What do the new Climate Action Plans say about buildings?

Lindsay Baker
11 min readJul 30, 2020

I’m back for a second installment of analysis and commentary on the buildings sections of emerging Climate Action Policy Plans. Maybe you’re a buildings person and you want to know what lawmakers are thinking, maybe you’re a lawmaker looking for insights from the buildings world. Either way, welcome, I hope you get something out of this.

So many window A/C units in the world, so little time (image courtesy of Unsplash)

Today I’m going to summarize the buildings section of three plans, perhaps the most important three: the House Climate Action Plan, which is a 500+ page doozy, the Biden Climate Action Plan and the Evergreen Action Plan (from Governor Jay Inslee’s team, which is known to be an influence on the Biden campaign and was a precursor to these other two). My summary will conclude with a bit of commentary, but more is to come on this front. I’m going to break this down into categories that will make sense to building industry folks:

  • New construction
  • Existing buildings
  • Federal buildings only
  • Peripheral topics that you want to know about

Overall, there is some really exciting language in all three plans, and the 7 most impactful and exciting of these are:

  1. The Biden and Evergreen plans push for all new buildings to be constructed to be net zero carbon by 2030. This would be a big change for the design and construction industry.
  2. The House plan pushes for mandatory energy performance transparency for all buildings (or at least all commercial buildings).
  3. The Biden plan pushes for existing building energy performance standards, along with renovating 3m commercial and 2m residential buildings.
  4. The Biden and House plans push for enacting the Rebuild America’s Schools act, dedicated to renovating our failing public school buildings.
  5. All plans push for significant increases in LIHEAP, WAP and other similar low-income household building efficiency and improvement funding.
  6. All plans talk about the importance of affordable housing front and center, although their policy approaches range and are sometimes vague.
  7. All plans talk about electrification of buildings (i.e. the elimination of gas infrastructure), which is critical and a growing movement in our industry.
Plan overview
Plan highlights

A few high-level opinions about the plans:

  • The House Plan reads like a laundry list of things that have already been proposed or enacted, along with a few new things. The Buildings section isn’t very prioritized or strategic in layout, and it goes into some topics with a ton of detail and others have very little detail. The Biden and Evergreen plans have a lot less detail, but are better as broad vision documents. This is probably a reflection of the nature of the different branches of government to some degree. But I still think the House could paint a vision for buildings, as it does in some of the other sections of their Plan, such as the electricity section.
  • The consulting firm Energy Innovation did a full analysis of the impact that the House plan would have on climate change, which you can read here. They do a Pacala/Socolow-style stabilization wedge, and I couldn’t help but notice that the buildings impact is small compared to other solutions. The only noticeable wedge for buildings is the electrification wedge. Building retrofits barely shows up. This is super unfortunate- it makes it look like electrification is the only potential carbon reduction area for the buildings sector, and we know that is not true. It is super important and big, but efficiency and clean energy are big too. But the reason for this is that the House really doesn’t have much in their plan to reduce the energy consumption of buildings over time, which is just a missed opportunity that the Biden and Evergreen plans thankfully did not miss.
  • While all three plans use similar language and highlight similar issues, when you get into the details, there is not much commonality between the details for buildings, unlike what I hear is happening in some sectors like electricity where the democrats are coming together on a vision. I don’t think this is because of genuine differences of opinion, it feels more like lack of conversation and coordination, but I could be wrong.

Okay, and if you don’t want to read the full discussion below, here is a table that compares just the most clear, important and impactful parts of the buildings sections for each of the three plans (in my opinion).Also, for the truly nerdy among you, I made this spreadsheet that breaks down *my version* of the House Climate Action Recommendations for Buildings, if you’d like to get into the details. You can sort by residential/commercial, existing legislation versus new, type of intervention (i.e. tax rebates versus grant programs), and more.

New construction

The presidential platforms (Biden and Evergreen) have the most exciting language for new construction- both say that we must set a standard that requires net-zero carbon (or emissions) for all new buildings by 2030. The house says that we should aim for a similar goal, but doesn’t talk about any standards or legislation to require it.

