General Assembly should require building code updates

January 27, 2021 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)

By Ross Shearer

Gov. Ralph Northam signified a political threshold was crossed when he stated the Clean Economy Act propelled Virginia “to leadership among the states in fighting climate change.” Indeed, Virginia now officially recognizes we have a shared duty to protect the global public square that we call Earth by transforming the energy economy from its dependence on fossil fuels to one fully driven by renewable electric power and efficiency.  

That statement should signal to those he appointed to boards and commissions to promote the transformation, but the evidence shows some key appointees aren’t listening. Last year, the Board of Housing and Community Development rejected public efforts to fully align Virginia’s residential building code with national standards for energy efficiency as well as proposals to exceed them. 

Regulated businesses should not have the power to block or delay adoption of model regulations that govern them. The General Assembly should pass legislation (SB1224-Boysko, HB 2227-Kory) this year requiring the BHCD to adopt the latest national model code provisions contained in the International Energy Conservation Code (IECC). And the administration should reform how our agencies conduct the people’s business, freeing it from industry bias.

Finally, the homebuilders themselves should take a hard look at their own business practices to align them with the pressing demands of the climate emergency and the new reality of the energy transition. Instead of resisting change, they should embrace the opportunities its challenges bring.

Benefits, obsolescence and racial disparities:

It is widely accepted that increasing the efficiency of a structure yields a range of benefits beyond saving money on utilities. It increases comfort and temperature uniformity, improves indoor air quality, increases the resistance to external noise intrusions, improves heat retention during long power outages, and contributes to community resiliency and stability through lower mortgage defaults while saving on utilities and equipment costs. 

In other words, full adoption of the most current IECC efficiency provisions would promote the welfare of Virginia’s families. As the nation grapples with its transition to a clean energy economy, inefficient houses will become less desired and increasingly less competitive at resale.  Homes marketed to moderate-income buyers are often the least efficient, raising issues of economic injustice that aggravates the economic disparity among races. 

Public role:

The BHCD code adoption process offers Virginians the ability to be heard at several points. Many Virginians participated via the Department’s online access, advocating for adoption of the entire (current 2018) version of the model residential energy code, and its stronger wall insulation provision in particular. Unfortunately, the public pleas fell on deaf ears. The homebuilder opposition prevailed, though the builders belatedly consented to amend Virginia’s code for attic insulation to match the 2012 IECC model.  

There is no good reason for the board’s defeat of the proposal to adopt the model wall insulation or its past opposition to other energy conserving features.  Homebuilder representatives cling to the proposition that energy efficiency code requirements should be “least cost,” ignoring the fact that weaker insulation levels impose higher utility costs on occupants. One BHCD member advanced a fantasy to reject the model’s wall requirement because a “super” insulation might be developed for use in the future.  When applied to wall insulation, I find even more fantastic the industry’s contention that the code shouldn’t impose the costs of energy efficiency on those buyers who “don’t want” that energy efficiency feature, as if buyers are eager to take on hidden costs.  

The imbalance of public and private interests:

How is it that the code amendment process used by the Department of Housing and Community Development affords such deference for Virginia’s homebuilder groups? In Sarah Vogelsong’s November 2 article, she explained part of the story as follows: “Instead of mandating that the state energy code track the model, Virginia relies…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.”  

While I believe this to be an entirely accurate description of what occurs, I also believe we are mistaken to assume Virginia law sanctions an inherently biased negotiation process between the homebuilder parties who are required to comply with the code and those advocating on the public’s behalf in favor of a model with proven virtues.

Virginia has proven leadership for realizing cultural shifts: 

Is Virginia up to the challenges the ambitious Paris Climate Agreement sets? I believe so. If the culture around the public’s business of responding to the demands of the climate crisis is permitted to evolve free from interference by private interests.  

Who could have predicted two years ago the social tectonic shifts we have witnessed this past year from Virginia’s rich and conflicted history over who justly merits recognition and how best to honor their remembrance?  Similarly, Virginia must find its way to a consensus that rejects fossil fuels and embraces a full transition to renewable sources and efficiency. This year’s transforming events around race and misplaced honor give promise that the needed leadership capacity will emerge.  It means discarding old practices and requiring Virginia’s business and political groups to accept the hard work of change that opposes the old order, just as most of us oppose the prominent display of public memorials honoring a shameful past.  Change isn’t easy, especially when it is profound.  

Each architect and builder licensed in Virginia needs to choose to build better by designing to exceed the model energy code. The new energy paradigm requires buildings to be fully electric, powered by the wind and solar generation soon to be supplied by Virginia’s electric utilities.  If on first blush, some think this looks disruptive, they should consider the disruptions of inaction against the rising menace of ever-increasing climate dynamics and sea level rise. 

Ross Shearer of Vienna is a retired U.S. Labor Department employee. He volunteered for the Vienna Enhancement Commission and the Vienna Police Chief’s Advisory Committee and writes for the local and state Sierra Club newsletters.

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Guest Column
Guest Column

Views of guest columnists are their own. To submit an op-ed for consideration, contact Commentary Editor Samantha Willis at [email protected].