(Written by Jack Milarch – NMHBA EVP/CEO – Originally published in the July 2010 Housing Journal)

Economic Realities, Energy Conservation Mandates, and Fire Sprinklers

Faithful readers of the Housing Journal know that NMHBA staff and several dedicated member volunteers have invested many months involved with CID and others poring over the 2009 model building codes in our project of “New Mexico-izing” those documents. New codes are produced about every three years. This year’s code adoption project was overshadowed by Governor Richardson’s Executive Orders mandating that the energy conservation sections be upgraded to result in (theoretically at least) putting our building related energy usage on track to meet the Western Governors’ Association climate change mitigation goals. This plan, which Governor Richardson obligated New Mexico to participate in, has as its goal to reduce our building related energy usage back to year 2000 levels by 2012. This means the goal for the New Mexico Building Code is to yield 10% more energy savings than would be mandated by the 2009 base model code.

The process for reviewing the code and modeling proposed changes has been ongoing for about nine months. NMHBA leadership decided early on to be as involved as we could be with the process. In regard to energy efficiency features, our goal in this code review effort was to knock down extreme proposals; to be sure the requirements were attainable in the normal course of business and with readily available materials; and to avoid requirements that would expose contractors to unnecessary construction defect possibilities. At the same time we did our best to be sure the code allows creative solutions to achieving the goals. We believe these things were accomplished.

A much more fundamental and glaring question still exists, however: Is this a good time for such a change? Contractors, like most businesses, are struggling with high costs and almost no opportunity for mark up. For most of our industry members, sales volume is at historical lows. In some areas of the state new construction is competing with the artificially low value of foreclosed and distressed properties. Add to that the problem of our appraisal and banking partners being notoriously blind to recognizing and rewarding the value of high-energy efficiency features. It’s a mess out there! Most observers believe it will simply take more time for all these situations to get back to normal. In short, there probably hasn’t been a worse time for such a mandate in many years. NMHBA is therefore asking the state to delay implementation of this code until at least 2013.

The second big issue in all this has nothing to do with energy issues. That issue is fire sprinklers. It has been well publicized that this version of the model codes contains a new requirement for automatic fire sprinklers in single-family homes. Getting sprinklers into single-family homes has been a huge agenda item for the various fire services for a number of years. Our national association has consistently fought this idea as being unnecessary and has characterized the effort as inappropriately self-serving on the part of the proponents. Over the last decade battles have been won and lost on both sides. At the International Code Council hearings during the drafting of the 2009 building code the fire sprinkler proponents found an opportunity to swarm the forum and got the vote on sprinklers to go their way. The battle then moved to the state and local levels where codes are ultimately adopted and implemented.

This isn’t just a New Mexico issue. A number of states’ legislatures have passed laws keeping sprinklers out of their new home codes. During the 2009 Legislature NMHBA drafted and promoted a related Memorial on this subject that was successfully carried by San Juan County Representative Tom Taylor. That legislation, HJM 64, passed the House on a 68 to 0 vote.

NMHBA was bracing for a battle over residential sprinklers during this code adoption cycle. It never happened. At one of the early meetings of our code change committee we were informed by a representative of Governor Richardson’s office that the residential sprinkler issue was “off the table” for this code cycle, in exchange for all the parties spending their time and effort on achieving Governor Richardson’s energy efficiency goals in the new code. As promised, the draft code documents going to public hearing have a provision that delays residential sprinklers until July 1, 2013. Even so, the position of NMHBA is that we want the requirement for residential automatic fire sprinklers not just delayed but completely out of the code.

These two requests, one for adoption delay, and one for removing sprinkler requirements in single family homes, were sent to our local HBA leadership recently, in the hopes that we can get strong support of our position at the public hearings being conducted around the state. It is expected that the final decision on rejection, adoption, or amendment of this code package will be made by vote at the Construction Industries Commission’s July 16 meeting.