The Biden and Evergreen goals are different: Biden’s plan calls for “a new net zero emissions standard for all new commercial buildings by 2030”, and Evergreen calls for “all zero carbon new buildings across the US by 2030”. Biden is only calling for net-zero commercial buildings, not residential. Who knows why he left out residential, but it’s a difference.

Second, we in the building industry care about the exact terms being used here, so I think it deserves clarifying that all three seem to be talking about what Shanti Pless and Paul Torcellini call “Net Zero Emissions”: “A net-zero emissions building produces (or purchases) enough emissions-free [renewable energy] to offset emissions from all energy used in the building annually”. Or more specifically, NZEB-D in their paper. So since this is just a standard for new construction, this means all new buildings would have to be designed with the intention to perform at net zero annually, and/or have paperwork showing that there was an intention to purchase emissions-free renewable energy via certified RECs or otherwise. I have opinions about this (in short, we need to be careful about how RECs will become a popular compliance pathway and what consequences that will have), but I’ll save that for another post.

The House plan is lacking in the realm of standards for new construction. Basically they want to continue incentivizing states and cities to update their energy codes instead of lagging behind. Meh. The world is on fire, friends! We can do more, and the Biden and Evergreen plans do.

All three action plans call for more construction of affordable housing- public and private, and for that housing to be energy efficient and healthy. The House plan and the Evergreen plan get into more detail about this, and point to a lot of private tax incentives for affordable housing developers and other private incentives (most of which already exist, they are just suggesting to fund them more). But they both do advocate for funding public housing directly, which is important. Biden just doesn’t get into those details- we don’t know if he’s talking about private versus publicly owned housing, but the spirit seems to be there. Something to push for clarity on, for sure.

The House has some other ideas for new construction, both for residential and commercial. But most of them already exist- they are just calling for continued support for them (many would otherwise expire at the end of this year). Things like tax credits to developers who build efficient housing. Also, a revival of incentives for states and cities to adopt newer energy codes.

Also, the House seems to be catching on to embodied carbon, and have some eyebrow-raising ideas in there about how they could help. These are a little cringe-worthy TBH, but I appreciate the effort and hope that someone helps them articulate these bits better. That section, entitled ‘Reduce Emissions from Building Materials’ seems out of place compared to the rest of the document: it hardly references any existing bills, and suggests that the federal portfolio do things that really no one can do yet. It also suggests that the American federal government set up a new “Green Building Material and Products Certification Program and Label”. Did I hear you gasp in fear, disbelief, and genuine hope that this idea will be forgotten because we definitely don’t need another label in our lives? I think I did. (Sorry if that is too snarky, but in all seriousness, there are so many entities already trying to do this, and it is so gnarly, I really can’t imagine that the US government would somehow find it to be a smart way to spend time).

Finally, one random and useful idea from the House: updating the standards for manufactured housing! Apparently they haven’t been updated since 1994. Just for reference, that’s the year that Yahoo! was founded. That seems like a GREAT one. Call your congressperson on that, everyone. It’s a no brainer.

In a future piece, I’ll compare these plans to what else we could be doing with new construction, particularly within the context of economic stimulus. But in the meantime, check out Rocky Mountain Institute’s ideas here.

Existing buildings

Buildings often last for as many as 50 years. Most of the new buildings constructed today will remain standing in 2050.” — House Climate Action Plan

LOLLLLLL. I’m sorry to briefly make fun of some poor soul who had to write the House climate language probably late at night and probably had a toddler stealing their keyboard AND was supposed to be making dinner. This was likely supposed to say that commercial buildings in the US are an average of 50 years old (here). And indeed, it would be highly unusual for a building to be knocked down after 30 years, so YES, yes they will be around in 2050. You’re lucky if you replace mechanical equipment every 30 years. So we should care about existing building performance. As some readers will know, this is my jams, I’m not as interested in the new construction stuff because, well, there are so many existing buildings and they get so little love.

So, the most clear and visionary language for existing buildings comes from the Biden document. It has a commitment to:

  • the Rebuild America’s Schools Act,
  • a commitment to establish building performance standards nationwide,
  • increasing funding for (what is likely) the Weatherization Assistance Project (WAP),
  • and it specifically calls out the goals of 4 million commercial and 2 million residential retrofits.

