Policy Update: The Massachusetts Stretch

isaac pic

Isaac Elnecave, a member of the PHIUS certification team, has written this update on the Massachusetts stretch cove, the latest installment of his policy updates.

Over the last 8 years, Massachusetts has made significant progress towards making the passive house (PHIUS+) standard an integral part of its building energy code. This effort points the way to the end goal of creating a cost-effective net-zero energy code.

Besides its statewide base energy code, which is an amended version of the latest International Energy Conservation Code (IECC) model code, the Board of Building Regulations and Standards (BBRS) in Massachusetts has, since 2009, promulgated a “stretch” energy code. The base energy code governs the minimum energy saving requirements in buildings throughout the state. The requirements include: the amount of insulation required in ceilings, walls and foundations; window performance; the level of air tightness; ventilation requirements; the efficacy of lighting and the efficiency of HVAC equipment. It is often described as the worst possible building (from an energy perspective) that can legally be built.

A stretch energy code incorporates similar measures and design approaches but mandates energy efficiency requirements that result in higher performance buildings than those meeting the base energy code. While the base energy code is the default requirement across all towns and cities in the Commonwealth, the stretch energy code must be affirmatively adopted by local municipalities that want to enforce it (at which point, it supplements and overrides the base energy code in that jurisdiction). Importantly, unlike New York State, because the BBRS approves the stretch code, municipalities that adopt it cannot amend it.

In both the Base and Stretch codes in Massachusetts, there is a section for alternative compliance strategies, which specifically includes passive house in both the low-rise residential energy code chapter and the commercial energy code chapter. Under the requirements of its current edition, and in fact since 2012, in any jurisdiction that adopts the stretch code in Massachusetts, a PHIUS+ certified passive house automatically meets code. The current code amendments specify that the annual heating demand for PHIUS certified home or commercial building must be less than 10 kbtu/ft2/year; a value easily met by all certified PHIUS buildings.

The latest edition of the Massachusetts stretch code has just been adopted but has not yet been promulgated* — the expected promulgation date is February 8, 2020 with an effective date of Aug 8, 2020. There will be two significant changes. First, PHIUS itself has updated its standard to PHIUS + 2018 from PHIUS + 2015. Second, with this new edition, a residential or commercial building will be code compliant when it passes the pre-certification stage (much like saying a typical house is given code approval once the plans have been approved.) The updated energy code, based on the IECC 2018, shifts the passive house compliance option from the 10 kBtu/ft2/year metric to an option to seek PHIUS precertification prior to pulling a permit. A project must demonstrate that it has been submitted for final certification by PHIUS to receive the certificate of occupancy. Because PHIUS maintains a rigorous review process through the end of construction, this approach ensures a high quality of construction.

Passive house certification requirements are significantly more stringent than even the other alternative paths in the stretch code (the most commonly used path in the Massachusetts residential stretch code allows for an Energy Rating Index score of 55, which is well above the score typically achieved by a certified passive house).

Massachusetts provides an excellent example of how to use incentives to spur the development of high-performance buildings. Mass Save®, the statewide energy efficiency program in Massachusetts, launched a mid- to high-rise passive house incentive program in the summer of 2019. In the first 6 months over 40 projects with over 3,000 passive house units in development have signed up for the program.  As more projects are built meeting PHIUS standards either through the stretch code or through Mass Save, the universe of designers and builders who become proficient in the construction of high-performance builders grows. This proficiency will result in greater confidence among construction professionals and lower costs with respect to high performance buildings.

As the PHIUS standard includes a pathway to net-zero construction, including it in the stretch and base energy code provides a path for future improvements. In Massachusetts, stretch code development will now focus on a ‘net-zero’ code to run alongside an amended IECC 2021 base code. Having the passive house pathway in the energy codes has introduced designers and builders to the tools and techniques necessary for building cost-effective net-zero single-family and multi-family dwelling. PHIUS looks forward to working with Massachusetts Department of Energy Resources, BBRS and other key stakeholders in making a net-zero code a reality.

