By Ryan Miller, Founder & Executive Director, North Carolina Building Performance Association
This article details NCBPA’s opposition and concerns to two energy code change proposals currently under review by the North Carolina Building Code Council. Proposed by the North Carolina Home Builders Association (NCHBA), NCBPA and our members continue to express strong concerns for the short and long-term impacts of these proposals, both of which seek to lessen and further complicate the state’s current residential energy code requirements. One proposal will be available for public comment at the next North Carolina Building Code Council (NCBCC) meeting on December 8th in Raleigh. The other, which we refer to as Proposal #2, will be debated for the first time and decided on (at the same meeting) by the NCBCC after being advanced by Council members without qualitative discussion in the prior two quarterly meetings.
Learn more about these proposals on our website here.
1. It’s our mission. I founded NCBPA in 2014 at the request of North Carolina’s home energy raters, residential builders and commercial contractors to provide a voice in the code-making process to the energy efficiency, green building and, what we now call, building performance community. At the time, NCHBA had full control over the code making process and even commercial codes were being impacted by it. The advocacy organizations that used to participate in the code making process had then, and have now, all but walked away, leaving a lack of opposition to anti-energy efficiency code policies. Then and now, NCBPA provides a trusted voice and advocate that not only serves our member contractors and industry-at-large, but also the customers they serve. Those customers include low-income renters, middle-income homeowners, small businesses, large corporations and every North Carolina resident and business in between. Our mission focuses on better homes and buildings that save energy, lessen harm to the environment, improve occupant health and safety, and create value in many forms.
2. People will be physically harmed by these proposals. No, I’m not exaggerating. Building and energy codes are referred to in parts of the construction industry as health, safety and welfare regulations. Click here for some info from the National Center for Healthy Housing. Want to live in or buy a house or office that will make you, your family or your workers ill? Well, it’s not allowed due to code requirements. Whether new or existing construction, those requirements exist. Our industry also knows that oversight and enforcement in the code verification industry is challenging for a wealth of reasons, and will be for a long long time. But, what are those code officials attempting to enforce? The minimum codes that protect health, safety and wellbeing. Without them, who will police the bad architects, builders, contractors and product suppliers? These codes keep people healthy and safe by ensuring reasonable levels of indoor air quality, carbon emissions and so much more. Doing away with them will cause – in both the short and long-term – health and safety issues to North Carolina residents and businesses. And like many things, those that can’t afford a higher quality home or building will be negatively impacted the most.
3. The cost-effective optional energy code pathway already exists. I know, we led efforts to enable it three and four years ago. And now, we’re fighting to protect it. North Carolina’s fourth option for residential energy code compliance is the Energy Rating Index (ERI), which enables a builder to meet our energy code by achieving a low enough (good enough) ERI or Home Energy Rating Score (HERS Index). That may sound like alphabet soup to you (it is), but it’s simple. A builder obtains an energy code score of 60? You pass! It’s easy, it’s optional and it affords builders plenty of trade-off options. Your homeowner wants a high efficiency HVAC system? Great, you can lower your/their costs in another area like windows or insulation. Want to add solar to the roof? Great, you can do that, just meet a more stringent (lower) score that takes the solar system’s generation into account. The problem, however, with the NCHBA Proposal #2 is that it provides an additional pathway using the ERI that requires no minimum energy code or backstop standards. So long as a builder meets the end number, they’re good! But, there’s a problem with that. The ERI is fundamentally constructed to require building envelope “backstop” requirements such as insulation and air sealing that the majority of design and construction industry widely agree are key to a well-built home (or building, for that matter). Pros absolutely disagree with the extent of those backstop requirements, but few pros believe a house should be built without insulation or windows. The NCHBA proposal would not only allow for it, but use the exact same formula for the current ERI but without minimum requirements. Unfortunately, that’s not how the software programs that create the ERI score work, nor are they intended to work. Should a home be allowed to pass for energy code with rooftop solar generation but no insulation? How will that home, and its energy bills, operate if someone removes the solar panels, or if they are decommissioned after twenty years of useful life? That home would have impossibly high energy bills and be a health and safety hazard. This option shouldn’t be allowed.
