Washington Passes Codes to Transition Buildings off of Fossil Fuels in Nationwide First

State Building Code Council adopts energy codes requiring electric heat pumps in new commercial construction

This past Earth Day, April 22, the Washington State Building Code Council (SBCC) voted 11-3 to adopt a new statewide commercial and multifamily building energy code that will be the strongest, most climate friendly in the country by driving the transition to clean electricity for space and water heating. This major win for clean energy coincided with President Joe Biden’s Earth Day Seattle visit where he discussed the infrastructure bill and the clean energy transition, and comes amidst a growing wave of policies to electrify buildings across the country. 

Under Washington’s updated energy code, which will take effect in July 2023, new commercial buildings – including multifamily residential buildings four stories and taller – will be built with high-efficiency electric heat pumps for water and space heating. Washington’s electricity mix is among the cleanest and most affordable in the country, and the new building code is projected to cut more than eight million tons of carbon dioxide by 2050, equivalent to the annual emissions of 1.8 million cars. The updated energy code also includes improvements to building envelopes and efficiency that will further save energy for building users. 

“Washington’s action today is a significant step forward in curtailing building sector pollution that’s adding to climate change and unhealthy air,” said Rachel Koller, coordinator of the Shift Zero alliance. “A strong energy code is a critical tool to ensure buildings are part of the climate solution, and Washington’s new energy code can be a model for other states.” 

The Sierra Club worked with community partners across the state to engage the public in these proposals, and by the end of the public comment period, more than 5,000 residents submitted comments in support of the policy, along with hundreds of technical experts including affordable housing advocates, health care professionals, mechanical engineers, and more.

“We need energy efficient homes with healthy air for the vast numbers of seniors, families with children, and individuals living in multifamily affordable housing,” said Sharon Lee, executive director of the Low Income Housing Institute. “Building greener and high-performing with high-efficiency electric heat pumps is good news in the new energy code. It's part of the answer for lowering utility costs for residents long-term, and for healthier homes.” 

Looking forward, the Sierra Club is working with partners on similar proposed code amendments for residential new construction, which will be voted on by the State Building Code Council later this year. If passed, the residential and commercial amendments would ensure that the vast majority of new construction in Washington would be powered by high efficiency appliances run on clean electricity.

In Washington State, homes and buildings have been the fastest-growing source of carbon pollution, up 50 percent since 1990, and cause a quarter of Washington’s climate pollution. Washington’s 2021 State Energy Strategy finds building electrification the most cost-effective approach to cutting carbon pollution in the building sector, and the commercial code update saw an outpouring of support from local building industry professionals, as well as from health care professionals and public health officials, air quality and equity advocates, businesses, labor unions, affordable housing groups, faith leaders and environment, and climate advocates. For more on building electrification efforts in Washington, visit BuildElectricWA.org. 

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