The Boston City Council will soon vote on a proposed building energy use reporting and disclosure zoning ordinance. If we really want to reduce our city’s energy use and associated greenhouse gas emissions, we Bostonians need the City Council to approve this “benchmarking” ordinance.

Under the 20-year leadership of Mayor Thomas M. Menino, Boston has made great progress in adopting policies designed to protect our City from the effects of climate change by reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Since the Mayor’s first green building task force was convened in 2003, we’ve seenexecutive orders, zoning recommendations, “green ribbon”commissions and innovative programs that have made us one of the greenest cities in America.

We’ve come very far. We shouldn’t back down now.

Many organizations have come out in favor of this proposal. A Better City, the Northeast Energy Efficiency Partnerships, the Institute for Market Transformation and the USGBC Massachusettshave posted essays that you should read. The Boston Society of Architects has gone on record in support as well. So rather than re-state any of those arguments, let’s consider one of the big questions that makes people uncertain about this measure.

Why should city government control private energy use? Is this over-regulation?

We elect Mayors and City Councilors to do the job of municipal governance: to create the conditions under which all citizens can live and prosper fairly, businesses can succeed, and intrinsic resources can be protected. Responsible government must always find the balance between protecting individual rights and defending the public good. To do this, Mayors and City Councilors establish policies and work within regulatory frameworks that they believe will achieve this balance.

The goal of reducing our city’s greenhouse gas emissions is one of those policies. Sixty percent of Boston’s electricity use is in buildings. Zoning is the legal regulatory framework within which cities manage private buildings. Therefore, a zoning ordinance that will help Boston understand greenhouse gas emissions caused by building energy use is a necessary and proper step.

Energy use is not entirely a private matter, either. The external cost to the public from climate change and environmental degradation caused by conventional means of electricity generation is now clearly understood. The City rightly sees energy wastefulness as a public health matter.

And as architects and design professionals, we know that the modern building codes that promote energy efficiency only affect new construction and renovation. Most of Boston’s buildings pre-date 21st century codes. So without actual energy use data, we are at a loss to capitalize on the vast potential of energy savings that can be found in existing buildings. We need a benchmarking ordinance.

And besides, this ordinance doesn’t actually give the City the power to say how much energy a building should use. It doesn’t even penalize a building owner for being wasteful. It does propose fines for non-compliance and provides an option for the City to require ASHRAE Level II Energy Audits for properties that can’t demonstrate improvement. But that’s the extent of the regulatory “sticks”. The ordinance doesn’t require a building owner to spend any money on their buildings at all.

Lastly, an admission on behalf of architects: As a profession, we need to do a much better job of tracking actual building energy performance against design intent. And you’ve heard this one before: if you don’t measure it, you can’t manage it. This ordinance would provide us with a level of data that would be truly transformational.

So if you live in Boston, your voice counts. If you work in Boston, you spend money here and pay taxes so your influence matters. If you agree that building energy benchmarking is right for Boston, call, email or Tweet the City Council. They need to hear from you. If you’re an architect, tell them it will make your promise to bring architecture into compliance with the energy use reduction guidelines of the AIA 2030 Commitment considerably more achievable.

Knowledge is in fact power. A zoning ordinance designed to help us understand how our buildings really use energy can bring widespread benefits to building owners and users alike.

This post originally appeared on the blog of Principal Mike Davis, FAIA.

Published Apr 12, 2013