You may have missed it, but on June 30th of this year city and county buildings around the state were abuzz with activity. Architects and engineers packed local building departments to submit projects on behalf of their clients before the July 1st code change. On that day the new energy code in the state of California went into effect requiring that new buildings and remodels be more energy efficient. These requirements are in addition to the significant amount of building and green code changes that went into effect on January 1st of this year. According to one energy expert, the ultimate goal of these code changes is that new homes become “net zero” energy users by the year 2020 – meaning they use no more energy than they produce.
California building code requirements such as “net zero” energy use, are becoming so restrictive that they can no longer be achieved by conventional means. They instead have to rely heavily on budget consuming building technology & verification by certified inspectors to achieve the desired enhanced performance. Whether it is high efficiency windows, super efficient heating and air conditioning systems, rigid insulation, LED lighting or photovoltaics – we have entered a period where home comfort has been codified, substantially removing it from the owner and the designers’ discretion.
The good news is, that there are still a lot of great ways to make your home environment safe, comfortable and efficient by employing time tested passive methods which can also create interesting design features. The use of the stack effect and cross ventilation are two examples of passive cooling methods that can minimize the use of the AC. Strategic placement of windows, skylights and solar-tubes can reduce the need for artificial light. Wall thickness can create a quieter and more pleasant interior and a well designed landscape can add beauty while limiting your use of water. The even better news is that you can actually still get code credit for using some of these strategic passive design elements.
The original point of the building code was life safety (mainly addressing dangers posed by fire and earthquake). Understanding early on that the regular code changes are now mainly about efficiency, has allowed us to develop, employ and test unique solutions that are both efficient and beautiful and not the esthetic normally associated with governmental efficiency.