Understanding the New MA DOER Stretch Energy and Specialized Codes

We recently sat down with Finegold Alexander’s Lara Pfadt and Vanderweil’s Patrick Murphy to learn more about the new codes and the importance of knowledge sharing.

April 19, 2023
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Are you familiar with the new Massachusetts Department of Energy Resources (MA DOER) Stretch Energy and Specialized codes? Whether it’s yes or no, everyone involved in the design community continues to learn something new every day to determine the correct code path for a project. This is why Finegold Alexander Architect Senior Associate and Sustainability Strategist Lara Pfadt and Vanderweil Engineers Associate Principal and Director of Sustainable Design Patrick Murphy have joined forces, along with other members in the BSA design community, to lead presentations to educate the public and members of the AEC industry.

What started as a one-time presentation has turned into a series of presentations through BSA Code and COTE committees, town community meetings, and office presentations, as this knowledge sharing, and collaboration is key to the success of our future projects and the built environment.

We recently sat down with Lara and Patrick to learn more about code updates, why it’s important to have these conversations and some advice for anyone within the design community.

Okay, to get started, let’s learn a little bit more about you and your professional background.

Patrick Murphy (PM):

Hi, I'm Patrick Murphy. I'm the Director of Sustainable Design, and an Associate Principal at Vanderweil Engineers. My background academically is as an Architectural Engineer – more of a multidisciplinary role– but a building focused engineer with a focus on energy systems and sustainability. I have 10 years of experience as a Mechanical Engineer and MEP Project Manager at Vanderweil’s Washington, DC office. And then six years ago, I moved to our Boston headquarters to lead our Building Performance Group. That's our team of Sustainability Consultants, Energy Modelers and Building Performance analysts. I integrate with all of our project teams, regardless of whether a project is pursuing certification, to ensure that our designs are meeting our own standards for high performance and sustainability.

Patrick Murphy, Vanderweil Engineers

Lara Pfadt (LP):

Hi, I’m Lara Pfadt and I work at Finegold Alexander Architects. I'm a Senior Associate and our sustainability strategist, which means in a nutshell, that I am the person who leads the day-to-day activities of the Sustainability Group within office. From principals down to our interns, everyone is actively working on projects. I am the person who helps direct how our group can best support them. I also work with our Director of Sustainability, Rebecca Berry, very closely and she has built up such an amazing practice of sustainability and FA Energy at the firm that I'm happy to be part of and support wherever possible.

Lara Pfadt (left) and Rebecca Berry (right)

How did you two meet and get involved with different sustainability initiatives within the AEC industry?

PM: I was former co-chair of the BSA Committee for the Environment, and Lara is the current chair, so that's one of our connections. And the work that we're doing together now is educating the building design and ownership community around the new energy code changes.

LP: We should point out, none of us are experts in code. We’re all professionals who are working through this in our daily lives, in our work, and trying to come together and take that we're learning and the information we've gathered and work to help our profession embrace this amazing new code as we move forward.

Why do you think it’s so important to have these conversations?

LP: BSA reached out to the Codes Committee, which is co-chaired by our own Finegold Alexander Associate Megan Carriere, and the COTE group saying this new energy code is coming and how do we help our community. This will affect everyone residential, commercial, everyone will be affected by this, because the built environment affects us all. There’s been such a need to understand so many aspects of the code and how does it affect buildings and existing buildings? How does energy modeling actually play out, and the DOER has been great in taking part in these presentations and helping us through, because their goal is to make sure that this works as well.

PM: My team saw the draft code language established last year, and this was a substantial raising the bar of what was required to be a code-compliant building in the state of Massachusetts. The old ways of defining success for code compliance have now completely changed so there's a necessary amount of education that's required for all professionals to be able to meet that new higher bar. We also want to be the best advocates for our clients, for our building owners, to guide them to design the best performing building that meets their needs while also affording the programmatic and budget requirements. We initially started doing this education internally then through the BSA, and the more people that we talked to, the more that we found this hunger for more information about it.

For those that may not know, when does the new code go into effect and what kinds of buildings does it affect?

LP: It’s not a linear answer, but the below graphic helps describe it. The new stretch code went into effect January one, so it's already in effect. What is not yet in effect is the commercial energy code, which also takes into account multifamily residential as well, will come into effect July 1. There is also a specialized opt-in code to which communities vote to opt in too, will come into effect six months after the point of which they adopt it. So, once it goes through their municipal legislation, it goes into effect six months after that time on either July 1 or Jan 1.

Code Timeline Graphic

PM: I will add to that, of course, and that's why the committee that Lara and I are a part of has a group that are creating a forest of decision trees for project teams and owners to understand how to navigate what applies specifically to their project, given all the different characteristics of their project.

“As a design community, we really come together and work through this and want to work through this puzzle, because it matters so much.”

LP: There are resources available. The COTE site posted videos of our presentation series, available here. And I still think that's one of the most amazing part of all of this, everyone's in the profession, but we are doing this in our volunteer time – no one is paying us to do this. As a design community, we really come together and work through this and want to work through this puzzle, because it matters so much.

