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Mar 8, 2024

Life-Saving Energy Codes: What Building Safety Officials Need to Know

There are many benefits to having an up-to-date energy code, including increased energy efficiency, reduced greenhouse gas emissions, improved occupant comfort and safety, and greater community resilience.

By: John Gossman

Home with sunset in the background

In 2023, the U.S. experienced 28 separate weather and climate disasters, costing at least $1 billion. That number puts 2023 in first place for the highest number of billion-dollar disasters in a calendar year. Given the increasing frequency of historic natural disasters, safe and resilient buildings are more important than ever. Inside what we see as a singular building is a complex network of components that work together to create a space that is safe, functional, and comfortable. Each component—like the foundation, roof, and electrical and plumbing systems—is designed and installed to a set of codes that ensure the safety of the structure. When constructed according to these building codes, the structure is better able to withstand regional climate conditions and weather events. Updated building codes help communities prevent damage and recover from natural hazards such as wildfires, hurricanes, floods and extreme heat and cold, and are especially important for protecting vulnerable or underserved communities where disasters may be particularly devastating.

It is widely acknowledged that structures built in accordance with modern building codes have greater structural integrity, safer wiring, and more adequate fire prevention. But did you know that modern building energy codes also contribute to the reduction of casualties, costs, and damages from disasters? 

In this resource, we’ll explore how energy codes can be life-saving and explore the benefits of adopting and updating building energy codes in your jurisdiction. Effective enforcement of codes is shown to enhance well-being, passive survivability, and grid resilience while also fostering a healthier, more durable, and sustainable built environment.

What Are Energy Codes?

Energy codes are like other building codes: They lay the groundwork with minimum requirements to which a building must be designed and constructed. For energy codes, these minimum requirements ensure buildings and their associated systems effectively use and conserve energy. 

Because the U.S. does not have a national energy code, states and local jurisdictions can choose to adopt one of two model energy codes or standards: the International Energy Conservation Code® (IECC) or ANSI/ASHRAE/IES Standard 90.1, Energy Standard for Sites and Buildings Except Low-Rise Residential Buildings (Standard 90.1). The IECC is one of the many International Codes® (I-Codes) developed by the International Code Council. It includes administrative chapters that detail how the code is to be adopted and enforced, and outlines the mandatory requirements for compliance. The IECC contains energy conservation requirements that address the energy use of both commercial and residential construction. Although similar, Standard 90.1 is applicable only to commercial buildings and is a standard rather than a code, thus establishing performance requirements without the enforcement requirements of a code. For states that adopt the IECC for commercial construction, Standard 90.1 may be selected as a compliance option for the IECC.

Both the IECC and Standard 90.1 are updated every three years through a comprehensive process that incorporates the input of builders, developers, industry, and building safety officials. Current energy code adoption status can be found on the Code Council’s website.

 International Energy Conservation Code® (IECC®) Adoption Map

Benefits of Adopting Current Energy Codes 

There are many benefits to having an up-to-date energy code, including increased energy efficiency, reduced greenhouse gas emissions, improved occupant comfort and safety, and greater community resilience. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, from 2010 to 2040, the model energy codes for residential and commercial buildings are projected to save: 

  • $138 billion in energy cost savings
  • 900 million metric tons (MMT) of avoided CO2 emissions
  • 13.5 quads of primary energy

These savings equate to the annual emissions of:

  • 195 million passenger vehicles
  • 227 coal power plants
  • 108 million homes

For perspective, the primary energy consumption of the entire U.S. commercial and residential sectors in 2020 was estimated at 38 quads.

The benefits of adopting and updating building energy codes go far beyond energy efficiency, however. A building that complies with current energy codes will better withstand the elements, especially during times of extreme weather events, such as prolonged periods of heat or cold, and even water events like floods and hurricanes. Energy codes play a critical role in reducing occupant vulnerability during and after natural disasters. This is commonly referred to as “passive survivability,” or the ability of a building to maintain critical life-support conditions during an extended energy outage or loss of energy supply or water. Passive survivability improves the outcome for building occupants by ensuring safe indoor thermal conditions are prolonged through design features that require no energy use, such as greater insulation in the building thermal envelope and air sealing. You can learn more about energy resilience and passive survivability on the Building Energy Code Program’s Energy Resilience webpage

Buildings designed and constructed to more recent energy codes are often also healthier for occupants. Improving the thermal performance of the building envelope and ensuring a home or building has adequate ventilation are necessary steps to achieving healthy indoor air quality and keeping out moisture. Updated energy codes include requirements for more efficient ventilation systems that reduce pollutants and allergens coming into the building, such as smoke from wildfires. They also include requirements for ventilation that pulls out indoor pollutants like furniture and carpet off-gassing, and emissions from gas stoves. Energy-efficient buildings are better at controlling moisture and reducing the risk of mold growth, which can be especially harmful to the health of those with asthma or weakened immune systems.

