Meet Energy Standards of the 2021 IECC

Understanding IECC requirements can help managers make informed decisions about the code’s impact on project design and construction.

By Jeffrey A. Miller, P.E., Contributing Writer

Healthcare facility managers looking to plan and budget for a building addition or significant renovation need to understand the commercial construction code requirements and paths to compliance of the adopted International Energy Conservation Code (IECC) for their locality. Understanding the IECC requirements can help managers make informed decisions about the code’s impact on the project. 

Snapshot: IECC 

The International Code Council established the IECC in 2000 as a model code to establish minimum energy efficiency standards for the design and construction of new buildings and major remodels. The IECC and the International Building Codes (IBC) are updated every three years to keep up with the federal guidelines and trends for building materials and techniques established as the minimum energy performance standards for proposed facilities or renovations. 

The code requirements generally include the building envelope, fenestration, HVAC, interior and exterior lighting and domestic water heating systems. 

The IBC and IECC are model codes for adoption by the local authority having jurisdiction (AHJ), which is typically at the municipal level. Even though the most recent code was published in 2021, facility managers want their building code consultants to be informed of the codes that have been adopted and enforced locally, as well as if amendments have been made that are specific to their jurisdictions. 

While the locally adopted IECC and prescriptive code requirements are typically the legal design requirements for new construction and major renovations to commercial and healthcare buildings, architects and engineers also might comply with ASHRAE Standard 90.1 — Energy Standard for Sites and Buildings Except Low-Rise Residential Buildings — as a path to compliance or create a simulated energy consumption model that demonstrates compliance with the standard. 

The climate zone factor 

Where a proposed facility is located can make a difference as to specific IECC performance requirements. The publication year of the IBC and IECC are legislatively adopted based on the local AHJ, but energy performance for commercial buildings is also determined by the local climate zones outlined by the IECC. 

The performance requirements of the IECC can vary by city based on climate zone, performance amendments and the publication year of the code. Those preparing construction documents must engage with the AHJs to make certain they comply with the adopted version of the code. 

Climate zones defined in the IECC designate a number of energy efficiency initiatives as they relate to the performance of the building envelope and mechanical systems that maintain environmental conditions based on heating, cooling, ventilation and dehumidification. 

The 19 zones range from Zone 0A, Extremely Warm Humid, to Zone 8, Subarctic Artic. The IECC’s climate zones are determined at the county level and take into consideration the expected conditions, including seasonal temperatures, humidity levels and rainfall. 

Based on new research, the 2021 IECC update included the first change to the code’s climate zones since 2003 by moving 10 percent of U.S. counties into a new zones — in most cases, to warmer and more humid zones. 

Generally, constructing a building in a warmer climate has meant less onerous and less costly requirements for air leakage and insulation than in a cooler climate. Those requirements have become more stringent with later versions of the IECC for all climate zones. 

Project size matters 

The IECC requirements typically apply to commercial buildings four or more stories tall. In commercial renovations, the IECC compliance usually applies to the affected portion of a building or renovation when it involves a significant portion of the building’s existing square footage. But in some jurisdictions, commercial building construction or renovations below 5,000-10,000 square feet might be exempt from the IECC requirements. 

While energy and operating efficiencies might be required to follow the adopted IECC for new construction and renovations of any size, smaller projects often do not generate enough of a relieving impact on the facility manager’s total energy use budget to encourage investment in high-efficiency equipment and applications beyond the IECC requirements. 

Managing costs 

A schematic design for a proposed building construction or renovation lists the minimum IBC and IECC requirements for the project, which trigger certain construction costs and help a facility manager make decisions on the scope of the project. While the schematic design defines the general requirements for the project, the design development phase refines the scope of work, and the construction documents phase add the details that allow the manager to review the scope and proposed cost at each phase. 

Performance-oriented construction documents are designed to meet required construction codes and standards. Construction cost management is a matter of choosing what can and cannot be done while meeting the adopted codes. The documents do not deal with operating costs, which are under the purview of the facility manager who balances cost savings options in maintenance and operations with the satisfaction and safety of patients and staff. 

Among the most recent changes to the IECC are requirements that could help facility managers exert more control over operating costs – the application of metering to lighting, cooling, ventilation, heating and other building systems. Metering allows managers to monitor the amount of power consumed by specific systems and if any users are out of the typical range with the intended operations. 

While meeting IECC standards are outside a facility manager’s control, some innovations provide an opportunity to more deeply manage the way energy is consumed and benchmarked compared to peer facilities. 

This process is increasingly important for managers in hospitals, laboratories and acute care and medical professional buildings, which typically use large amounts of energy, to meet specific environmental conditions in critical areas of the facility. But there are usually opportunities for gains in energy efficiency in these types of buildings. Metering and utility tracking can reveal where energy savings could be made without compromising high standards for occupant comfort and safety, and they can significantly contribute to successfully managing operational costs. 

Some managers equate IECC compliance to larger upfront costs, but the process can mean operational energy savings. It is possible to meet IBC and IECC standards while reducing operational costs, as well as to have an environmental impact while ensuring occupant comfort and regulatory compliance. 

Jeffrey A. Miller, P.E., is a senior engineer and senior principal in Terracon’s Facilities office in Houston. Miller has more than 44 years of experience specializing in mechanical, electrical and plumbing diagnostics, design, engineering, commissioning and retrocommissioning. 

June 5, 2023

Topic Area: Construction

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