4. Our current energy code differs greatly from the international codes. This is evidenced most clearly by a decision from the Department of Energy to not provide energy code compliance software versions of REScheck and COMcheck for our new 2018 energy code due to its continued deviations from the international codes. These software programs are the code-minimum industry standard for vetting energy code compliance. Due to the home building industry’s efforts to dismantle, discredit and further weaken our state’s residential energy codes, the DOE decided to not provide these software programs. Thanks to a code change proposed by NCBPA and approved by the NCBCC, the 2018 IECC versions of these software programs are allowable in North Carolina’s current energy code.
5. Minimum energy code standards help, don’t hurt, housing affordability. The home building industry supports energy efficient construction so long as it’s an option. Period. Read what you want from them. Their motive is builder profit, pure and simple. If builders want to build better, more efficient, green or whatever you’d like to call it, they can, as an option. Click here for a non-NCBPA industry article from 2009 that may sound familiar on a healthcare policy issue, or here for another from 2018 on resiliency standards. The home building industry opposes all forms of minimum requirements that don’t enable greater builder profits. Their staunch policy position is that energy code requirements are “too much regulation” and one of the many causes of the housing affordability crisis that they, well, fabricated a few years ago. We’re witnessing the efforts of lobbyists and economic strategists that invented a nationwide market issue that didn’t really exist. Warning: big topic here. I’m not stating that housing affordability isn’t a problem in the U.S. What I am saying is that blaming energy code requirements that in North Carolina would cost a builder $500 up-front and save a resident $8 to $10 per month for the life of their home is wrong. The builder doesn’t want to pay that $500? Fine. Increase the sale price. It amounts to $1 per month on the average mortgage. Builders can keep their profits (actually increase them) through energy efficiency AND save their customers money in ways that they can’t do on their own. But, when their primary policy concern is their up-front profit (I mean, ensuring housing affordability), they won’t choose to help their own customers save money. Energy efficiency is most impactful and least costly during new construction. Builders control new construction code requirements. Renters and homeowners are left to hope, and pay, for those options. And does NAHB know the right math? Of course they do. Take a look at the image below showing an NAHB comment to this article on how green building can promote housing affordability:
6. Builders won’t use the proposed pathway – right? The home building industry states that few, if any, North Carolina builders will choose to follow their proposed energy code compliance pathway that has no minimum or backstop energy code requirements in place. “It’s not realistic” they say. So why do it? Well, their reason is that it’s a “cost effective energy efficiency” solution for builders. Right. What this means is they are choosing their own profits over providing the already bare minimum energy code requirements that they have already weakened every single year since I’ve been in this state (that’s 10, at least).
7. Can someone even build a home that meets their proposed requirements? Everyone in our industry thinks not. The problem is, NCHBA’s proposal was so brief, weak and unsupported that no one knows for sure. The way that the code making process works, in brief, is that a proponent (literally anyone) proposes a code change to the Council for consideration. They must provide the code language to change, remove or add, along with a purpose statement and financial justification along the lines of a cost-benefit analysis. But, that last part is ONLY if the proponent believes the change will result in the increase to a cost of a dwelling by $80. Think your proposal will save on the (builder’s) cost of a home? You’re in! Present once, garner support from the Council, and nine months later it’s the law! In this instance, the initial proposal provided zero analysis to support its position. Is it up to the Council or NCDOI staff to perform the analysis and justify it? No, rules state it’s the proponent. But what if the proponent just says it won’t, and they have the unfounded support of the Council? Two years ago, a group of NCHBA proposals were approved by the Council but denied by Rules Review, the state government’s oversight organization, following a thorough review of the proposals’ submittals. Given those same rules, this proposal shouldn’t pass. If it does? Well, it shows that the Council doesn’t take its legislatively set rules, or Governor-appointed positions, seriously.