Distributed Energy Resources (DERs) and Resilience

Building to the requirements of modern energy codes helps with electrical grid functionality or grid resilience. Lower energy use from efficient buildings means that peak demand will be lower. To further offset this peak, we can deploy distributed energy resources (DERs). DERs provide energy generation and storage on the consumer’s end, like solar panels, energy storage systems and soon, stored energy from electric vehicles. Generation from distributed resources can help keep the grid stable and resilient during times of high demand. Though not required by current energy codes, there are upcoming provisions that will require new buildings to be ready to equip DERs.

Safety and Energy Codes

There is an interconnected nature to building codes, and it’s important that building safety officials understand this relationship; codes work in tandem to ensure overall building safety and efficiency. Codes mitigate the safety challenges associated with emerging efficient and renewable technologies that are regularly being introduced to the market. These codes govern the installation, construction, commissioning, and operation of DERs with the goal of preserving public health, safety, and welfare. As the building safety official evaluates the building’s design and components, it is an opportunity to support resilience through energy code compliance. This means looking beyond the traditional safety elements and evaluating how energy-efficient features can contribute to life safety. For example, the emphasis on tight building envelopes, air sealing measures, and separating conditioned from unconditioned spaces helps prevent fire and smoke from spreading through draft openings, slowing the spread of fire and smoke damage.  

Building code officials have an important responsibility when it comes to building safety. Compliance with energy codes brings the dual benefits of energy efficiency and increased safety.  Energy efficient features should be evaluated for their contributions to life safety during plan reviews and inspections. When building code officials recognize the unified nature of energy, fire, and safety codes, it leads to more comprehensive inspections and better compliance. This, in turn, results in buildings that reduce energy waste and are far safer for occupants. 

Energy Codes: A Blueprint for Safe, Efficient and Resilient Buildings

Properly implemented and enforced codes have a momentous impact on well-being, the ability to improve passive survivability, and grid resilience. Current energy codes are about more than reducing energy usage: They contribute to a healthier, more durable, and more sustainable built environment. A better understanding and more consistent enforcement of energy, fire, safety and building codes allows safety officials to better protect occupant health and ensure the cost-effective operation of buildings.

While code officials are immensely busy and in high demand, making time to gain insight on effective implementation and enforcement of energy codes can enhance community resilience in a time of growing challenges.

Code Education Resources

To find code education in your region, start with the regional energy efficiency organization in your area.

  • Midwest Energy Efficiency Alliance (MEEA): Visit MEEA’s website to learn more about the latest code-related information and activities across the Midwest, including access to training on energy codes and solutions to issues that block the adequate implementation and enforcement of energy codes.
  • Northeast Energy Efficiency Partnerships (NEEP): Visit NEEP’s website to learn about their work to provide technical support to develop, implement, and comply with building energy codes and standards.
  • South-central Partnership for Energy Efficiency as a Resource (SPEER): Visit SPEER’s website to learn more about expanding code compliance across Texas and Oklahoma through education, training opportunities, and online resources. That includes materials on which version of the energy code your jurisdiction has adopted, compliance guides for homes in Texas and Oklahoma, and a sample inspection checklist. 
  • Southeast Energy Efficiency Alliance (SEEA): Visit SEEA’s website to learn about SEEA’s regional energy codes program serves as a “onestopshop” for information about code adoption, implementation, and compliance efforts.
  • Southwest Energy Efficiency Project (SWEEP): Visit SWEEP’s website to learn how they help advance building energy codes and other programs and policies that accelerate significant carbon and energy savings for both new construction and existing buildings.
  • Northwest Energy Efficiency Alliance (NEEA): Visit NEEA’s website to learn how the NEEA Codes and Standards program supports regional stakeholders in the development, adoption, training, and implementation of energy codes.

Additional Resources

Learn how you can get involved in the International Code Council’s code development process.

This material was originally published on the Sustainable Energy Action Committee website and shared in the MEEA Blog. It is republished here with permission.

John Gossman

Contributing authors: Elizabeth John, Managing Director, South-central Partnership for Energy Efficiency as a Resource (SPEER); John Gossman, Building Associate, Midwest Energy Efficiency Alliance (MEEA); Jerica Stacey, International Code Council (ICC).

This material was developed by the Interstate Renewable Energy Council (IREC), South-central Partnership for Energy Efficiency as a Resource (SPEER), Midwest Energy Efficiency Alliance (MEEA), and the International Code Council (ICC). It is based upon work supported by the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE) under the Award Number DE-EE0009455 (“EMPOWERED”). The views expressed herein do not necessarily represent the views of the U.S. Department of Energy or the United States Government.

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