As Virginia tries to become more energy efficient, building codes come under the microscope

By: - November 2, 2020 12:01 am

New residential construction in Richmond. Data shows that a shortage of homes in Virginia is driving up home prices and pushing buyers out of the market. (Sarah Vogelsong/ Virginia Mercury)

It’s almost a ritual: As the days shorten and the drafts begin to sweep beneath the door or weasel around the window frame, the echo of a grumpy parental voice can be heard: “We aren’t paying to heat the neighborhood.”

Variations of that experience play out across the U.S. every year. But if you thought the only people involved in the effort to keep the energy they’ve bought stay inside the walls they inhabit — from replacing windows to adding insulation — were individual families, you’d be wrong. Policymakers too hold significant sway over how airtight your house might be. And as concern about climate change increases Americans’ interest in reducing energy use, how strict building codes should be when it comes to energy is likely to become an ever more pressing issue. 

“Buildings represent 70 percent of electricity consumption and 54 percent of gas consumption nationally,” said retired energy attorney and Sierra Club volunteer Bill Penniman, quoting figures from the Alliance to Save Energy, a nonprofit coalition currently chaired by Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va. “It’s a huge part of the way we use energy.” 

Across the country, states that have adopted energy codes all base them on the International Energy Conservation Code, a model code that outlines energy efficiency standards for new and renovated buildings: what the minimum amount of insulation in walls and the ceiling should be, how much air should be allowed to leak out of the building on an hourly basis and so on. 

But how closely states follow the model code differs. Some, like Maryland, have passed legislation requiring the state to automatically adopt all updates to the code, which are issued every three years; the law also prohibits Maryland from setting less robust requirements. Others take a more piecemeal approach, adopting bits they like from updates and ignoring those they don’t.

The effective level of the International Energy Conservation Code adopted in each state, Sept. 2020. According to the Department of Energy, “adoption is assessed based on a quantitative analysis of energy savings impacts within a given state. This provides a greater level of accuracy and replaces the previous approach, which was comprised of a simpler qualitative review of state code titles and provisions.” (U.S. Department of Energy Building Energy Codes Program)

Virginia falls in the second category, lagging behind Maryland and Washington, D.C. (In fact, it trails those neighbors on all measures of energy efficiency, according to the most recent State Energy Efficiency Scorecard from the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy, which ranked Virginia 29th among the states, compared to seventh for Maryland and 11th for D.C.) Instead of mandating that the state energy code track the model, Virginia relies instead on a process of revisions that is overseen by the Department of Housing and Community Development and depends heavily on negotiations between energy efficiency advocates and homebuilders. 

Andrew Clark, vice president of government affairs for the Home Builders Association of Virginia, said the state’s system offers a “good balance” between energy and economic interests.

“It allows all the stakeholders to really have a Virginia lens on how these proposals would impact the market, how they would translate to on-the-ground implementation,” he said. “It’s pretty Virginia specific.” 

Not everyone agrees. Many advocates say Virginia’s process moves far too slowly, with new state standards taking effect three to four years after the model code’s issuance. And, they contend, the balance of power is tilted too far toward homebuilders, who have over the past decade blocked the adoption of many more stringent energy efficiency standards through weakening amendments to the model code that then become the status quo. 

Several of those weakening amendments remain in force, although many are being slowly rolled back. During Virginia’s most recent update to bring its standards in line with the 2018 model code, a set of changes approved by the Board of Housing and Community Development Oct. 19, one such amendment from 2012 that allowed inspectors to visually determine how much air was leaking from a structure was replaced with a requirement for “blower door” testing. 

“Prior to now a code official could go into your home, look around and say, ‘This new construction, I can tell by my eye, by a visual inspection, the standard for this house is five air changes an hour,’” said Virginia Energy Efficiency Council Executive Director Chelsea Harnish. Whether anyone can truly assess at a glance how much air is leaking from a building is “a valid question,” Clark conceded, and the homebuilders ultimately agreed a mechanical test would allow useful validation of how much air was actually escaping a structure.

Still, sticking points remain. Most consequential is the stricter wall insulation standards included in the 2018 model code, which homebuilders successfully resisted on cost grounds. Clark said the 2018 standards could increase construction costs by about $3,000 a unit at a time when Virginia is already facing a housing shortage. He pointed particularly to findings by Harvard University’s Joint Center for Housing Studies in 2019 that nationally, construction of new housing isn’t keeping up with demand, while high proportions of renters throughout Virginia — including as many as 51 percent in the Hampton Roads area — are considered “cost burdened,” a metric that refers to renters who pay more than 30 percent of their income on housing.  

“It’s not that anyone’s anti-energy efficiency, but it’s really how do we strike the balance between keeping the cost of construction and the cost of housing at a healthy level while also advancing new building technologies and new building types?” he said. 

Energy efficiency advocates remain skeptical of the price tag quoted by homebuilders. Harnish acknowledged costs would rise with stricter standards but said they “might not be insurmountable,” while Penniman bluntly characterized the argument as “nonsense.”

“The fact is our neighboring states already require it,” he said. “The builders can build houses at the same price point in Maryland as they can in Virginia.”  

Furthermore, advocates note, one of the major points of energy efficiency is to bring down electric bills, especially for low-income households — meaning that over time, improvements could not only offset higher upfront costs but lower lifetime costs. 

Despite the stubborn persistence of several of the 2012 weakening amendments in the 2018 update, Harnish said “some really great strides” had been made on energy efficiency. Both she and Clark said the unusual progress was due to greater collaboration and compromise between homebuilders and advocates, but it may also be due to a heightened policy focus by the state on energy efficiency.

The 2018 Grid Transformation and Security Act passed by the General Assembly directed utilities to devote more than $1 billion to energy efficiency, while the Virginia Clean Economy Act of 2020 imposed mandatory energy efficiency targets and the Clean Energy and Community Flood Preparedness Act directed that a major portion of the revenues the state will collect from its participation in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative’s carbon market must go toward low-income energy efficiency projects. 

Meanwhile, the 2021 model energy code, which is set to be released at the beginning of the year, is expected to push for even more aggressive improvements. While the U.S. Department of Energy projected the 2018 update increased energy cost savings by about 2 percent compared to the 2015 code, early analysis of the 2021 code anticipates savings of at least 10 percent

“We’re pleased with where the building code is moving,” said Harnish. But, she added, “there’s clearly work to be done.”

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Sarah Vogelsong
Sarah Vogelsong

Sarah is Editor-in-Chief of the Mercury and previously its environment and energy reporter. She has worked for multiple Virginia and regional publications, including Chesapeake Bay Journal, The Progress-Index and The Caroline Progress. Her reporting has won awards from groups such as the Society of Environmental Journalists and Virginia Press Association, and she is an alumna of the Columbia Energy Journalism Initiative and Metcalf Institute Science Immersion Workshop for Journalists.