Code Green – Building Code Upgrades in 2012 Sideline Old Homes

Marla and John Ray relocated to Denver from Washington, D.C. in 2008, partly because of the weather.  But there are days they’d never know they left the stifling Potomac lowlands because their townhouse in central Denver is so hot.

Marla, who owns Denver’s Moving Boxes, works from a third-floor bonus room in her house, a space which fries several months a year.  “We’ll have the heat on in one room, and the air-conditioner on in another,” she says of the four-story townhome in the Whittier neighborhood.  Unsurprisingly, her electric bills are hundreds of dollars, especially in summer when her air-conditioner runs full-tilt-boogie and triggers “peak” pricing – Xcel Energy’s slap on the hand to homeowners who use excessive power to stay cool.

Their problem isn’t old or shoddy construction, though.  The house is a custom 3,100-square-foot duplex built in 2009.  Instead, their issue is that the house meets the bare minimum required in building codes, and the energy codes that feed into them are insufficient.  Thankfully, those energy codes – the 2009 “IECC”[1] version – are becoming roughly 15 percent tougher next year in Denver, as well as in a number of Colorado counties and places across the country.

“Energy codes matter because people have a basic expectation when they buy a property,” says Shaunna Mozingo, Energy Code Consultant and Plans Analyst for Colorado Code Consulting.  “When it snows, the roof will hold the load.  When the wind blows, it won’t blow the house down.  The plumbing works,” she says.

But Mozingo says these buyer expectations also extend to energy use.  “Buyers also expect to be comfortable, and they expect the home to be efficient.  They expect that their first energy bill isn’t going to put them out of their next mortgage payment.”

As with computer processors, there’s a “Moore’s Law” in energy efficiency – the bar gets raised routinely in energy-efficient features and systems in homes.  In the same way that old Commodore computers with 280-bit processors are now quaint relics, homes built five, 15 or even 50 years ago must step up with energy efficiency or risk devaluation when it’s time to sell.

For example, the new codes will make 80-percent furnaces museum relics.  ‘Ever wait for the shower water to heat?  Hot water pipe insulation will now be required.  So will mechanical ventilation to keep inside air fresh and safe.  And one of the more exotic and visible changes going forward is mandatory blower-door testing – energy auditors put large fans into doorways with adjustable canvas frames to measure building airtightness.

These raised codes would have helped the Rays if they built new in 2013.  Increased ceiling insulation would better shield Marla’s office with 22 percent more insulation (R-38 to R-49 insulation values), more energy-efficient lighting and better windows would be required, and the heating and cooling ductwork would leak less.  Not only are the Rays tired of big Xcel bills, but their air-conditioner contractor made out like a bandit, installing two big units that can’t even keep up.   As it stands, the Rays are on the hook for these after-market changes so they can be comfortable.

 

IMAGES RIGHT:  (1) Energy auditor Jerry Garner teaching owner Marla Ray how to program a thermostat.  (2) Infrared (IR) photo of third-floor walls and ceiling. Disparities between the framing and cavities in the Rays' house show insufficient insulation, and new building codes would help them.

 

Not only does energy efficiency affect utility bills, it also impacts property valuation.  In May 2012, the Appraisal Institute officially recognized green buildings (and specifically energy savings) with higher appraisal values in commercial real estate [2].  And this is happening in residential, too, as data from around the country is starting to show that green homes and features sell faster and for more money.[3]

Even though raised energy codes benefit anyone buying or building a new home, Mozingo says there’s pushback and resistance to change, with some jurisdictions choosing not to play at all.  “There are over 340 jurisdictions [building departments] in Colorado, and about 70 of them don’t have a code.  And a number of codes were written in 1960,” she says.

Also, Colorado’s “home-rule” whereby local governing bodies rather than the state dictate policy , causes confusion for general contractors and builders working from county to county.  “Home rule is a great thing, but it’s not a great thing if you’re a designer or a contractor.  Or if you’re trying to be energy-compliant because no one’s doing the same thing.”

Even with raised energy codes, there are some outlier communities – a handful in Colorado – that regard the stricter 2012 codes as a nice start.  Boulder, Colo., has a carbon tax, a “green” building code and acceptance of Kyoto Protocol greenhouse gas emission levels driving city and county policy.

“We have national codes, and in addition, many municipalities will adopt additional codes.  The national building codes are pretty quiet on ‘green’ issues.  Yet the City of Boulder said we’ll take a stronger position,” says architect Ron Flax of Rodwin Architecture in Boulder.  Flax and his colleagues specialize in green-home building, hardly a novelty in progressive Boulder. 

“They created the Green Points building codes – one of, if not the first, green building codes in the country.  It’s not just insulation and air-sealing, but also green materials, material sourcing, waste and water.”

Mozingo says 50 percent of Colorado counties aren’t even up to the 2009 energy codes, and when it comes to buying a home or building, caveat emptor.  “If owners would do more research, then everyone in the state would bring the code up to date because owners would throw a fit that there isn’t even a minimum,’” she says.

“I really want to stress to building owners and buyers to their homework to see what went into their house and commercial building.  They know – instead of expecting, they know.  Then they can make that choice whether they want to buy that [home or] building.”


-Melissa Baldridge, GreenSpot


[1] International Energy Conservation Code, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/International_Energy_Conservation_Code.

[2] Institute for Market Transformation and the Appraisal Institute,  ”Recognition of Energy Costs and Energy Performance in Real Property Valuation,” May 2012, http://bit.ly/TNQxXV.

[3] Ann Griffin, “Certifying Home Performance:  Assessing the Market Performance of Third Party Certification on Residential Properties,” Earth Advantage Institute, May 2009, http://bit.ly/TJZbnW

 

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Comment by Melissa Baldridge on January 19, 2013 at 11:43am
Thanks, Steve. Like they say in journalism class, "Show me - don't tell me. ". ESPECIALLY when it comes to something as dense-o as BUILDING CODES. Yowza!

And yes, I hope she'll get a white roof. Though we're working on this issue with another client, and it seems the warranty for white versus black membrane is half as long. Which I totally don't understand (wouldn't white wear down in twice the time?).

Talk about a perverse incentive for energy efficiency!
Comment by Steve Waclo on January 18, 2013 at 11:54pm
Melissa,

Thanks for making time to write up this very interesting and informative article on the status of energy codes, and how they could have effected Marla's energy costs and comfort in Denver.

She must have a fairly sophisticated system to be able to "...have the heat on in one room, and the air-conditioner on in another".

When our home in the DC suburbs (we're in Northern Nevada, now) qualified for TOU rates, I used the billing system to my advantage during the cooling season by running central air from 5am till the first break point later in the morning. Cooler am temperatures (as well as no solar gains) allowed the CAC to pull interior temps down to the low 70's by the time we awoke. The clock thermostat kicked up to 82F daytime, and with all drapes drawn, only on the very hottest days did the temperature in our early 90's vintage town home exceed 82 F by the time we returned around 6pm. Marla may be in no mood to endure the radical temperature swings (surprisingly, humidity was not a problem) and perhaps she welcomes the view out the unshaded, third floor windows, but she will certainly enjoy the savings. Also, how about a white roof coating on the bonus room and some shading for those windows? Also, suspect the air handler is having a difficult time moving air to the top floors.

Best wishes and keep the excellent articles coming.

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