For decades, energy codes have been the backbone of an array of policies intended to improve the energy performance of buildings. The vast majority of new buildings are now subject to energy codes, with hundreds of pages of technical requirements updated every three years in order to make our buildings ever more efficient.

However, energy codes are essentially based on the assumption that if we design and construct a building the right way, and use components that meet the right requirements, the building will perform well. How often does anyone follow up to confirm how closely actual performance matches these expectations? The answer is not often enough. This is where energy benchmarking can come into play.

Over the past few years, the practice of benchmarking and disclosing—or tracking and reporting—building energy performance has become more widespread. Originally embraced voluntarily and promoted by programs such as BOMA’s Kilowatt Crackdown, benchmarking is now required in nine cities and two states, covering about 5.8 billion square feet of real estate. Just last year, Chicago, Boston, and Minneapolis all passed benchmarking ordinances.

The rapid growth of benchmarking and disclosure policies leads to an obvious but often overlooked question–how, if at all, does the practice of benchmarking relate to energy codes? Thus far, most people have viewed them as being very different and distinct from each other, some of the reasons being:

  • Energy codes pertain primarily to new construction, while benchmarking focuses on improving the performance of existing buildings.
  • There is a mature infrastructure for adopting, implementing, and managing energy codes with national model codes, and a comparatively high level of awareness and understanding among design professionals and property owners. Benchmarking programs are relative newcomers, with companies still springing up where these requirements have been introduced, to help building owners understand how to comply with requirements.
  • Energy codes are based on the premise that if you do the right things to a building, the building will perform better, whereas benchmarking  programs allow people to look at how a building is actually performing, as a way to encourage building owners to “do the right things” to their building.

Ironically, these very differences illustrate just a few of the ways that energy codes and benchmarking programs can in fact complement each other as elements of a comprehensive approach to improving building energy efficiency. Benchmarking helps bridge the predicted vs. actual performance gap. Thanks to benchmarking, we now have the means to see if building performance is actually improving as energy codes become more stringent. We can monitor how the performance of individual buildings or even entire portfolios of buildings changes over time.

The operation of a building has a tremendous impact on energy consumption, and energy codes currently don’t regulate building operations. Eventually, the line between energy codes, which regulate physical attributes, and building performance policies like benchmarking, which help regulate operating characteristics, may be eliminated. This could lead to the development of a true “energy performance” code, which would consider not just building design and construction quality but how well the completed and occupied building actually performs.

A performance-based energy code would also work hand in hand with benchmarking because it makes building owners and their design and construction teams consider the energy consumption of a building before it is built. After the building enters into operation, benchmarking lets them know whether they met the energy target. Benchmarking can create an ongoing feedback loop to evaluate modeled energy performance—thereby making the modeling better and more accurate.

A new paper released by the Institute for Market Transformation (IMT),  "Linking Building Energy Codes With Benchmarking and Disclosure Policies," highlights how these and other synergies between benchmarking and energy codes can help drive improvements in building performance. Recognizing and taking advantage of these synergies is a critical first step to ensuring that buildings not only use less energy when first constructed, but also continue to improve their performance throughout their entire life cycle.

Graphic courtesy of the Institute for Market Transformation. Jayson Antonoff is the U.S. director of the Global Buildings Performance Network and technical director of the City Energy Project. He is based in IMT's Washington, D.C. office.