News
07.29.2009
Charged Up
Advocates say energy bill could transform U.S. building efficiency
More where that came from: the proposed energy bill incentivizes the creation of more green buildings, such as One Bryant Park in New York, The California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco, and Thin Flats in Philadelphia.
Courtesy Cook + Fox, RPBW, Onionflats

Much of the attention focused on the energy bill that passed the House of Representatives on June 26 has surrounded the somewhat controversial cap-and-trade program. A less noted but equally important part of the American Clean Energy and Security Act is the nearly three dozen programs the bill contains with far-reaching impacts on the built environment and those who design, construct, and operate the millions of buildings scattered across the country.

"The fact that there was so much that relates to buildings is an important moment for the building community," said Andrew Goldberg, the senior director for federal relations at the AIA. "It supports the message we've been pushing for a long time, that buildings are a part of the solution. It's finally sinking in and they're taking action about it."

The proposed cap-and-trade system is still at the heart of the new legislation, as the funds it will raise will go to support many of the new building programs. The most expansive piece of buildings-related legislation is the establishment of a new national building code that sets minimum standards for energy usage in all new and existing buildings. States either have the option of developing their own code or applying the national one, but they must include a 30 percent reduction in energy usage within 18 months of the bills passage, a 50 percent reduction by 2014 for residential buildings and 2015 for commerical building, and an additional 5 percent reduction every three years through 2030.

The bill also has numerous provisions calling for federal agencies and federally managed housing to meet or exceed the new energy standards. Another program that could mean a good deal of work for architect is new energy efficient standards for retrofitted builidngs. And in addition to energy, there are new water efficiency standards for buildings, appliances, and products. "There are a number of market barriers that must be overcome to make green building affordable, but these new standards will help spur that shift," said Jason Hartke, the director for advocacy and public policy as the U.S. Green Building Council.

The bill is not all federally mandated sticks, either, as their are plenty of carrots to encourage a voluntary transition. An Energy Star-like building rating system is being proposed to label new construction so owners and operators know the energy usage of their buildings. (One of the biggest loses for the bill was the removal of a requirment that existing buildings also be labeled.)

Another program that has green building advocates especially excited is the Green Resources for Energy Efficient Neighborhoods Act, which provides incentives to financial institutions to offer generous loans to projects that use sustainable technology and smart growth practices. The program also creates a demo program at HUD to develop cutting-edge green systems for its housing projects, turning them into sustainability laboratories.

Furthering the green-for-all message, there are grants for affordable housing developers to include efficient systems in their projects, and another program gives credits to mobile home residents to trade in their current models for newer, more efficient models. And because all these new buildings and products must be created to satisfy all this new demand, there are a number of programs providing funding for product development and educational programs for designers, contractors, manufacturers, and building operators.

The bill now awaits its companion in the Senate. Initially, a vote had been expected by the end of the session, but the healthcare bill has taken up most of the Hill's political oxygen, and despite hopes for at least a draft of the bill before the August recess, it now looks like even that will be pushed back to the fall. Still, without jinxing it, Goldberg expects something comparable to the House bill. "It could very well be stronger," he said. "There was a lot of support on the other side. It could be stronger or about the same. Or it could always be a wash."

A version of this article appeared in AN_07.29.2009.

Matt Chaban