Forget new rules and tighter energy requirements. When the building officials with voting privileges sit down in May to consider a Department of Energy rewrite of The International Energy Conservation Code (formerly known as the Model Energy Code), they are going to make one radical change: make it easier to understand.

DOE experts explain their thinking in papers posted at They argue that a strict energy code accomplishes little if it's too complicated to understand or enforce. The current document, they assert, complicates the design process and even creates “perverse incentives” for design changes that increase a building's energy consumption. Their recommendation: Simplify the code's prescriptive and performance alternatives, emphasizing ease of use instead of strict requirements. Trade-offs that are beneficial in theory but counterproductive in practice may be eliminated.

The DOE's proposal revises and reduces the number of climate zones, placing many states entirely in a single zone. It also eliminates window-area restrictions and window-to-wall ratio calculations. Trade-offs of one building element against another are implemented by letting builders demonstrate numerically that a building would perform better with an alternative design than it would if built to the prescriptive requirements.

In the early public-comment phases, some insulation levels and window U-values were tweaked upward from the DOE proposed levels. But the essence of the DOE's proposal survived, and the modified version that will face a vote in May is still far simpler than the code most builders currently live with.