Homes under construction in Richmond, Va. (Sarah Vogelsong / Virginia Mercury)
Every three years, a nationwide group of building safety professionals known as the International Code Council (ICC) publishes updated model building codes that form the basis for most U.S. state and local building codes. ICC codes address essential features like structural integrity, fire safety, plumbing and energy use. As technologies improve, so do the model codes. A home built to the 2021 International Energy Conservation Code (IECC), for example, uses 9.38% less energy than one built to the 2018 model code, which was itself a significant improvement on the 2015 model code, etc.
Most home buyers take these things for granted. We don’t know the ins and outs of building technologies or codes, and we don’t want to. It is the job of ICC professionals to set modern standards, and the job of state and local government to ensure builders meet them. Right?
Except it doesn’t always work that way. Some states and localities do adopt each new iteration of the model codes as a matter of course; Maryland is one such state. Across the river in Virginia, however, important energy efficiency elements of the residential building code are stuck all the way back in 2009, because the builder-dominated board in charge of Virginia’s building code refuses to adopt more rigorous standards.
This intransigence has cost Virginia residents millions of dollars over the years in higher energy bills, especially for heating and cooling. A July 2021 analysis by Pacific Northwest National Laboratory showed that adopting the 2021 IECC would save Virginians $2.5 billion over 30 years, the typical mortgage term. Their analysis assumed mortgages included the added cost of meeting the updated requirements, so the $2.5 billion is pure savings, reflected in yearly cash flow savings averaging $250 per homeowner.
Faced with high utility bills, owners of existing homes sometimes spring for expensive retrofits to upgrade heating and cooling systems, install new windows and add insulation. These investments often pay off in lower utility bills, but it costs more to retrofit than to build it right the first time. There are also limits to how much energy can be saved through retrofits. It can be very difficult, for example, to add insulation to the walls of an existing home. The right time to make a house weather-proof and energy efficient is during design and construction.
Builders resist meeting the highest efficiency standards for one simple reason: it costs more to build high-efficiency homes, cutting into profits. Builders insist they are just trying to keep home prices down, but that rings hollow. Anyone who has gone house-shopping knows the price of a home is determined by supply and demand, not building cost. Builders will charge whatever they can get.
Builders also say home buyers don’t ask for efficient homes, but that claim is also suspect. Unlike granite counters and high-end finishes, energy upgrades are frequently invisible to buyers, so they don’t know to ask for them or how to evaluate any claims a builder makes about them. Let’s face it, most of us wouldn’t know an R-value if a batt of insulation fell on our heads. Nor should we have to know. This is why we have building codes.
Unfortunately, protecting consumers from drafty homes and high utility bills is not a priority of the building industry and its allies that control Virginia’s code adoption process. For years the Board of Housing and Community Development (BHCD) has refused to adopt the full model efficiency code, leaving old exceptions in place. Standards for wall insulation and air leakage (the measure of how drafty a home feels) haven’t been updated since 2009.
The cost to residents mounts with each failed opportunity. Most people don’t buy new homes, after all. They buy (or rent) existing homes built according to previous building codes. BHCD’s repeated failures to raise standards condemns residents to decades of poorer-quality homes. Lower-income Virginians, in particular, end up energy burdened by living in homes that are unnecessarily expensive to heat and cool.
The General Assembly knows this is a problem. Virginia law has long required BHCD to adopt standards consistent with model codes such as the IECC. Faced with the board’s continuing intransigence, in 2021 legislators passed a new law directing BHCD to “consider adopting Building Code standards that are at least as stringent as those contained in [each] new version of the IECC.”
“Consider” looks like a loophole you could drive a truck through, but the new law goes on to add a specific requirement that the BHCD “shall assess the public health, safety, and welfare benefits of adopting standards that are at least as stringent as those contained in the IECC, including potential energy savings and air quality benefits over time compared to the cost of initial construction.”
Now that sounds like a slam-dunk for adoption of the IECC standards, given the studies confirming that building to the higher standards benefits occupants and the public with better air quality and with utility bill savings over time that far exceed what it costs a builder to meet those standards. Legislators and advocates who worked to pass the legislation reasonably expected BHCD to adopt the 2021 IECC in its entirety, if not go beyond it.
That did not happen. During the slow process of updating Virginia’s residential building code over the ensuing months, BHCD never took the new law seriously. It never conducted the required analysis, and there is no indication it even “considered” adopting the full 2021 IECC standards, in spite of in-depth comments from experts and testimony from the public.
The building code update BHCD proposed in December of 2022 and approved in its final form on August 28 of this year neither removed past weakening amendments nor adopted more stringent standards. Indeed, BHCD even decided this year to roll some commercial efficiency standards back to 2006 levels!
Perhaps this sad state of affairs should not surprise us too much, given who our governors – past and present – have appointed to the board. By my count, 8 of the 11 appointed members represent home builders; another member works for a mortgage company. The foxes are in charge of the hen house.
Those appointments were not a matter of luck. Public records show construction and real estate companies gave almost $13 million to Glenn Youngkin’s 2021 campaign for governor, the second largest industry donor to his campaign. Four years previously, the industry donated “only” $2.5 million to the campaign of Youngkin’s Democratic predecessor, Ralph Northam. In both cases, the board appointments that followed heavily favored the home building industry, with the result that Virginia’s residential building codes seem to be permanently stuck in the past.
Virginia leaders pride themselves on being pro-business, but that doesn’t have to mean being anti-consumer. The commonwealth as a whole would benefit from a housing stock that is more weather-resilient and healthier for occupants, that saves energy, and that reduces residents’ utility bills.
Is that really too much to ask?
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