DOE’s building-tech expert Marc LaFrance explains how standards are set and why they are improving

Advanced Technology and Energy Policy Manager at the US Department of Energy, Marc LaFrance is nearing his 30th anniversary working on window and building technologies. He is a mechanical engineer who has represented the U.S. at the International Energy Agency in Paris and at the Asia Pacific Energy Research Center in Tokyo. We sat down with him to learn more about how the government sets standards and the crucial role windows are expected to play in the future of energy-efficient buildings and homes.

 

Q: What kind of programs do you manage at the Department of Energy (DOE)? Some are mandatory, and some are voluntary, right?

A: The main separation of programs is between equipment and building construction.

The DOE sets minimum standards for equipment such as appliances, lighting, heating, or cooling systems. For building construction, a local government or the state sets minimum standards for materials, including windows, insulation, walls, or roofing. 

Those standards are in building codes, and they are mandatory. The DOE doesn’t regulate that, but it is involved in helping independent organizations, such as the National Fenestration Rating Council (NFRC) to develop model energy codes at a national level. Meeting those standards is voluntary. The code is the minimum standard, and most of our activity is trying to encourage people to build at a much higher level of performance.

Q: Are energy-efficiency standards adopted because of local standards, or because of the economic benefits they offer? 

A: Economic benefits are a part of the analysis before building codes are established or updated. You need to make sure they make sense for the overwhelming majority of people. A standard will rarely make sense for every single person because the behavior of buildings is varied. Not everybody has the same payback period on an investment in energy efficiency. 

Q: One of the best-known programs is ENERGY STAR ®, which rates the efficiency of various household equipment and tells consumers which are more efficient. When used to replace old windows, ENERGY STAR-certified windows lower a home’s utility bills by an average of 12%. Has that program been valuable? Where is it going next?

When we talk about u-factors or solar heat gain, these efficiency factors are complex things, and their importance varies by climate. ENERGY STAR helps consumers because all of those factors are analyzed behind the scenes, so people just have to look for the label to know a window complies and will perform to a high standard. That makes it simple and easy. 

With programs like these, typically the goal is for the certified product to have a market share of about 20 percent. But ENERGY STAR has been far more successful: in 2019, 86 percent of windows in the residential market were ENERGY STAR windows. ENERGY STAR is in the process of introducing a new standard — products with its new Most Efficient label are the best products on the market for energy efficiency.

Q: Let’s talk about sustainability. What’s the next big thing?

A: When we talk about the next generation of technologies, currently windows are a big source of energy loss in housing. We can change that with technology. We’re talking about windows that insulate a home just as well as the walls. Houses in cold or mixed climates will actually use less energy than if they didn’t have any windows at all.  We mostly focus on the energy efficiency of equipment and products, such as windows.

 Another trend is resiliency. What’s going to happen during a storm or a power outage? Can the building maintain a reasonable, comfortable temperature when we don’t have any electricity or power? Windows can play a key role and considering these factors at the beginning will mean better houses that are more comfortable and resilient, and less expensive to operate.

Thanks, Marc! We here at NFRC love working with you and the DOE to make sure windows help to create the future we want and deserve from our buildings: a future featuring more comfort,  resiliency, and at a lower cost.

 

Matt is a communications consultant based in Baltimore, Maryland, who works with the efficiency experts who run the Efficient Windows Collaborative to help spread an important message about efficient windows.