Energy saved, safety lost?

A greener building code might offset homebuilder costs by relaxing other rules.

Staff WriterDecember 15, 2010 

  • The N.C. Building Code Council also voted on Tuesday to require sprinklers in new townhouses. But townhouses that are constructed with a two-hour fire resistancerated wall are exempt from the requirement. So are existing townhouses that are undergoing additions or renovations and don't already have automated sprinkler systems.

— After months of debate, the N.C. Building Code Council voted Tuesday to adopt new energy-efficient building rules for commercial and residential construction.

But the vote came with a highly unusual requirement - orchestrated by homebuilders and Gov. Bev Perdue's office - that the council make amendments to the residential code that will offset the cost of achieving the higher standards for homes.

The new rules, in the works for two years, are designed to promote green buildings, lower consumers' energy bills and cut the state's carbon emissions.

They also will increase building costs at a time when the housing market is recovering from the worst downturn since the Great Depression.

To spare homebuilders some of that burden, the council voted Tuesday to require a 30 percent improvement in energy efficiency in commercial buildings and just 15 percent in homes.

The original proposal called for a 30 percent reduction in both codes.

Cost offsets

Per the governor's orders, the Building Code Council must also find roughly $3,000 in savings per house for homebuilders within the existing residential code.

"They have to find $3,000 or so in offsets, and they've got a list of things to choose from," Perdue said.

Perdue was referring to a list of more than 20 proposed code changes that was submitted to the council on Tuesday.

The list, accompanied by a letter from the governor, was compiled by Robert Privott, director of codes and construction for the N.C. Home Builders Association.

Safety alarms go off

The use of offsets to compensate for building code changes hasn't been done in North Carolina during the past 20 years, said Chris Noles, deputy commissioner for the office of the State Fire Marshal.

Chris Mathis, president of Mathis Consulting, an Asheville firm that worked on the state's energy-efficient code proposals, said he's never seen it done anywhere.

"This would be like telling Detroit, 'We're going to require seat belts, so you can put in a little less-efficient engine to offset it,'" he said.

The 17-member Building Code Council is appointed by the governor.

Several members expressed worry on Tuesday that the offsets could mean sacrificing safety for the sake of energy efficiency.

Alan Perdue, director of emergency services for Guilford County, said the way the amendments were presented to the council was "highlyirregular."

He found several of the proposed amendments so flawed that he wanted to reject them immediately.

Fire safety tradeoffs

One would allow for battery-operated smoke alarms, not hard-wired units, in rooms that are undergoing renovations that require a building permit. Another would remove a requirement for sprinklers in some residential buildings. A third would remove a requirement regarding the adoption of appendages by local ordinance, which affects the ability of fire services to dictate things like the width of roads in subdivisions and the placement of fire hydrants.

"I dare say she [the governor] doesn't know what her name has been attached to," Alan Perdue said. He's isn't related to the governor.

Gov. Perdue said she had not seen the list. "I know that my office was there involved in the discussions the whole time," she said.

Controversy over costs

Exactly how much the tougher standards will add to the cost of a house has been a matter of dispute.

A university study estimated the additional insulation, upgraded windows and other changes needed to get to a 30percent efficiency upgrade would cost as much as $2,400 for an $180,000 home.

The Home Builder Association has said the additional costs would be much more.

Mathis said the $3,000 figure is what the homebuilders told the governor's office that they needed in cost savings.

Lisa Martin, the home builder association's director of government affairs, disputed the characterization that any of the proposed amendments would be detrimental to safety.

She said the council's action on Tuesday wasn't unexpected.

"It was pretty much what we had hoped they would do as being a part of that compromise," she said.

The new commercial and residential codes will go into effect March 1, 2012.

What happens next

The proposed offsets were sent to the Building Code Council's subcommittees for further review. Perdue said fire safety is a high priority for her.

"The fact of the matter is these people are appointed to do a job," she said. "... It's up to them to see that safety isn't eroded."

The council on Tuesday also voted down a proposal that would have delayed the adoption of the commercial building code changes until 2014.

The proposal was put forward by Robert Ruffner Jr., a general contractor who noted the commercial real estate industry has also been clobbered by the economic downturn.

"We didn't get any reduction from the governor," Ruffner said of his industry. "We were left out of the deal."

david.bracken@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4548

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