by Nikki Fotheringham

Buildings account for over 40% of our annual greenhouse gas emissions. Building energy codes are created by the federal and state governments to ensure that buildings are safe and that they conform to sustainability standards that reduce our carbon footprint.

Purpose of Energy Codes

Green building codes aim to go beyond the minimum code requirements to create buildings that are energy-efficient and sustainable. Energy codes provide a framework for buildings to measure their sustainability and efficiency to fulfill a triple bottom line. This means social, environmental and financial targets are met with buildings designed to save energy, but works to replenish environments and neighborhoods.

Types of Commercial Energy Codes

There are various energy codes by state and nationwide designed to improve building sustainability. 

ASHRAE 90.1 Energy Code

The American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) was first founded in 1894 as a society that focused on sustainability. ASHRAE focuses on advancing the sciences of ventilation, heating, air conditioning and refrigeration to ensure more sustainably  built environments. 

The organization has more than 50,000 members from 132 countries including professionals from both design and construction sectors. The society provides energy codes for construction professionals to adhere to when designing and building, funds research,  offers continuing education and develops technical standards for the improvement of indoor air quality, energy efficiency and sustainability. 

ASHRAE 90.1 was released in 2019 and is the most recent energy code guideline. ASHRAE 90.1 is a vital tool as it outlines minimum requirements for energy-efficient design of most buildings, as well as the criteria for measuring compliance with these energy codes. 

The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) is a member of the ASHRAE Standing Standards Project Committee. In this capacity, the DOE participates in updating energy codes

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International Energy Conservation Code

The International Energy Conservation Code (IECC) is designed as a guideline for the design and implementation of energy-efficient building envelopes as well as energy-efficient lighting, power and mechanical systems. The IECC ensures buildings perform at optimal levels to reduce fossil fuel consumption and greenhouse gas emission and improve sustainability. 

The IECC building code was first released in 2000. It has been widely adopted by many state and local governments as the minimum standard for the design and construction of energy-efficient buildings. The IECC is revised every three years alongside the DOE

LEED Energy Code

Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) is a sustainability rating system developed by the US Green Building Council (USGBC). LEED building design, construction, operation and maintenance must comply with the code in order to ensure sustainability.

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Energy Code Development

Energy codes are developed by independent organizations in collaboration with the DOE, the International Code Council (ICC). The IECC and ASHRAE energy codes are reviewed regularly and improved to meet changing sustainability needs. 

When the cycle begins, construction and design professionals submit proposed changes to the ICC. These proposed changes are published, then two public meetings are held where interested parties can debate the merits of the changes. A committee chosen by the ICC votes on the changes and the new code is created. 

DOE’s Building Energy Codes Program participates in the IECC and ASHRAE code development processes. DOE submits proposed changes along with other parties, such as the USGBC. The proposed DOE changes have no special status and go through the same review process as all other proposals.

Final Thoughts on Commercial Energy Codes

Buildings are a complex collection of systems. The building envelope, HVAC system, lighting and other components must be designed to work in harmony to create an energy-efficient structure. Energy codes help engineers, architects and designers by providing guidelines and minimum standards that buildings must adhere to. When designers work with energy codes, they are able to improve the performance of buildings so that they run efficiently. This not only reduces the use of fossil fuels, it improves efficiency and sustainability.

Nikki Fotheringham is an environmental journalist. She is the editor of where she shares green-living tips and helps people to live a more sustainable life.