Radical New Building Codes Could Help Madison Achieve Environmental Dreams, But at What Cost?

New International Energy Conservation Code could help Madison achieve its dream of a green utopia, but it could make Madison’s housing crisis even worse.

Online voting results made the International Energy Conservation Code even more radical than MacIver first reported last year.

Will the State of Wisconsin Continue to Resist this Radical Agenda?

Oct. 19, 2020

The City of Madison is green with envy after finding out it’s only the 64th greenest city in America, and some blame the state government for not getting on board.

The American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy (ACEEE) gave Madison a mere 22.5 points out of 100 possible on its 2020 City Clean Energy Scorecard. The news came as a shock to a community that had just committed to a ten-year, $95 million plan to go carbon neutral.

As city leaders look for ways to improve their rank next year, Wisconsin’s building codes have caught their attention. Madison’s biggest area for improvement, according to the scorecard, is “local building policies.” That’s frustrating to city leaders, because Wisconsin state law does not allow local governments to create their own building codes.

Wisconsin state law does not allow local governments to create their own building codes.

The Wisconsin State Journal attempted to run cover for the city by claiming that Wisconsin is one of only three states in the country with a law like that. There are actually 23, according to the International Code Council (ICC), the organization most responsible for developing and promoting building codes. About half of the cities that beat Madison in the ratings are in one of those 23 states (including Milwaukee, which was ranked at 36.)

The New 2021 Building Codes

The ICC produces about a dozen different codebooks, and revises them every couple of years. Environmental activists take great interest in the Internal Energy Conservation Code – Residential (IECC-R). They play a major role in its development and scored a big victory in the 2021 version. It requires that all new homes be zero energy buildings.

The title “zero energy building” can be confusing, because those buildings still use energy. That energy use is supposedly offset by features like excessive insulation, energy efficient appliances, and onsite renewable energy production. The specifics are all dictated by the code.

The MacIver News Service covered the ICC’s 2019 conference where these changes were all hammered out. Any interested environmental activist or building supplies company can suggest changes to the building codes. However, only ICC members who are also government officials get to vote on them. There is no limit to how many voting delegates can come from the same state, which essentially means states with the biggest bureaucracies get the biggest say. New Jersey has the most delegates, with California a close second.

Voting takes place in person at the conference, but then a second vote takes place online over the next couple of months. That makes the in person voting practically meaningless. In person delegates rejected 14 changes to the IECC-R that were later overturned by online voting. Nine of those changes will increase the cost of home construction. (Those 14 updates are all listed at the end of this article.)

Even though government officials develop the building codes, the ICC itself is not a government organization. Therefore, the codes do not have any legitimacy on their own. State governments must formally adopt the codes to give them the force of law.

Every state goes about this process differently. No state uses all the ICC’s codebooks, but every state uses at least one. Even though the ICC revises the codes every couple of years, few states adopt every version. Most states, including Wisconsin, are still mostly using the 2015 codebooks.

However, the IECC-R has been a tough sale. Only 6 states are using the most current 2018 version. Wisconsin is one of several states still using the 2009 version. Since then, the ICC has made 124 changes to the IECC-R. Many of them would increase the cost of home construction.

ACEEE recommends that cities like Madison should advocate for the state to adopt “stringent” energy codes like this. One potential workaround, is for the city to “Partner with energy and water utilities to develop and administer energy-saving plans and spur greater adoption of renewable energy.”

Madison’s Other Crisis

Any success Madison might have increasing energy efficiency in home construction would come at a cost to another one of its top priorities: housing affordability. Half of household income in Madison goes towards housing costs, according to the city. Homeownership is out of reach for half of the city’s residents.

Even small increases in the cost of home construction has a major impact in accessibility. Nationally, for every $1,000 increase in the cost of a new home, another 127,560 households are out priced, according to the National Association of Home Builders.

Housing security is a high priority for Mayor Satya Rhode-Conway. Of course, having a green city is also a high priority for the mayor.

Housing security is a high priority for Mayor Satya Rhode-Conway.

“Housing is an issue that touches every person in our city and every neighborhood. We had a crisis before COVID-19, and the pandemic has only made it worse. We must increase the supply of housing — particularly ‘affordable housing’ — in Madison,” she said in July.

Of course, having a green city is also a high priority for the mayor.

“The City has done a good job making our own facilities efficient, but we need to make sure that all new buildings are as efficient as possible,” she said during her campaign.

Unfortunately for Rhode-Conway and her colleagues, it will be tough to have this one both ways.

 

*Final Changes to the 2021 Energy Code

The following items were initially rejected by the ICC at its conference in Oct. 2019. Online voting flipped those results. Here’s what changed in the ICEE-R:

RE21-19 requires a permanent certificate posted by every new house’s furnace that displays its Energy Rating Index (ERI). This change was rejected at the conference 47-23. The online vote flipped that outcome with a final tally of 743-276.

RE29-19 requires every home built in climate regions 4 and 5 have the same insulation standards as homes built in region 6. This will increase the cost of homes. This change was rejected at the conference 40-24. The online vote flipped that outcome with a final tally of 860-299.

RE32-19 increases slab insulation requirements for all homes built in regions 4-6. It will increase the cost of home construction. This change was rejected at the conference 35-23. The online vote flipped that outcome with a final tally of 886-281.

RE33-19 requires every home built in regions 2 and 3 have the same ceiling insulation standards as homes built in region 4. It will increase the cost of home construction. This change was rejected at the conference 35-21. The online vote flipped that outcome with a final tally of 856-291.

RE36-19 increases insulations requirements even more. It will increase the cost of home construction. This change was rejected at the conference 39-21. The online vote flipped that outcome with a final tally of 856-318.

RE37-19 increases standards for windows. It will increase the cost of home construction. This change was rejected at the conference 54-16. The online vote flipped that outcome with a final tally of 872-280.

RE126-19 creates new energy requirements for water heaters. ICC claims it will not increase the cost of home construction – but only because the market will no longer offer cheaper alternatives. This change was rejected at the conference 31-17. The online vote flipped that outcome with a final tally of 695-332.

RE145-19 requires light dimmers throughout new homes. It will increase the cost of home construction. This change was rejected at the conference 46-19. The online vote flipped that outcome with a final tally of 711-315.

RE147-19 requires new homes built with gas or propane appliances are capable of easily converting to electrical appliances. It will increase the cost of home construction. This change was rejected at the conference 44-25. The online vote flipped that outcome with a final tally of 874-302.

RE151-19 increases thermal envelop requirement options for new homes. It will not increase the cost of home construction. This change was rejected at the conference 47-20. The online vote flipped that outcome with a final tally of 862-266.

RE182-19 considers solar panels and other on-site renewable energy production when determining insulations requirements and calculating a home’s ERI. It will not increase the cost of home construction. This change was rejected at the conference 32-28. The online vote flipped that outcome with a final tally of 909-258.

RE192-19 sets lower ERI thresholds, which will mean higher standards will be required to achieve lower scores. It will increase the cost of home construction. This change was rejected at the conference 41-22. The online vote flipped that outcome with a final tally of 904-277.

RE204-19 requires proof that onsite renewable energy sources works. It will not increase the cost of home construction. This change was rejected at the conference 51-14. The online vote flipped that outcome with a final tally of 699-292.

RE209-19 increases energy efficiency requirements by 5%. It will increase the cost of home construction. This change was rejected at the conference 29-36 (a two-thirds majority was required for this item). The online vote flipped that outcome with a final tally of 919-330.

Important Resources and References:

Code adoptions by state: click here

Explanations of each item: click here

2019 Final results: click here

Code processes by state: click here

Voting delegate map: click here