Massachusetts in one of three states and one municipality that have incorporated the PHIUS standard in the energy code. New York was discussed in a previous blog (Policy Update: New York State, Two Steps Forward, One Step Back, January 16, 2020). I’ll discuss efforts in Washington State and the city of Denver in a future post.

* Adoption means voting and signing by government official. Promulgation (it specifically means the decree that puts a law into effect), in practice, refers to when the agency in charge of enforcing the law signs off on the rules and regulations relating to the law.

 

A Climate Action Turning Point!

That's friend of PHIUS and visionary NYC architect Chris Benedict (l) with Katrin Klingenberg.

That’s friend of PHIUS and visionary NYC architect Chris Benedict (l) with Katrin Klingenberg.

On October 29th I was fortunate to attend the NYSERDA low carbon and zero energy Buildings of Excellence Awards at the Building Energy Exchange in New York City. What a terrific time for projects that are about to and that have employed PHIUS+ passive building standards as baseline to get to zero energy ready! I counted at least 10 PHIUS+ project teams in NYSERDA’s three categories, Early Design Stage, Substantial Completion and Completed, that were awarded up to 1 million dollars for their projects!The awards were announced on the 7th anniversary of super storm Sandy, not a coincidence, as a reminder for urgent climate action. Seven years later, NYC is leading by action and is putting itself firmly on the path of global leadership in building energy and resilience. Thank you to an amazingly dedicated NYSERDA team for making this happen!

The week before the event, I keynoted the Boston Passive House Massachusetts Symposium to talk about the evolution of the PHIUS+ certification suite for passive buildings, and why they provide such great value on the path to ZERO. Here as well, political action was taken to combat climate change: MassSave staff announced significant incentives for low carbon and zero energy buildings and significant additional incentives if project teams go for passive building certification for their hi-rise residential projects. Certification requests from Mass have increased manifold as a result. Massachusetts in not far behind NY State in political will, turns out.

And just a few weeks before the Boston event, it was gratifying to find that at the Getting to Zero Forum in Oakland, California, passive building was simply understood as the logical starting point on the path to ZERO, no questions asked. During one of the plenaries the ASHRAE speaker proudly introduced the new ASHRAE standards committee: 227p Passive Building Design Standard. That was great news and evidence that ASHRAE is moving on the topic.

During the lunch plenary on day one the National Renewable Energy Laboratory featured PHIUS board member Mary Rogero’s students presenting their Solar Decathlon winning PHIUS+ Source Zero energy school design. For the closing plenary, California’s Commissioner Andrew McAllister presented on his recently completed and only recently occupied zero energy passive house in Berkeley and the benefit of energy independence. He had electricity while PG&E had shut off power supply to prevent fires, a consequence of climate change, to most of Berkeley including the entire Berkeley Campus. He was followed by Greg Hale, from NYSERDA, who spoke about applying the Energiesprong passive plus zero energy retrofit approach that he is spearheading in NYS and other zero carbon measures taken by the city.

And while most of the building action seems to be happening on the East Coast, quietly behind the scenes advocates have been working hard to get passive building into codes all over the country. When PHIUS was first established our lofty mission was to make passive building code by 2020. As ambitious a goal that was then in 2007, we have made significant progress toward it, and have paved the path for national success. NY State has included passive building as an alternative compliance path into the next stretch code and Washington State is on a similar path. Massachusetts has included an alternative compliance path for passive buildings and verification tools (no double modeling required) and Washington, D.C. also has included an alternate compliance path for passive buildings in their about to be launched ZERO Energy Code.

Most significant of all those developments is the establishment of the ASHRAE 227p standards committee. If successful they’ll created a passive building design standard that takes the best pathways from all existing programs and develop an even better, easily adopted design standard globally. That committee has now started its so very important work. The ball is rolling! Stay tuned for more!

Exciting times, indeed!