The Future of Building Codes & “Green” Building Programs

For this week’s Guest Post Friday here at Construction Law Musings, we would like to welcome back Sean Lintow Sr. (@The_HTRC) of SLS Construction & Building Solutions. Sean has over 20 years in the construction and project management fields and is now solely specializing in helping other builders & trade professionals to improve their building methods plus providing code & “green” program verifications in the Illinois area. Currently he is RESNET Rater, AEE CEA (Certified Energy Auditor), ENERGY STAR partner & verifier, EPA Indoor airPLUS verifier, Level 2 Infrared Thermographer, Volunteer Energy Rater for Habitat for Humanity, Green Star Verifier, and DOE Challenge Home Partner & Verifier. You may also want to check out his great resources on the HTRC (Homeowners & Trades Resource Center).

First off, let me say thanks Chris for having me back. I can’t believe this is my fourth time & I got to say I am honored. As many may or may not know, I have been following or been actively engaged in the “green” movement since the early 80’s & wow, how things have changed. As I brought out in a recent presentation, what was once considered extreme & the realm of hippies “finding a new direction” has now become mainstream.

While many programs have sprung up from this, by far two of the biggest are LEED & ENERGY STAR. As we know they were conceived as a means for builders to build better buildings & they started off with simple roots. As the conversation started to grow & changes started coming about (mainly due to building codes) they had to adopt or be deemed irrelevant.

One of the most interesting statement I recall is one of the founders of LEED saying they looked forward to the day when they might be able to close the doors as the codes & builders simply built “green”. So this begs the question, with all the recent code changes & many more coming (like the 2015 codes requiring a HERS score of 51-55 for residential), where do many of the programs stand & are some of them about to become irrelevant? (Curious what a HERS Score is?)

ENERGY STAR:

ENERGY STAR (ES) was & still is to some extent the base of many programs out there today including LEED for Homes, Earth Craft, etc… The reason, well it covered the entry level energy efficiency portion which allowed the other programs to spend more time & effort on their vision. With the advent of the 2009 codes though, things changed dramatically in ES Version 3 as it went from an entry level program to one with some pretty tough requirements when it came to the HVAC.

While one can question the wiseness of that choice, it has faced severe drops in the total number of certified homes but also in interest. For many programs (like those listed above) that used to require that houses be certified ES, now they simply say one must meet the requirements (thermal envelope & HERS Score.) One of the other big issues (especially when you look at the picture above) is that they pinned their newest version off the 2009 codes & not the 2012 codes which some states were already using & are become mandatory in 2017.

Prognosis: I think as soon as the 2015 codes are ratified we are looking at the death knell for ES because the room for an entry level program with codes that tough is pretty much gone. With it losing its initial appeal, coupled with the fact that anyone building to 2012 codes is either pretty close to meeting or exceeding their V3 standards that may come about sooner rather than later. As for Indoor airPLUS, WaterSense & other EPA backed programs, those will probably live on & will be tied into the codes is my gut thought.

EarthCents / NICOR / Utility Programs:

One other reason why I think ES is on its way out is that many utilities are creating their own “entry level programs” to replace ES. For example in Alabama I worked on the Earth Cents program which has now spread to Georgia & other areas. Up here in Illinois one program I have been doing a lot of work with is the NICOR program. Unlike EarthCents that calls for a specific HERS rating & is meant to lock the gas utility out, the NICOR (gas company) works with ComEd for a combined program that simply states the houses must be 10% better than code.

The best thing for many builders participating in this program is that not only are they building a more comfortable house, they are generally not spending any more than a regular builder who simply follows the prescriptive portion. I was just in a meeting this week on it & a few interesting stats came out – for builders who elect to use the performance based option they typically save $1700 over the prescriptive requirements. By taking these savings they can then make some improvements to meet the NICOR requirements thus earning rebates & free marketing. The best part for many homeowners is that the builders aren’t simply stopping as soon as they hit the 10% and general end up having homes built 16.2% better than codes (HERS 55 for single family & 62 for multifamily.) Guess who isn’t going to have much to do when the 2015 codes roll out here in another year or so…

LEED for Homes:

LEED I think recognized the issues that ES was going to create & wisely chose to say “must meet.” Ahh but if everyone is building “green” are they becoming irrelevant? I don’t think that is the case as they focus on more than just energy & for some of the good marketers / those in markets asking for “sustainable” or other key buzz words, LEED will still be around for quite a while.

PassivHaus, Challenge Home, & Others:

With the goal of reaching Net-Zero in the codes by 2030, many of these other programs will probably thrive for the time being, especially the Challenge Home program with its “Renewable-Ready” checklists. With so many builders actively engaged & reaching negative HERS numbers (i.e. they produce more than they use) many will be looking to them on how to accomplish this. The US version of PassivHaus I will give better than even odds that it will survive the short term but will still be seen as more of a niche program.

How about Remodeling:

Ahh with so much existing housing stock, what about the remodeling market & just how do they fall in with the newer codes? Well that one is pretty tough to answer as I have talked about in some other pieces like this one on Duct Testing. I think we will start seeing many programs like LEED start to take a more serious look at this market as the next big frontier. One program that I expect to make a major jump is the Green Star program.

Green Star was originally founded in Minnesota & started off for both new homes & remodeling under the moniker of Minnesota Green Star. After a major flap with the local Home Builders Association (an original partner) the “remodeling” aspect is very much alive & well & has now become US GreenStar which is now covering 7 states in the Midwest. Over the next few years I would pay attention as one of their original goals was to go nationwide & I expect them to come pretty close to that.

In case you are curious, as a verifier & consultant – the checklist can seem like a nightmare. Like many programs, training is required of the contractors, trade professionals, and even the homeowners. The minimum HERS score is an 85 which may seem high given we are talking about 55 or less in the 2015 codes, that is actually a pretty good target as many homes built prior to the 90’s are high up in the hundreds with most being around a 150.

As always, Sean and I welcome your comments. Please subscribe to keep up with this and other Guest Post Fridays at Construction Law Musings.

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