8. The Council lacks an Energy representative to lead its work on energy proposals. The 17-member Council seats are formed by the legislature and appointed by the Governor. The positions include architects, plumbers, electricians, builders and more. Over the past few years, thanks in part to our association, energy code proposals have been some of, if not the most, contested of any code areas. And why? Because energy issues are becoming more important – think saving money, advancing technologies, and the like – but also, because the home building industry has increased its attacks on the energy code. Adding an Energy seat to the Council is an appropriate step to designate one person to represent discussions surrounding the energy code, which impacts both energy efficiency and renewable or clean energy. Some Council members are very familiar with it, even energy advocates in their own right, but aren’t the person(s) that the Council, and both proponents and opponents, look to for guidance and direction. Without this role, the Council will continue to fail in adequately reviewing energy code proposals, both big and small. And no, a subcommittee won’t help. The current Energy Ad Hoc Committee is only active during the lead-up to new code cycles and unfortunately has the same home building anti-energy code influence over its work as the full Council.
9. Low income weatherization programs exist to fix homes with energy issues – this proposal would create many more bad homes. As pointed out by an NCBPA member professional a few weeks ago, federal and state programs like the North Carolina Weatherization Assistance Program (WAP) and Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) exist to fix the energy issues in low income homes. As someone who started his North Carolina career as a WAP and LIHEAP contractor, yes, that’s what they do. These homes are missing windows, insulation, air sealing, HVAC systems and much more. I’ve spoken with renters and homeowners in mobile homes with energy bills over $500 a month! And these individuals and families are located all over our state in often impoverished communities. The reason for these programs is to help them save energy, save money and improve their health and safety. These programs rely on minimum standards that must be met for the upgrades in order for contractors doing the work to be paid through the program funding. The NCHBA proposal will, very clearly, create a glut of these homes ten, fifteen and twenty years down the road. Why would we allow builders to build bad homes that lack fundamental energy and performance requirements that keep them working, and offering low energy bills for years to come? WAP and LIHEAP programs have their hands full as it is. Adding more bad homes to their future pipeline for the sake of builder profit is not a solution.
10. In a quasi-Dillon Rule state, municipalities can do very little on energy code. Being a quasi-Dillon Rule state means that, in this case, energy code standards are set at the state level and adopted statewide. If a municipality, say a city (or a county) like Charlotte, Asheville or Manteo wanted to require more stringent energy code standards, they couldn’t, they aren’t allowed to. The most they can do is to set requirements for their own municipal buildings and incentivize above-code standards for energy efficiency, green and high performance. And some do! But, the point I’d like to make is that cities like Raleigh, my home town, advocate for strong building codes for the purposes of health, safety and welfare. Energy is a part of that. Cities and counties across the state don’t want their residents or businesses to be overly burdened with high energy bills, which is why minimum codes exist. So, what would happen if the NCHBA proposal passes? Well, builders would jump at the chance to ignore minimum energy code requirements in favor of their own profits. And who will be on the hook to deal with the construction, rental, health, safety and utility impacts that will no doubt fall out? Local and state government resources will be taxed, and all for the benefit of a few hundred extra dollars of builder profits.
What can you do to help? I and our association are leading efforts to encourage members of the North Carolina Building Code Council to deny both of these proposals. Click here to read specific steps that any resident of North Carolina can take to voice their concern with these harmful proposals.
Need more information? Contact us.
Looking for some good news? While we present the bad news here, there is good news. Click here for an article from Sophie Mullinax with NCBPA partner Green Built Alliance in Asheville that highlights the many benefits of the various levels of green building. Sophie provides a strong argument in support of energy code requirements improving affordable housing, whereas the home building industry-at-large believes they are a leading factor for their believed housing affordability crisis.
Looking for more context? Read for yourself how the home building industry views energy codes, affordability and more from this collection of news articles that NCBPA has been tracking: