Boulder’s Passive Aggressive Building Standards

Usually when people say that “better is the enemy of good enough”, they’re pointing out that striving for perfection can be a distraction from just getting the job at hand done.  There are other dynamics that involve these concepts too.  As social animals, we tend to judge ourselves against those around us.  Once our basic needs have been satisfied, our relative wealth or deprivation often becomes more important to us than our absolute level of well being.  We have little concept of how much is enough.  This can lead to the familiar runaway acquisitiveness (keeping up with the Joneses) when there is a well established (or constructed…) social norm favoring consumption.  Less obviously, it can also lead to an inappropriate lack of ambition when faced with an objective task that is not supported by widespread social norms.

Over the last couple of years Boulder has upped its building energy efficiency standards.  The new permitting regime requires buildings to perform better — net of on-site generation like photovoltaics — than the 2006 international building codes (IBC).  Smaller dwellings (< 3000 square feet) have to use 30% less energy than the baseline.  Medium homes (3000-5000 sq ft) need to do 50% better, and large ones (> 5000 sq ft) have to beat it by 75%.  Obviously this is an improvement over the previous situation, but in comparison to what is possible, and what is necessary to combat climate change, it’s actually pretty unimpressive.  Homes of all sizes built to the Passive House standard use 80-90% less energy than the baseline code, and they do it without counting any on-site power generation against the building’s energy consumption, whereas the HERS index that is used in the Boulder code does count on-site generation.  This is an important distinction, because the atmosphere doesn’t cancel out your nighttime coal-fired emissions with the solar electricity that you sell onto the grid during the day.  All it cares about is the total amount of CO2 released.

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