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The Perfect Energy Code

By: Chris Benedict, R.A. & Henry Gifford

January 20, 2015

A building is a complex system, set within a larger complex system. Systems can work elegantly or poorly.

Acknowledgement of senseless waste, and the desire to be kinder to the life on our planet have spurred the creation of energy codes for our buildings. It is imperative that a code devised to intervene into a poorly performing system be as elegant as its desired outcome in order to be effective.

On 25 November 2014, as guests of the Building Enclosure Council of New York (BECNY), Henry Gifford and I performed a play entitled, The Perfect Energy Code, at the Center for Architecture in NYC. In the play we dramatized an Architect's visit to the NYC Department of Buildings and her pursuit of energy code approval for her building design.

Please take a look:

Or read on...

The Perfect Energy Code

A one-act play

ANNOUNCER:
THE DEPARTMENT OF BUILDINGS SOME TIME, IN THE NOT TOO DISTANT FUTURE...
An Architect comes rushing in with bundles of plans and papers and almost out of breath. The examiner doesn't look up from his work as she sits down.
ARCHITECT:
Good morning! How are you? I'm Chris Benedict, the Architect of record for this job.
( puts down her stuff and slides her ID across the table )
EXAMINER:
( The examiner looks up )
Ah, good morning Ms. Benedict, apologies, I have such a huge backlog of work to do here, but today is going to be a good day they are making some things easier for us examiners, what are you here for?
ARCHITECT:
Well, they haven't made it easier on us architects. I'm here to get Energy Code approval for a building. I've done all of my computer model energy code compliance sheets, provided the details, the R values, calculations, I have my light fixture plans, I've got my TR8 forms all filled out, and all of the required special inspections listed on my plans with the proper code sections cited. I think I have everything to get approval on the energy code part of my application. It took forever. But the building is designed as a Passive House so there should no problems with anything.
EXAMINER:
Ms. Benedict, I see that you are a bit out of the loop. Did you know that today is the first day of the Department of Building's adaptation of THE PERFECT ENERGY CODE?
ARCHITECT:
The what?
EXAMINER:
The perfect energy code! You haven't heard about it?
ARCHITECT:
The perfect energy code? What on earth is that?
( she holds up her energy code compliance sheet )
Look, I'm 20% better than code, are you telling me that it's all rejected now? I've got to get this job approved. Will I have to hire another whole set of consultants and send all my employees to more classes? I was up all night alligator wrestling my building into the computer model.
EXAMINER:
No, none of that. It will just take me a minute to see if your building complies with the perfect energy code.
( Examiner raises the slide screen )
ARCHITECT:
I think I'm going to faint!
( She start fanning herself with her papers )
EXAMINER:
Calm down Ms Benedict, tell me, what is the square footage of your building?
ARCHITECT:
Umm...
EXAMINER:
Look, it's right here, Section 8G on your PW1, see, 42,000 Square Feet.
ARCHITECT:
OK
EXAMINER:
Now give me the input energy to the heating equipment you are using.
ARCHITECT:
Ummm, look on page M1. I think it's 450,000btus per hour.
EXAMINER:
OK let's look what your Schedule C says in Section 4.
ARCHITECT:
Ah, ok, yes, it's a gas fired boiler, 420,000btus per hour.
EXAMINER:
So we divide the BTU's per hour by the square footage of the building
( he reaches for a calculator and puts the numbers in )
Ah, ok, 10 BTU's per hour per square foot. Wow, that will be a very comfortable building during the winter. The code maximum is 15, so you pass the perfect energy code for heating.
ARCHITECT:
Wow, all I have to do is get below a certain number?
EXAMINER:
Yes, that's all there is to it. Now let's look at your equipment Use application for the air conditioner size.
ARCHITECT:
OK, here it is on page M2.
EXAMINER:
Divide the equipment energy input by the square footage of the building
( he punches in the numbers )
and... Yes, you are at about 3 Watts per Square Foot. That's less than the code limit of 5, so you pass for air conditioning. Congratulations, you comply with the PERFECT ENERGY CODE for both heating and cooling!
ARCHITECT:
You're kidding, that's it?
EXAMINER:
That's it! You're done.
ARCHITECT:
So no computer models?
EXAMINER:
No computer models.
ARCHITECT:
No lengthy, tedious and expensive classes to learn how to do computer models?
EXAMINER:
No computer modeling classes.
ARCHITECT:
No modeling a fake building and comparing one fake building to another fake building?
EXAMINER:
No fake building modeling.
ARCHITECT:
No pretending that energy cost savings is actually energy savings?
EXAMINER:
No pretending.
ARCHITECT:
No more faith based codes?
EXAMINER:
Please Ms. Benedict, this is a government agency, you know we can't talk about that.
ARCHITECT:
No more of my competitors gaming the energy model?
EXAMINER:
No more gaming the models, and no more gaming us here at the department either.
ARCHITECT:
No more knowing that I am one of only 10% of people whose designs actually comply with code?
EXAMINER:
I think the number was way less than 10%, but I'm not supposed to talk about that.
ARCHITECT:
No tabular analysis tables and endless citing of code on my plans?
EXAMINER:
No more.
ARCHITECT:
No Special Inspections?
EXAMINER:
No more.
ARCHITECT:
Wow! The Department of Buildings acknowledges that all of thegood work done in the building to reduce energy use shows up in the size of the Mechanical system. All I need are three numbers, the square footage, the heating equipment size and the cooling equipment size.
EXAMINER:
Yes, these are numbers that are already part of the Building Department filing, it makes examining for compliance easier and faster for the Building Department with far less paperwork. Of course, it is the responsibility of the Architect and the Engineer to design a building that works with smaller equipment, but this can be done in any way they choose. There's no waste, no fakery, no pretending, no room for cheating. It's just professionals taking responsibility for their work as they're supposed to. You design with the Passive House standard so you are certainly able to reduce the size of your systems, but we now give you the freedom to get the building to be energy efficient in any way you see fit as a professional. In the end, the building must work or your client will complain to you. And, we at the department are proud to know that the changes we implemented will make buildings more comfortable, healthier for people to be in, more energy efficient, and they will actually cost less to build.
ARCHITECT:
So, no more special inspections... how does the Building Department assure compliance?
EXAMINER:
During the field inspection the inspector will verify that the equipment filed is the equipment installed. This is already a normal Building Department procedure. If the equipment you showed on your plans is not installed, the job doesn't pass inspection. Please understand that now that we have a code we can actually enforce, we are going to be cracking down. Noncompliance will hold up a final approval.
ARCHITECT:
This so is beautifully designed! The work required of the architect and the engineer is the work they do already and take responsibility for. The plan examiners can easily examine for compliance, and the inspectors do what they typically do, making sure that what was filed was installed.
EXAMINER:
Architects and Engineers will have to learn more about real buildings. We plan to lower those maximum numbers over time.
ARCHITECT:
No kidding! But there many places to learn what they need to know.
EXAMINER:
Well, I need to get back to my work, congratulations on your compliance with the PERFECT ENERGY CODE.
ARCHITECT:
Thank you very much, you have made my day!!!!!!
( Throws plans into a garbage can with a recycling symbol on it. )
ANNOUNCER:
AND SO OUR INTREPID ARCHITECT LEFT THE BUILDING DEPARTMENT, DELIGHTED THAT FINALLY WE NOW HAVE AN ENERGY CODE THAT PROMOTES EDUCATION OF ARCHITECTS, ACTUALLY SAVES ENERGY, AND IS ENFORCABLE!
THE END