The Evergreen plan includes much of this conceptually, but it doesn’t articulate details as much (how much funding, what mechanisms would be used, etc). But ultimately I think the Biden plan has it right here: first we need standards for existing buildings, and then investment and mobilization to renovate to those standards, particularly for low-income families and businesses. It follows the rubric that Evergreen invented of Standards, Investment and Justice, which I love.

The House plan, again, is full of ideas that are good but not particularly visionary. The best part of the House plan for existing buildings is the call for a mandatory national building energy transparency program, akin to what the EU has had for years (I know of it as the EPBD, the Energy Performance in Buildings Directive). Yaaaaaas. The authors note that 2 dozen local and state governments have them already, and that they think we should look into not just a commercial buildings program, but also a residential one. GET AFTER IT, Democrats. I’m in. Of course, it’s very complicated to pull this off, and we don’t even remotely have enough good data infrastructure in buildings to do it, but I like your ambition and I support it. As far as I know, it’s working in Europe, so that’s good.

But back to this issue that Energy Innovation’s wedge report shows: the House hasn’t made any clear, meaningful commitments to reducing the energy consumption of existing buildings. This seems like an oversight, given how extraordinarily cost effective it is, how much it will help improve the health of Americans, and how many jobs it will create. Oh, and how much carbon reduction we get out of it. That too ;)

Federal Buildings

For those of us in the sustainable buildings world, we know that the GSA has always been a real leader in our movement, and I hope they continue to be. And so I’m a little less worried about the question of what we ask our Federal buildings to do (which are largely under their management and influence). But nonetheless, there are a bunch of ideas for them in these plans, especially the House plan, and a little in the Evergreen plan (but really none in the Biden plan). Frankly, I don’t find any of them particularly important, but that’s because I know that the GSA is already killing it. I’m not confident that the legislators who proposed some of these bills (like in particular, the Smart Buildings Act, which is included in the House plan) know that the GSA is already doing the things they suggest (with a special shout-out to the Green Proving Ground!). Perhaps what is needed is additional funding for the existing work, but we could save a few pages by just saying that. If you want to see the details of the proposals and bills, check out my spreadsheet.

Important Other Topics for Buildings

Workforce training and jobs: If you read my last piece, you know that this topic is near to my heart. All three plans mention workforce training, but none with many details. The Evergreen plan mentions the GPRO program that Urban Green in NYC runs (although they call it the “Green Supers” program, not sure why), but I think a lot more detail needs to go into the thinking here, as I detailed in my last piece.

Justice & Equity in Housing: The Evergreen plan does an amazing job of talking through the justice and equity issues of housing, and what should be done about it. The other plans hint at some of this type of policy work, but I sincerely hope that they start following the Evergreen lead on this topic. The House has some good stuff about supporting community Land Banks and other community-led programs, but this deserves a lot more attention in the coming months, and should go hand in hand with the workforce training and jobs work.

Electrification: The winds of change are blowing hard for a departure from the use of natural gas in buildings, and these three plans show just how strong those winds are. I put this as an ‘other’ topic because it supersedes the categories above, and because it’s an important area to watch. Something like an appliance rebate is a less controversial way to encourage this transition, but outright bans on natural gas in construction are also possible to see in this policy push.

Clean Electricity Goals: All three plans have similar goals for major investment in the electric grid, including a nationwide Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS), a national Energy Efficiency Resource Standard (EERS)- these are things that many states have, and there is a call for a national commitment to them. For example, Biden is calling for a “carbon pollution-free power sector by 2035”. This means that our buildings will start getting cleaner electricity over time, because our friends in the power sector will be working on this as we work on improving buildings. It’s worth thinking about how this will influence the call for on-site renewables, and what sorts of efficiency investments we should invest in. That’s a big one that I’ll leave for another day.

In conclusion, there is a lot of good stuff here. I’m going to wait until next time to suggest some new ideas, and will also point out some new ideas from the buildings community that deserve inclusion. But in the meantime, I think it’s worth us, in the building industry, thinking about what future we want to create, and whether these policies align with that vision. Because they are picking up speed and support, and now is the time to act for our future!