirrors the just-described regulatory process with the city council or mayor’s office either convening a committee or directing the local building department to adopt a new code. In all of the above cases – legislative, regulatory, or local – the adoption process stipulates an effective date for the new code, usually one to six months after the adoption date, which is the point at which newly permitted buildings need to comply with the requirements of the new code. The time between the adoption date and the effective date allows building officials and design and construction professionals to become familiar with the new requirements.

DOE’s Role: Technical Assistance

How it works: The DOE’s Building Energy Codes Program is directed by statute to help states adopt the most recent version of the national model energy codes. DOE does not typically participate directly in state and local code adoption processes; instead, it provides technical assistance to states and local governments to aid their processes. This includes a variety of useful services, such as:

  • Analysis of code improvements and amendments, associated energy and cost savings, and economic and environmental benefits of upgrading to new codes.
  • Coordination with affected national, state and local interests to encourage code adoption, including an annual energy codes conference to promote the sharing of information and disseminating of resources across states and other stakeholders.
  • Free compliance tools to assist with code implementation – REScheck™ and COMcheck™ – based on the most recent editions of the model codes. These programs are widely used by builders and code officials to check compliance, and are explicitly referenced by some state codes.

Code Review and Analysis:  DOE reviews newly published model codes and issues guidance as to whether they will increase energy efficiency. Following, DOE conducts a variety of energy and cost analyses to assess the savings associated with codes.  DOE also assists states in evaluating their codes, helping adapt the model codes to their individual needs, providing state-level savings analysis, and other forms of support to ensure codes are well-understood and cost-effective to home and business owners.  In addition, DOE receives and tracks state certifications indicating that they’ve reviewed and/or updated their codes based on the model energy codes, as directed by federal statute.

Tracking Energy Code Adoption: The DOE tracks energy code adoption and implementation across the United States and reports the status by state for both residential and commercial codes. This provides transparency and better understanding of what is happening across the U.S. in building energy codes. Individual profiles include the impacts codes within each state, explain the current code version and any state modifications, as well as information on the responsible government agencies and primary contacts for a particular area.

For more information on DOE’s support for building energy codes and code adoption, visit the Building Energy Codes Program website at www.energycodes.gov