News Brief

Existing Building Performance Standards Urgently Needed

The pressure is on in the U.S. to mandate existing building decarbonization. ACEEE has analyzed domestic and international laws for best practices to broaden the reach of this climate change mitigation tool.

cover of report titled Mandatory Building Performance Standards: A Key Policy for Achieving Climate Goals.

The authors estimate it would take nearly 400 years to decarbonize existing buildings at current retrofit rates.

Image: American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEEE)
The U.S. building industry’s decades-long battle against climate change has focused outsize resources and effort on new construction. But existing building decarbonization must become a central mission, and soon, according to an analysis from the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEEE).

Steven Nadel and Adam Hinge, the authors of Mandatory Building Performance Standards: A Key Policy for Achieving Climate Goalsemphasize the urgent need to widely adopt building performance standards (BPS), which are laws designed to limit the greenhouse gas emissions of existing structures.

An alarming data point sets the stage: it would, the authors assert, take at least 377 years to retrofit existing building stock at current rates—and that’s assuming much deeper retrofits than are common now. We don’t have that kind of time.

Accelerating the pace is far easier said than done, as early BPS adopters in the U.S. have found. The Office of the Mayor of the City of New York, in a recent report on its BPS (Local Law 97), lists many financial, technical, and equity barriers and concludes that “achieving LL97 will require a comprehensive mobilization involving decarbonization of central systems; financing and funding; technical advice and innovation; and enforcement.” Meanwhile, of the nearly 40 jurisdictions that have joined the National Building Performance Standards Coalition, only three expect to adopt a BPS by the end of 2023. And since exactly zero U.S. states or major cities are currently enforcing a BPS, new policies are being written with few case studies available to help. 

Nadel and Hinge present examples of BPS currently in force internationally (in Tokyo, the U.K., and Vancouver, B.C.) and in one U.S. city (Boulder, Colorado) along with several that have been adopted but are not yet in force (including the Biden administration’s BPS exclusively for federal buildings, which differs fundamentally from ordinances in state and local jurisdictions). They present several preliminary conclusions:

  • Best resource for policymakers to use as a springboardmodel BPS legislation from the Institute for Market Transformation (IMT), currently the closest thing to a national standard
  • Which stakeholders to consult: a variety of owners, but certainly affordable housing organizations to ensure equitable outcomes
  • When to consult stakeholders: before, throughout, and after adoption, and during enforcement
  • What to measure (source or site energy use, carbon emissions, or a combination) and whether to require electrification: a complex set of choices that may depend on local grid mixes and other factors to incentivize the right things
  • Whether to start with benchmarking and transparency first: a smooth way to ramp up but not absolutely necessary (see our analysis of benchmarking and transparency laws)
  • Appropriate building sizes, compliance lead times, interim reduction targets, and penalties: best tailored jurisdiction by jurisdiction, with equitable outcomes always in mind
  • Technical support, financial support, and enforcement: essential to success but also an expansive, expensive, and ongoing need

The authors conclude that “to be successful, building performance standards must be complemented with other policies and programs,” and they also recommend “special attention to how the performance standards apply in critical markets such as affordable housing.” As they emphasize, “Every jurisdiction needs to plan for adequate resources in order to ensure a successful implementation.”

More on existing building decarbonization

We Must Decarbonize Existing Buildings by 2050—but How?

New Tool Supports Existing Building Decarbonization at Scale

Investors Will Use EPIC Tool to Decarbonize Existing Assets

Raze or Retrofit? CARE Tool Has the Answer

Biden Calls for Electrification to Decarbonize Federal Buildings

Building Carbon Caps to Scale Up with New Coalition

For more information:


Published October 9, 2023

Melton, P. (2023, October 9). Existing Building Performance Standards Urgently Needed. Retrieved from

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