The Battle Over Energy Code

[ How many of those new Bellevue buildings would be using less energy if we had stricter State energy code? ]

The construction industry and the automobile manufacturers must be cut from the same cloth. Because when confronted with the critically important task of increasing the energy efficiency of their products, instead of providing bold leadership and innovation, all they both seem to do is whine and complain that it’s too hard.

On November 20 the Washington State Building Code Council approved updates to the State’s energy code, dragging along the status-quo construction industry kicking and screaming. Governor Chris Gregoire had called for the updates to require a 30 percent improvement in energy efficiency over current code, but pressure from construction industry lobbyists succeeded in watering that down to a range between 15 and 18 percent.

In a November 25 press release, State Rep. Dan Kristiansen (R-Snohomish) claimed that the code updates will add up to 20 percent to the cost of new homes, citing an industry study that estimated a $24,000 premium on a 1200 square-foot, single-story home. Scared yet? But oops, apparently someone didn’t get the memo:  the press release also claims—incorrectly—that the new code will “require a 30 percent reduction in energy consumption for buildings by July 2010.”

Unsurprisingly, the Master Builders Association also pushed back hard, and write on their web site:

The SBCC’s vote will increase the cost of housing by $5,000 to $10,000 per single-family home, beginning on July 1, 2010. The original figure of more than $10,000 per home was reduced as a result of our association’s efforts to expose the damaging effect such changes would have on the industry.

That still might sound like a lot, so then how about a third opinion, this one from the Washington State Department of Commerce:

Improved technology, air sealing, testing and labeling will add about $1 per square foot to a new house. The owner of a 2,000-square-foot house will earn that back in energy-bill savings in a year or less, pocketing the annual savings every year there after.

Perhaps not so scary after all. Smart even. Perhaps?

The other main industry objection is about jobs, that the burst bubble has already obliterated construction, and now is not the right time to make significant changes. As Kristiensen put it, “This will serve to do nothing more than prolong an already serious recession.” But those who make this argument are conveniently forgetting about all the jobs that will be created by the demand for new products and services associated with energy-efficient construction, a.k.a. green jobs.

And besides, it’s never the right time.  If code changes were proposed during a boom no doubt the argument would morph into how we can’t introduce any extra cost when home buyers are already being stretched to their limits by rising prices.

All that said, there’s some great stuff in the new energy code, which becomes effective in July 2010:

Among the residential code improvements passed by the Council are:

  • Programmable thermostats on all primary heating systems
  • Air leakage testing with a “blower door” for all new homes
  • Duct testing for all new heating, ventilation and air-conditioning systems
  • Posting of a certificate of residential energy efficiency features on new homes

Commercial improvements include:

  • Upgrades to lighting controls, including occupancy sensors and technology to take better advantage of daylight
  • Upgraded insulation for ceilings
  • More energy efficient windows
  • Sub-metering for tenants to help them manage energy use

Though none of this is rocket science.  And I can’t help editorializing that it’s about effin time.

Because in the U.S, buildings consume between about 40 to 50 percent of total energy (depending on how the beans are counted), and account for 43 percent of total greenhouse gas emissions.  And because once a building is on the ground, it’s likely to stay around for 50 to 100 years—and that’s a long time to live with a missed opportunity.

I wanted to wrap this one up with a quip about how we can hope the construction industry learns a lesson from the fate of auto industry, but unfortunately it’s still not clear whether or not U.S. automakers have learned anything.