Energy Code 101: Washington’s Hidden Climate Champion

About every three years, groups of talented building professionals come together for a series of long meetings to determine how Washington should best construct new buildings. How should our newest buildings incorporate the latest technologies and techniques into codes and keep occupants safe and comfortable? Building codes ensure that all new buildings are being constructed to the highest standard; these codes include mechanical codes, fire codes, plumbing codes, and energy codes. In Washington State, the State Building Code Council (SBCC) is the critical decisionmaking body on moving forward strong energy codes. 

What is the Energy Code? Why is it important?

Energy use in new buildings is governed by the energy code, which is divided into two sections: 

  1. The residential energy code, which regulates single-family homes, townhomes, and low-rise multifamily buildings (three floors and shorter); and 
  2. The commercial energy code, which regulates commercial buildings and large multifamily buildings (four floors and taller). 

By legislative statute, Washington’s energy code is required to become increasingly more efficient every revision cycle so that new buildings in 2031 are effectively zero carbon-ready (RCW 19.27A.160). In addition, Governor Inslee’s Executive Order 14-04 directs the State Building Code Council to “achieve early and widespread deployment of energy-neutral buildings prior to the 2031 statutory requirement in RCW 19.27A.160.” Because there are only four code cycles between now and the 2031 code, it is essential that each revision maximize what can be done to make buildings more efficient and transition away from fossil fuels. 

More efficient and fossil fuel free buildings mean:

  • Lower utility costs for residents and tenants
  • Healthier homes and buildings with improved indoor air quality
  • More responsible use of our existing clean energy resources, eliminating needs for new power generation as our population and electricity needs grow
  • Clean electricity currently needed for buildings is made available to replace fossil fuels used in vehicles and space heating
  • Reduced energy use, which will help us meet our needed climate pollution reduction targets 

What’s the process for updating the Energy Code?

The Washington State energy code is based on the International Energy Conservation Code (IECC), a model code which is then tailored to Washington’s specific needs. Once the model code is released, SBCC staff integrate new changes into the existing Washington State Energy Code and then release it for review. In 2021, the SBCC will first address the commercial energy code, and in 2022, will take up the residential energy code. These codes will go into effect in 2023. 

Anyone can propose additional changes to the draft energy code, as long as the change does not make the energy code less efficient than in the draft. 

All proposals are first reviewed and moved forward by a Energy Code Technical Advisory Group (TAG), which is made up of more than 20 industry professionals. The public is invited to all TAG meetings (the schedule is posted here). A package of TAG-approved changes then goes to a SBCC committee and then to the full SBCC. The SBCC then releases a new draft energy code for public comment and hearings. Following public comment, the SBCC approves the revised code, and may modify provisions during this step. The Commercial energy code (called the “2021 Commercial Energy code”) is currently scheduled for a final vote of the SBCC in spring of 2022, and this process will then repeat for the residential energy code.

How can I get involved and support a strong energy code?

In Washington, the Energy Code process is very democratic and it is the volunteers who really move it forward! There are a number of ways to get involved:

  • Shift Zero has an energy code team that discusses strategic changes to the energy code. If you are interested in joining, email
  • All TAG meetings are open to the public and this is a key place to support and provide more information on proposals. 
  • Eventually, there will be public hearings where public comment is essential. Sign-up for the Shift Zero newsletter to find out when these advocacy opportunities will happen. 
  • Finally, overall direction on the energy code is set by the state legislature. Reach out to your legislators to let them know you support Washington’s hidden climate champion and to keep it strong!

photo credit: Rae Lee, Washington Environmental Council

HopeWorks Station, Everett, WA

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