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European Directive Puts Performance First

A groundbreaking law in 2002, the Energy Performance of Buildings Directive has seen uneven implementation


By Tristan Roberts

In 2002, the United States had turned its back on the Kyoto Protocol and popular awareness of the role of buildings in greenhouse-gas emissions was still years away. Meanwhile, 2002 marked the approval of the Energy Performance of Buildings Directive (EPBD) by unanimous consent of European Union members. Recognizing the large role for buildings in meeting Europe’s commitments under the Kyoto Protocol and in averting global warming, the directive calls for a standard, continent-wide approach to energy efficiency, with an initial target of 28 percent overall savings, contributing to an estimated 11 percent reduction in total European energy use.

European Directive Puts Performance First
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Central to the directive is a standard framework for calculating the energy performance of buildings, which member countries must adopt. New buildings and existing buildings undergoing major renovation are subject to minimum performance requirements, which are to be updated at least every five years to reflect technical advances. The law calls for qualified professionals to inspect buildings, and specifically targets heating and air-conditioning systems (although not the building envelope).

Certification of buildings provides accountability. Whenever buildings are constructed, sold, or rented, the owner must provide an energy performance certificate, which can’t be older than 10 years. In smaller buildings, the certificate may be a private matter, but in buildings over 11,000 square feet, the certificate is publicly posted. An advisory report accompanying a building’s ratings tells owners how to save energy.

In compliance with the directive, Great Britain released “display energy certificates” with letter grades from “A” to “G” for all public buildings, in October 2008. Failing grades were the rule, including poor grades assigned to a number of high-profile “green” buildings. The average grade was a “D” for the first 3,200 buildings surveyed, and only 22 earned an “A.” One of the worst “G” ratings on record belongs to the offices of the British Department of Energy & Climate Change (which has indicated that it is moving).

The minor public scandal that ensued—along with fines for building owners not posting certificates—succeeded in raising the profile of building energy performance. However, Bill Bordass, an expert on building performance, cautioned that it’s too early to judge the results. “The system was introduced hastily, and the technique, the benchmarks, and the assessor skills all need to evolve,” he said.

Richard Nussey, director of L’atelier Ltd., which provides services for compliance with the law, agrees that the British response to the directive is a work in progress. “They are fairly complex pieces of legislation and the industry is still coming to grips with implementing them,” he said. “The downturn in the property market certainly hasn’t helped.”

Up until now, the minimum performance levels and the certification schemes have been developed country by country, and some countries are lagging behind so much that they’re being sued. Even Britain has received blistering criticism for its slow adoption, which caused projected carbon savings for 2010 to drop by 80 percent.

A recast version of the directive, proposed in 2008, would put more focus on homes and existing buildings regardless of size. It would also add needed rigor, creating a benchmarking tool that would allow comparisons among the energy standards of different member states—a step that could harness old European rivalries and competitiveness in service of more rigorous certification schemes.

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This article appeared in the May 2009 print issue of GreenSource Magazine.

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