Why are communities deciding to opt into the energy codes? How have those discussions been like?

LP: We should explain that there are three levels, there's base code, there's stretch code, and then there's specialized opt-in each. There are 60 communities that are just base code in Massachusetts, and then there's, you know, 280-90 in the specialized stretch code and then there are just five communities which have adopted the specialized opt-in code.

PM: The five towns that have adopted the Specialized Opt In Code (as of this interview) are Brookline, Watertown, Newton, Somerville, and Cambridge. Boston has strongly signaled that they're going to adopt, and there will likely be several more communities that adopt the Specialized Code.

LP: The town discussions are a self-selecting audience. You’re going to have builders, design professionals, homeowners who are maybe really involved, the Sustainability Committee of the town, those are the folks that are going to be interested in listening. And so, their conversations are not that much different. At least from my side, I feel like the presentations have had very high-level people who are very keyed in, a lot of people care about the environment and our state, which is amazing. And, so they're aware of how the built environment plays directly into that and you want to make change. I think that says a lot about Massachusetts as a whole, we’re very smart and educated state so thinking through how they do everything – from what cars they drive to how they build their houses.

What advice would you give engineers and architects as they look to design and be code compliant?

PM: I boil it down to –  1) we need to analyze our buildings early, early, early for how they will comply. 2 ) we have to passively reduce the energy consumption within our buildings. And that largely falls on architects for the performance of the building envelope, then3) – our engineers need to electrify, we need to transition away from using fossil fuels, and utilizing heat pumps as our primary source of heating under these new codes. Now, there are lots of nuances to those three areas, but those are three areas, if I were to distill it down to a path to success. And if you don't follow each of those three, you can still get to a successful code compliant place, it just may be a bit more difficult.

LP: I think that the conversation is different for every building type. But those three steps that Patrick just laid out, are essential. I think that early conversation – as design professionals we have talked about the integrated design process, and how important that is, I feel like it's become a bit of a cliché - but we really do have to have these meetings early. I’m walking through the process on two of my projects, right now within the office, and we’re discussing at the feasibility level.

“One of the big changes in the code is that the stretch code previously only applied to new construction. Now, the stretch code applies to large renovations. A lot of the thinking and consideration that goes into meeting new construction energy performance, is now going to need to happen on existing building renovations.”

Both of our firms work with existing buildings, is this the same kind of process? Is it more difficult with existing?

PM: One of the big changes in the code is that the stretch code previously only applied to new construction. Now, the stretch code applies to large renovations. A lot of the thinking and consideration that goes into meeting new construction energy performance, is now going to need to happen on existing building renovations. There’s a lot of nuance and unique challenges to existing buildings, and their compliance under these new codes. It's really important that design professionals, code officials and owners understand those nuances. For existing buildings, we don't have the flexibility of a completely new build opportunity. So how those existing buildings are upgraded to comply with the new code has become one of the critical areas of focus both for the BSA COTE and Codes committee presentation series.

LP: I would say, it's not even large existing buildings at this point, Patrick, that's actually one of the changes is that many people thought, the new code would be if your building is over 100,000square feet. But the new code includes 20,000 square feet now, which really encompasses a lot of our buildings.

Existing buildings are always a special project, there's no one answer for how to work with existing buildings, they are joy and challenge. Adding the new code on top of that, is just another interesting design aspect. How do you implement all of these energy measures in an existing building? Again, it's not a prescriptive path, you have to follow what the building is telling you. If it's a masonry building, you're already looking at where that dew point is, if you're insulating to the inside or you're able to insulate from the outside which is going change the look of your building. Also, what does that mean for your wall depths? There are lot of pieces of complexity that that the team has to get settled early. I guess it comes back to that other question. We must settle those pieces early, so that we can move ahead with what are more normative architectural changes, you know, or mechanical changes or electrical yawns. You have to settle what that envelope is so that you can work on the rest of what's happening inside.

What have been some takeaways or something new you’ve learned from doing these presentations?

PM: I find myself looking at the code almost every day to answer a question. As much as I've learned about the code and developing presentation materials, and educating others, the details within it, the specific scenarios for certain projects, always present a new and unique challenge. And so, when in doubt, read the code. Like we said, we're not the code experts. We didn't write the code. But our best resource is the information that was publicized by the state. And when that's not clear, when there are further questions, then talk to a code official, talk to the rest of your design team and try and get consensus. I find I'm continually learning more and getting to new levels of depth into the code.

What are some resources you recommend to learn more?

LP: One of the last slides in the presentations we've been giving is a resources page. There’s really good technical guidance that's put out by the DOER that gives guidelines and guidance. It's very helpful and will help anyone going through the process before you start just reading straight into the code. Like Patrick said, you'll spend a lot of time with the Code website, they do have a good Massachusetts amendments, Any other resources, Patrick?

PM: I think that was pretty comprehensive. And like Isay, when in doubt, just go back to the DOER website.

Codes Resources

If you’d like to review past presentations from Lara and Patrick on the DOER Stretch Code series, click here.