Do Building Codes Actually Save Energy?

According to a new paper (abstract here; pdf here) by the environmental economists Grant Jacobsen and Matthew Kotchen, the answer is yes.

The gist:

While the vast majority of states have energy codes in place, policymakers are now attempting to legislate energy codes at the federal level to help address more recent concerns about energy efficiency and climate change. Nevertheless, surprisingly little is known about whether energy codes are an effective way to reduce energy consumption in practice. This paper provides the first evaluation of an energy-code change that uses residential billing data on both electricity and natural gas, combined with data on observable characteristics of each residence. The study takes place in Gainesville, Florida, and the empirical strategy is based on comparisons between residences constructed just before and just after Florida increased the stringency of its energy code in 2002. We find that the increased stringency of the energy code is associated with a 4-percent decrease in electricity consumption and a 6-percent decrease in natural-gas consumption. The pattern of savings is consistent with reduced consumption of electricity for air-conditioning and reduced consumption of natural gas for heating. We also estimate economic costs and benefits and find that the private payback period for the average residence is 6.4 years. The social payback period, which accounts for the avoided costs of air-pollution emissions, ranges between 3.5 and 5.3 years.

Related: Jacobsen’s job-market paper was called “The Al Gore Effect: An Inconvenient Truth and Voluntary Carbon Offsets.” In summary:

This paper examines the relationship between climate change awareness and household behavior by testing whether Al Gore’s documentary An Inconvenient Truth caused an increase in the purchase of voluntary carbon offsets. I find that in the two months following the film’s release, zip codes within a 10-mile radius of a zip code where the film was shown experienced a 50 percent relative increase in the purchase of voluntary carbon offsets. During other times, offset purchasing patterns for zip codes inside the 10-mile radius were similar to the patterns of zip codes outside the 10-mile radius. There is, however, little evidence that individuals who purchased an offset due to the film renewed them again a year later.

In spite of hiking the Appalachian Trail.

I think Al has grown himself an offset.


Several pieces have been published recently that track the impact of green initiatives on property value and on long-run energy savings. It appears that Energy Star and other programs have a real but declining impact on value after the initial sale. The bottom line is that the market appears to value energy savings positively, perhaps discounting potential future energy cost increases as well as current costs


Do building codes require insulating hot water piping before closing up the walls and inside crawl spaces/ basements along with insulating hot water heaters?

If not then the codes should as this is the cheapest and easiest thing to do in order to save both electricity/gas and water (usually run to get to the hot water). Somehow LEED certified homes and other ~green~ washed initiatives do not provide for this or compensate for this- only for installing big $$$$ money appliances and hvac systems...

Eric M. Jones

Building codes, like other codes and standards, probably raise the average energy savings while simultaneously refutiating the building of homes that would provide radical improvements. That's how it always is.

The US had a booming rethink of building architecture in the late 1930's. Much effort was directed towards dome-homes and other wild departures from "stick and brick" houses. WWII killed it off.


As someone who manages a large amount of retail facilities, the building codes have some effect on energy costs, but have a immediate upward impact on building costs. To me, our intent is to go beyond building code regulations to increase the energy savings in each of our facilities because next to salaries, building costs is the second highest expense we have and if you can lower the operating costs by improving r-value, you don't need the government to figure that out for you.

Joel Upchurch

It seems to me that the researchers on building codes have made a fundamental error. There is no logical reason to conclude that because a state building code is effective, then a federal building will be better or even as good.

Should a building code for North Dakota worry about hurricanes? Should Florida worry about snow and sub-zero temperatures? Even within a state is is hard enough to have sensible building codes. In Texas regulations for the gulf coast may make little sense in the panhandle. Florida uses different rules for even coastal and interior counties.

If Washington writes the rules, then we will end up with a one-size fits nobody solution that costs more and does less than what we have now.


@ eric...'refutiating"? refutiating? americans love to just flail away at language, don't we?
'refuting' will do , dear..
and how were the years of benefit arrived at? What price did you put on reducing global warming, on helping species survive, on using less water - has that environmental cost been standardized? That would be news to me - let';s tell BP what the price of the extinction of a species is, then, why don't we?

Eric M. Jones


You betcha. Refutiating.


If these things were properly priced in the first place you wouldn't need codes trying to rig the system.

silent e

Joel, perhaps you should reread the article more carefully. It is talking about building codes related to energy savings, not other aspects of building codes.