Industry Watch – New Building Codes – How The Newest Energy Code Will Make Your House More Efficient and Violate Your Civic Rights at the Same Time.

I recently learned about a new Building Code that is gaining traction.

The Zero Code is a global energy code that is being adopted by California in the United States.  This code is aimed at reducing the amount of energy demand from some of the most common building types.  Although California is the first locality to adopt the code, the creators of the code hope to make it a global standard.

California expects to adopt the Zero Code into it’s 2019 California Building Energy Efficiency Standards.  This means that certain buildings built in California will be required to be constructed to be energy neutral.  The 2019 Standard will become effective January 1, 2020.

What is the Zero Code

For a building to meet this new code and be considered energy neutral, it must meet the standards of a Zero Net Carbon Building. A Zero Net Carbon (ZNC) building is defined as a highly energy-efficient building that produces on-site, or procures, enough carbon-free renewable energy to meet buildings energy consumption.

The Zero Code offers the following verbiage to describe itself:

The ZERO Code provides code-adaptable language defining the energy efficiency and renewable energy requirements (on-site generation and/or off-site procurement) for zero-net-carbon new buildings.

Complying with the ZERO Code entails first meeting the minimum prescriptive or performance requirements for building energy efficiency defined by ASHRAE Standard 90.1-2016. Other existing or new standards can also be accommodated, such as the International Green Construction Code (IgCC), ASHRAE Standard 189.1-2017, or any building energy efficiency standard that exceeds ASHRAE Standard 90.1-2016. Once the minimum energy efficiency requirements are met, then the on-site and/or off-site renewable energy is calculated to achieve zero-net-carbon.

On the surface, this all sounds great.  Even if you are not someone who believes in Global Warming and all the politics that carries, an energy efficient building is a great thing to aspire towards.  I don’t know anyone that would not want to save money on their utility bills.

What the Code Requires

The Zero Code does a great job of requiring some tried and true energy saving tactics we have known about for decades.  Basic improvements previously avoided because of their complexity and cost such as energy-saving building envelopes, daylighting, passive cooling and heating, and efficient systems and controls will now become a requirement.  Enforcement of this new code will compel Architects and their Owners to implement these tactics making their buildings more economical.

The code goes a step further specifying the sources for energy that will be permissible.  On-site renewable energy such as wind, solar, and geothermal will be required by the new code.  Sites that are unable to incorporate their own renewable energy source will be required to procure energy from off-site renewable sources or to contribute to a renewable-energy investment fund.  Another option will be to purchase renewable energy credits.

Commentary on the Zero Code

The Good

Building Codes bring together the best practices of design and construction ensuring that new buildings are safe, secure, and meet a minimum standard for habitation.

While the Zero Code’s intentions are certainly good, we must consider the role of building codes and their limitations.

I wholeheartedly support any code that requires buildings to incorporate the best practices of energy conservation.  After-all, we have known for centuries about the benefits of passive heating and cooling.  Day-lighting concepts can be traced back to the age of the Ancient Greeks.  We also know about the benefits of super-insulation and high performance building envelopes on energy consumption.

The only reason these concepts are not more prevalent is because Owner’s avoid the extra time and costs involved in developing such concepts.  As with most things, people tend to focus on the initial costs and fail to recognize the long terms savings these concepts can realize.

This code will force designers and builders to incorporate these well-known concepts into their structures.

The Bad

Where this code breaks down is in it’s requirement that Owner’s must install a renewable energy system.

Building codes cannot require an Owner to install a building system.  It can regulate how a system is installed once the decision to install one is made, but it cannot require that a system be installed.

The only exceptions to this is where life safety is a concern (i.e. smoke detectors) or in public buildings where a certain minimum standard of comfort is expected.

In all other circumstances, private buildings (and certainly on residential properties) the decision to add plumbing, HVAC, and lighting systems have been borne from our modern expectation for comfort.  The introduction of these systems are not a code requirement, rather they have grown to be a basic minimum standard that is expected by our society.

Of course, once you decide to add plumbing and lighting, the code regulates how these systems are installed, but the initial decision to install them is not a code requirement.

The Ugly

The other problem I see with the Zero Code is in regulating the sources where Owner’s can procure energy.

Building codes (and government laws in general) should never compel anyone to purchase specific goods or services.  This code allows an exception to the requirement for renewable energy systems by requiring that Owners procure energy from offsite renewable energy sources.

Essentially the code creates demand for a specific commodity (renewable energy) that might not exist without the regulation.

This is inherently wrong.

Now don’t get me wrong, I fully support renewable energy and will opt for it myself when given the opportunity, but the market should drive that behavior, not the code.


As the state of California (and other jurisdictions) considers the adoption of the Zero Code, they must acknowledge why building codes exist.  Building codes are not legislative marketplaces where industries can be promoted.  Nor are building codes meant as vehicles for driving social change.

Building codes are meant to protect the public from known hazards and to promote the best practices of design and construction.  We must recognize these limitations and not allow social justice initiatives to add onerous regulations on private industry.

What do you think?  Should building codes require buildings to add renewable energy systems?  What about requiring Owner to procure energy from renewable energy sources?  Tell me your stories.

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