Property developer opposition prompts North Carolina officials to revise energy code revision

Facing fierce opposition from developers, the North Carolina building code group will weigh changes to its proposal for thicker insulation, more efficient lighting and other energy-saving features in new homes.

The revision of the code planned by the Building Standards Council has been in the works for more than a year and is widely supported by clean energy advocates, climate activists and building professionals who are members of the council itself.

But the developer lobby, whose influence has led the state’s current code to be tied to outdated 2009 guidelines, staged a public hearing last week protesting the updated rules, saying they would cost three times what the independent lab had estimated.

Because the powerful North Carolina Home Builders Association is well positioned to convince the state legislature to reject or change any code it opposes, council members agreed to meet early next month to seek a compromise.

However, it is not clear what can be found. Among the more than two dozen builders who opposed the proposal last week, no one proposed specific amendments, and some argued for not updating the code at all.

Supporters, when asked about the possibility of concessions, emphasized the strength of the original proposal and the diversity of its supporters.

“The North Carolina Sustainable Energy Association applauds the ten speakers who came out in support of improved building codes,” Dr. Rita Joyner, the group’s senior adviser, said in an email. “We urge the Council to listen to the various voices for energy efficiency and approve the upgrade.”

“I can’t make it”

The less fossil fuels we burn to heat, cool and light our buildings, the lower our global warming emissions. And one of the best ways to limit your energy use is through insulation, windows, and other elements that keep your home at a safe and comfortable temperature no matter what the weather is like outside.

Many of these building elements are difficult and expensive, if not impossible, to retrofit after the fact. That’s why the international guidelines for new building are updated every three years to include the latest building efficiency technologies.

But in North Carolina, a 2013 law only allows the housing code to be updated every six years. This, combined with pressure from the builder lobby, means that the state’s existing code, passed in 2018, is most reminiscent of decades-old guidelines.

“I spent a lot of time in Washington,” Tom Phoenix, an architect and engineer from Greensboro, said at a code council hearing last week. “When I went there and told them that I was from North Carolina, they just looked at me angrily and wanted to know why North Carolina was not keeping up with them.”

Homes are the second largest consumer of energy after transportation in the state, with 90,000 new units built each year. This is partly why a recent study by the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy found that the adoption of the 2021 guidelines would benefit North Carolina more than almost any other state.

“Numbers Matter”

Last December, a code council select committee proposed doing just that, albeit with some modifications.

“Our subcommittee spent a lot of time listening and reviewing to make sure the changes we made are right for North Carolina,” Phoenix, a member of the task force, told the council last week. “They have been confirmed by an independent laboratory.”

An updated analysis by the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory found that the proposed Energy Conservation Code would reduce energy costs by an average of 18.7%, generating annual cost savings from day one. An increase in construction cost of about $5,000 would pay for itself in four years or less.

“This cost-effectiveness demonstration was conducted even before recent applications from [Duke Energy] for the sharp rate hike,” Ward Lenz, executive director of the North Carolina Sustainable Energy Association, told the board.

The lab also found that the proposed new code would have the same impact on carbon emissions as removing 29,000 cars from the roads every year, prompting religious environmentalists and other climate activists to speak out in its defense at hearings.

“We can no longer be held back by special interests that are primarily focused on their short-term profits,” said John Rees, a member of the nonprofit Interfaith Power and Light. “Let’s take positive action that will benefit future generations.”

Rob Howard, general contractor from Granite Falls, was among the few builders who spoke out last week in favor of updating the code. “I spent most of my construction career at Habitat for Humanity,” he said. “I know what it means to provide affordable housing for our community.”

Today, Howard builds zero-cost ready homes, resulting in monthly utility bills of less than $100, he says, with an average cost increase of about $5,000, which is in line with an independent lab estimate.

“I’ve been doing this for over 20 years,” he said, “and track the value of these houses very closely. Numbers matter.”

Public comments are still accepted

But most builders at the March 14 hearing sang from a songbook written by the North Carolina Home Builders Association, arguing that additional consumer spending in the state’s steepest northwestern counties is as high as $28,800. Because most of the state’s 100 counties are in the warmer climate zone, the weighted average increase would be $20,400, including a 20 percent rate of return.

“Those are not the worst numbers,” said Cliff Isaac, the group’s lobbyist. He opposed the code, he said, “because of the extra mandatory tax it imposes on builders.”

Several builders said the new houses are efficient enough that the policy should help people afford to move from old houses to new ones. “Today’s code is not a problem,” said general contractor David Menaker, who said he has been building homes in Raleigh and the Outer Banks for decades. “The problem is in houses built 20 and 30 years ago.”

Kim Wooten, a building code board member who chaired the select committee, disputed the builders’ cost figures and said the group had already taken suggestions from the Home Builders Association in developing its proposal.

And while she and her colleagues agreed to meet on April 3 to accept constructive amendments from the builders for the last time, she stressed that their current stance on keeping the existing code unchanged does not give a start.

The Building Code Council, meanwhile, is accepting comments on its initial energy savings proposal until April 17. Comments can be emailed to Carl Martin at [email protected] or mailed to Carl Martin, Secretary of the North Carolina Building Code Board, North Carolina Department. of Insurance, 1202 Mail Service Center, Raleigh, NC 27699-1202.

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