After the play we spent an hour discussing issues around the existing energy code and the Perfect Energy Code. Questions included:

Q. Should the perfect energy code include lighting?
A. Lighting is already included in the heating and cooling peak loads

Q. Are 10 and 3 the right numbers for heating and cooling peak?
A. Let's take a short time to figure it out!

Q. Should the Perfect Energy Code include water use?
A. No, but this does not stop someone from creating The Perfect Water Use Code

Q. How do you figure out peak load if you are making heat and hot water with the same device?
A. A way for the DOB to pull out the peak heat load number can be determined and utilized; there are some simple ways to do this.

And a persistent question that remains to be answered:
Q. How can The Perfect Energy Code be enacted?

BECNY will be holding another forum shortly at the Center for Architecture devoted to The Perfect Energy Code, in the mean time we thank the Sallan Foundation for allowing us to publish the play and we look forward to your comments.

Please feel free to perform the play yourself in any venue that you feel is appropriate!


About Chris Benedict, R.A.:
Chris Benedict R.A. builds healthy, durable and extremely energy-efficient buildings for the same price as typical buildings. Their designs are strictly monitored during construction to assure optimum building performance. Their work includes new construction apartment buildings, substantial gut rehabilitations of large and small existing buildings, single family homes, commercial spaces, artist lofts and office spaces. The firm currently has two buildings under construction in the tri-state area that are on track for both International and U.S. Passive House Certification.

About Henry Gifford:
Henry Gifford started buying real estate and learning about buildings in the early eighties. He credits much of what he knows about energy to his experience racing, repairing and designing bicycles and building his own bicycle frames. His plain spoken talk, humor, and penetrating, honest, analysis of subjects have established him as an extraordinary public speaker. He specializes in the design of high-performance mechanical systems that use less fuel, require less service, and provide better comfort.

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