I hate to say I told you so…but I did!  My February article about the spotty and slow adoption of the ICC’s 2015 suite of codes across the country warned of the increasing cost of compliance. Several projects underway are making those revelations very real for our clients. Contractors that rely on historical cost estimations may be putting themselves in danger. Architects are having to rethink some details, construction methods, and material selections. Building construction isn’t really changing, but the lowest cost approach commonly found in multi-family and senior living community development will be affected as the systems and materials must get better to meet the rising bar for minimum code standards.

It seems that 2016 is racing past us. The Fourth of July celebrations feel like they were just yesterday, yet we are already a few weeks into the NFL schedule. Whether it is the political culture of a contentious national election year, or simply the paralysis that affects many legislative bodies, not much has changed over the course of the year affecting building and energy codes. According to the US Department of Energy, there are still only 9 states enforcing the 2015 ICC codes while 31 are on the 2009 or earlier models.1 That’s an increase of three since the beginning of the year.

AG has been fortunate to be expanding our presence and project workload into some new areas, so we are seeing the effects of the latest code application first hand. It is not causing any real problems, however it is causing us to second guess and thoroughly review our work, so that’s a good thing!

Where it can cause some angst is in cases where we want to move forward with a previously planned addition to an existing building. From the Owner’s perspective, they simply want more of a good thing.  Why reinvent the wheel if the current model works for them?

Areas of change include the following:

  • Residential kitchen range hoods required to be ducted to the exterior.
  • Whole-house or mechanical ventilation required in private units.
  • Higher energy efficiency standards beyond the current capabilities of simple systems.
  • Commissioning process requirements.

All of those items sound like nice features that will enhance resident living. They are also added above and beyond market-rate/ standard construction. Those items do come with an added cost. Construction costs are so thoroughly reviewed and picked apart that anything noticeably different raises a red flag.  Margins are tight on all sides and anything that “wasn’t included on the last job” stands out.

If it was only a financial impact at stake, we could let the finance people argue about it. These items do, however, affect the look of the building and square footage, so the design side does have concerns to work through. Range hoods terminate with some sort of wall or roof cap that may be visible from the property line. They are another element on the façade along with bathroom and clothes dryer vent caps. Increased ventilation may require the use of an energy recovery ventilator in each unit. These require additional space at the HVAC closet. More importantly, it adds an outside air duct terminating at another cap on that same outside wall with the vents noted above. Another option is a dedicated air handler in a common area with ductwork extending to each private mechanical system. Again we are talking about the addition of another HVAC system, more duct, grilles and dampers.

When it comes to HVAC equipment, packaged terminal air conditioning (PTAC) units have been effectively banned for new construction until the manufacturers can increase performance levels. Currently, no PTAC unit on the market meets both the coefficient of performance (COP) and energy efficiency rating (EER) levels set by the 2015 energy code.

The commissioning requirement is perhaps the item that will cause the greatest heartburn with the expectation of cost. In the past it was recommended. Now it must be undertaken on all projects having HVAC systems above a threshold set in the code. Alternately, ASHRAE sets a building volume threshold (cubic feet) after which the commissioning process is required. Depending on systems chosen, the cost to add commissioning can range from 0.5 – 1.5% of the total construction budget.2 Like many of the energy saving and conserving strategies, there is a payback to the effort. One study of 175 construction projects showed a 1-5 year payback period when commissioning was implemented on both remodeling and new construction.3

The majority of the items in the code are added with good intention, yet some requirements may seem a bit onerous. I would personally like to live in a building that had some of those features. As architects and engineers, we strive to deliver well designed buildings, quickly and for a reasonable budget. When different means, methods, and materials are required of us, there is often a tendency to resist. In the end, we are not going to see these kinds of requirements lessen or go away anytime soon. The best we can do is understand what is expected so we are not caught off guard, and use our creativity to incorporate new things into the great projects we deliver.

  1. US Department of Energy Website – https://www.energycodes.gov/status-state-energy-code-adoption
  2. S. General Services Administration Website – http://www.gsa.gov/portal/content/101959
  3. http://evanmills.lbl.gov/pubs/pdf/hpac_commissioning.pdf