Seattle’s Energy Code Gets Tough

Codewatcher Seattle energy code

Starting January 1, 2018, the Seattle’s energy code will become more stringent (and more costly and difficult to achieve) but will ultimately help home buyers understand “total cost of ownership.”

Seattle has three compliance paths for its energy code, each with its own pitfalls.

As Caroline Traube and Michael Frank, both engineers, recently detailed, the prescriptive path contains two significant revisions. The maximum allowable lighting power densities (or the installed lighting watts per square foot) decrease another 10 percent below the previous code. This will in effect force projects to use LED lighting. The other change will make projects choose either triple-pane glass (which the authors estimate, on average, is two to three times more expensive than double-pane glass) or electric heat pumps (estimated at three to four times more expensive than natural gas boilers or other heating systems).

The total building performance (TBP) path is the next option, but don’t expect it to be any easier. Under this compliance path, project teams must design a building that is 13% more efficient than a reference building designed to meet the prescriptive code. And it gets worse. Traube and Frank predict that more documentation will need to be submitted to the City to prove compliance than a project would typically submit for LEED certification.

Last, there is a penalty in this path for exceeding 45% glazing, even though the building might have installed triple-pane glass.

The third option is the target performance path (TPP). This relatively new compliance path calls for a building to achieve an energy use intensity (EUI) target based on the building type. But unlike nearly every other energy code, the certificate of occupancy does not terminate the project team’s obligation to the code.

In addition to the EUI target, the anticipated performance must be proven during 12 months of consecutive utility bills within three years of building occupancy. If it isn’t, there is a financial penalty that the building owner is responsible for paying. For instance, “If the energy target is missed by 30% or more, the owner must pay a maximum of $4 per s.f. (half of which can be reinvested in the property).”

Furthermore, all members of the project team will have a different contractual role in achieving the EUI target. That relationship could last up to five years after the initial permitting, by the time construction is complete and the measurement and verification
process can commence. Finally, the building owner has to commit to “operational boundaries for tenants (e.g. schedules, set points and lease agreements) as well as the additional cost of metering infrastructure and performance assurance labor.”

So what is the upside to this path? Traube and Frank believe the energy target will be easier to achieve than the TBP, and that could lead to upfront savings by comparison. Many may view these new energy requirements as extreme, but here’s the reality: If we’re going to get to zero-net energy buildings, we’re going to have to get serious about it, and that means designing and building differently than we have in the past.

Moreover, if construction costs (and hence rents or sales prices) are going to rise, we’re going to have to do a better job of marketing the total cost of ownership. That means showing the positive effect of reduced operating costs on cash flow, compared to a lower-priced building with higher operational costs. This type of number-crunching happens all the time in commercial construction, but it’s going to have to gravitate to the residential sector, too.