(Written by Jack Milarch – NMHBA EVP/CEO – Originally published in the May 2011 Housing Journal)

Roll Back of Newly-Adopted Energy Code Proposed

During the first meeting of Governor Martinez’ new Construction Industries Commission (CIC), the Construction Industries Division (CID) management asked for, and received, a vote to re-open public hearings on the recently adopted New Mexico energy codes. Beginning in January 2011, New Mexico contractors have been required to use a greatly enhanced version of the 2009 International Energy Conservation Code (IECC). Commissioners reported receiving up to 1,000 emails from energy efficiency activist groups opposed to these public hearings that would roll back the stricter energy requirements.

Since there is a great deal of tension and drama surrounding the codes issue, I want to “unpack” this issue a bit for Housing Journal readers.

The history of this surprise CIC move is that at the height of the “Martinez For Governor” election campaign there was great unhappiness, particularly among Albuquerque’s commercial real estate community, at Governor Richardson’s efforts to ratchet up our energy codes in order to keep New Mexico on track to deliver what is known as the “30% Solution”. This “Solution” is part of a multistate environmental advocacy effort to, among other initiatives, push building energy codes to 30% more stringent than the 2006 base code in order to reduce carbon emissions. Several of New Mexico’s boards, commissions, and agencies, including CID, whipped themselves into a frenzy installing as many carbon-reducing new rules as possible before the end of Governor Richardson’s administration.   In CID’s case wads of federal “stimulus” money were used to facilitate this effort, including an official first-ever specially printed New Mexico edition from the International Code Council (ICC). With the election of the Republican administration, things have changed.

We have been told the “roll back” effort is being done to keep New Mexico competitive in attracting economic development relative to surrounding cities and states. So the obvious question is this: Will “rolling back” to the 2009 base code make us more competitive for economic development? Up until this past January New Mexico was using the 2006 IECC, as amended to accommodate NM conditions and building habits. To answer that “competitiveness” question we need to look at the energy codes used around us. Here is a sampling from the ICC website. (Earlier versions of the IECC are considerably less sophisticated and less demanding than the 2009 IECC version, especially for commercial construction.)

– Arizona has a state adopted code using the 2006 IECC, as do Phoenix and Tucson. Some local governments continue to use the 2003 version, however.

– Texas adopts the “state” code under their transportation department and is using the 2006 version, but there are big exceptions such as in Houston and Lubbock who are still using the 2000 version.

– Utah has a statewide version of the construction codes and has adopted the 2009 base version with no enhancing amendments.

– Colorado also adopts a model IECC under their transportation department and is using the 2009 edition; however Denver, Littleton, and Colorado Springs, among other localities, still use the 2003 IECC.

So, will “rolling back” to the 2009 version of the IECC facilitate a competitive advantage? It’s a partial solution at best. From a comparison point of view the most “competitive” energy code for New Mexico was the enhanced version of the 2006 IECC we’ve used up until January of this year. NMHBA had requested during the public hearings last year that we allow continued use of the 2006 version for several more years. That request was granted only for portions of the commercial energy codes. In light of what surrounding areas are using, allowing us to continue using the 2006 code usage still might be the best solution, however that doesn’t seem to be under consideration.

Another issue with this “roll back” idea is a claim that it will trigger a federal government demand to refund millions of dollars in “stimulus” money. Is that true? All states were required to commit to creating building code energy efficiency standards (among other attached “strings”) in order to get the “free” federal money. I have a copy of Governor Richardson’s letter of commitment to US Department of Energy Secretary Chu dated March 3, 2009. Here is the relevant quotation, shortened a bit to show the important wording:

“I am directing the New Mexico Regulation and Licensing Department, Construction Industries Division to propose new building codes to the NM Construction Industries Commission…to bring the State’s residential and commercial building codes to meet or exceed the most recently published International Energy Conservation Code. I am directing…CID to develop a plan that implements the new codes so that within eight years…90 percent of new and renovated…space will be in compliance with the codes.”

The commitment was therefore to have the 2009 code or equivalent in place by 2017! So the story that we must leave the recently adopted energy code in place or lose stimulus money is simply false.

There is a third issue I want to address. A recent Sierra Club press release about the CIC’s action included this headline: “The cost of owning a new home just increased for New Mexicans”

This implies we will be building poorly performing housing if this latest government mandate isn’t implemented. Is it true?

NMHBA commissioned a study a couple years back designed to look at typical home construction in several cities around our state. We wanted to know what was being built out there in the real world, codes requirements notwithstanding. The results were surprising. What we found was that the typical standard (not specifically built to meet an energy efficiency program) new home was already substantially exceeding the 2006 codes, and in fact was close to exceeding the 2009 codes as well. We did find that double-checking energy related details during construction would be beneficial; however, overall our builders and their subs are delivering a high level of practical and common sense energy efficiency with their new homes. New home buyers’ energy bills also support that conclusion. In addition, many builders are offering homes that greatly exceed the minimums in order to meet growing market demand for highly efficient products. So is the accusation correct that a roll back as proposed will cause NM home construction to slide back into the energy efficiency “dark ages”? No, that is not correct.

In the coming months you will be hearing more about the energy code “roll back” efforts. NMHBA is analyzing the proposed base 2009 energy code and so far has determined that we would need several small but critical amendments to accommodate our unique climate and construction varieties. Our Building Issues Committee will be meeting to discuss this issue in detail. Public hearings have been set for June 2nd in several locations around NM. Our plan is to submit our requests at public hearings.