As we move toward 2020, our building codes and standards will continue to improve, and so will the rate of compliance. Disclosure ordinances will become widespread and will add new criteria to leasing and purchasing negotiations. In order to use these energy-use data disclosures to their highest effectiveness, we must find a way to address operations and tenant behavior patterns. We need to create outcome-based policies, regulations, and incentives that promote ongoing building performance. These steps are critical to achieving 2030 goals.

Improvements in building performance are affected by both “push” and “pull” effects. Rating programs that encourage forward-thinking efficiency strategies, such as LEED and Energy Star, pull the range of practical solutions forward and demonstrate productive new strategies and technologies to the rest of the market. At the same time, energy codes set a minimum standard for building efficiency that pushes up the bottom of the market.

In the past, codes represented a bare minimum of performance, targeting levels that had already been met by the majority of the market and preventing laggards from falling below those minimums. But the stringency of energy codes has been pulled higher in recent code-release cycles as broader policy goals to improve building performance have taken on a greater sense of urgency and the leading green-building programs have demonstrated approachable strategies for significant improvements in performance. Energy codes are now front and center in policy efforts to improve the building stock, and we have to push them even more.

Our current energy codes have their limitations. The increase in their rate of stringency, while having become more rapid, has not kept pace with broader, more-aggressive performance targets such as the 2030 Challenge from Architecture 2030. This is primarily because energy codes are only directed at the physical features of the building. As these codes are currently implemented, they can neither regulate how the structure is operated and maintained nor how its occupants will behave in the space. But these factors have a huge effect on a building’s performance—factors that become even more significant as a physical features become more efficient.

Consider plug-load energy use, such as that used for occupant computers and accessories, which represents an increasing percentage of an edifice’s energy use—it can be as much as half of the total energy use of even the most-efficient buildings. On top of that, an additional percentage of energy use is directly related to how the occupants use temperature settings, lighting, and the space at night. Yet all of these important issues are outside of the scope of current codes. In fact, if we could suspend the laws of physics and actually “zero out” the energy use associated with all of the components currently regulated by code, the energy use associated with the remaining, unregulated components would prevent us from achieving our 2030 target of net-zero energy use.

The policies, regulations, and incentives that drive ongoing efficiency will be critical to achieving the 2030 goals. One key pathway forward is to develop outcome-based policies that are more focused on the actual energy use of a building instead of on an increasingly complex list of physical features.

To comply with outcome-based codes, a building would have to meet an actual-energy-use target. It would have to not only incorporate efficient design features, but also be operated, maintained, and occupied in a way that supports efficient energy use. There are many opportunities for better operational practices in nearly every structure in existence, some of which are improvements to off-hour use, system control, and plug-load management. There are, however, many complex issues that will need to be resolved before codes and policies can address building performance and operation. The current code-enforcement framework, for example, almost always ends once a building is occupied, so new enforcement or incentive mechanisms will be needed to address the operating phase of buildings. And this will mean additional responsibilities for the design team after construction, as well as the language of the lease and the roles of owners and developers. There is much to sort out.

At the same time, the market may be leaping ahead. Disclosure ordinances, which require that building owners, including those of multifamily structures, share energy use data with potential buyers or tenants—and even the public-at-large, in some cases—are becoming more widespread. The necessity of supplying this data then adds new criteria to leasing and purchase negotiations. Who would want to rent a building or an apartment with energy costs that are twice as high as similar space in the building next door, anyway? Eventually, the wide availability of this performance data could become as influential as the mileage stickers posted on car windows in dealers’ lots—everybody looks, and many consumers do take this into consideration when buying a vehicle.

Regardless of what mix of codes, policies, and market mechanisms we adopt over the next decade, by 2020, there certainly will be increased attention on the actual energy use of our buildings, and this will drive an increased focus on operation and occupancy issues. It’s one part of the puzzle as we continue to strive to improve the performance of our building stock, both old and new.