Many of us have been working for decades to push the energy codes toward higher performance. We've had some good success along the way, as state after state adopt more stringent codes. Unfortunately, in many regions we have a long, long way to go. Even in those places where the most stringent codes are in place, execution and enforcement are often weak. And, as for going beyond the code to achieve excellence -- forget it. Most mainstream builders are not in a position to go beyond the bare minimum, and the quality of our housing stock shows it.

The Compliance Project was launched to help solve some of these problems. The intent is to foster a higher level of compliance with current energy codes during the construction of new homes, and so reduce the energy consumption, carbon emissions, and environmental impact of our housing stock. Our goal is to fast-track improvements in the performance of U.S. residential construction by addressing economic, legal, and ethical short-comings in our construction industry.

We invite your inquiries and collaboration -- the project is structured to benefit forward-looking professionals who see the potential in speeding the implementation of advanced building codes.

Learn more at the website:

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Comment by David Eakin on January 27, 2016 at 4:06pm

@Ted - unfortunately I have spent an inordinate amount of time thinking about this issue and all the variables leading up to it as well as ramifications of different variations on the status quo. The durability and energy efficiency of buildings (and residences specifically) are not as trivial as a golf score - it is the one of (if not THE) largest investment an individual will make. That is why I'm such an advocate of more stringent codes and national/uniform enforcement. Unfortunately, home purchases happen with a rare repeat pattern (for most everyone) so that a valid, general perception on what truly makes "good quality" is never achieved. Energy use per square foot is initially attractive, but where do these data points exist? Who enters them? Are they reflective of the residence or the occupants' behavior? Any half-decent real estate sale person will tear these to shreds if they existed outside of the MLS and they are (mostly) all strongly resisting populating the MLS with this data so as to not undercut commissions on the rest of the housing market. Most builders today have no interest in competing with their peers on energy efficiency - they are having a tough enough time as it is building to code (the real point of the article). Without all builders building to a much higher standard, the outliers will need to charge a premium - which the average buyer will be loath to fund. And most builders already know this - "good" builders or not, it is the profit margins that keep you in business. Look at the recent history of builders who could offer Home Performance With Energy Star versions in addition to "code built"; their sales agents don't even want to broach the subject with prospective buyers because of a fear the increased costs will drive the sales away - even though the total cost to the buyer per month will be the same (noted from personal experience). Maybe you and Nate will continue to act as the "buyer's advocate" for a select subset of builders and owners/remodelers who already have an interest in and value of increased comfort and decreased utility cost - and are already prepared to pay for that delta. But it will always be for a "geeky" subset unless a much more powerful force is applied to change the status quo.

Comment by tedkidd on January 27, 2016 at 12:55pm

Codes for health and safety are important. You can't compete around this - how would that look - fewest deaths per 100,000 homes built?

But where you can use market competition to drive quality, codes are expensive and stupid. It's like having a tournament that only requires golfers break 100. Participation awards for everyone. You'll get a lot of crappy golf, and no good golfers. In fact you chase good work away because better is competitive disadvantage.

And you'll spend a TON of money on enforcement - or you'll get a lot of people shooting 120 and claiming 100.

Markets like to value things that are measured. Keep score, and make the scores public. People look at taxes, and it affects the price they offer. They look at other home prices. They look at interest rates. They look at number of bathrooms. If we provide energy use per sf and allow buyers to compare to the 5 other houses they are looking at, they'll begin to value better houses. If we give them the tools to easily see that one house costs $50 less per month than another house, they will be willing to increase their price by the capitalized value of some or all of that $50. But they need to be able to see it and have high confidence it's real. It needs statistical significance and not be anecdotal. 

Good builders will get rewarded, consumers will ask them to build their homes. Innovation will get rewarded. Competition will shift from cutting corners on price and quality and keeping the "strokes" around 100, to competing to get the lowest score possible and be able to not just say you are the best, but show it. 

I don't know about "agent" stuff. Not sure David E has spent time thinking about this. You have to put yourself in the shoes of a buyer. Think like you are at an auction, trying to decide what has value and what doesn't. $50 a month saved on energy, if you have high confidence it exists, has value. Read up on first principles thinking, it might be helpful: 

Maybe builders will hire people like Nate and me to drive their scores down, maybe they'll do training for their people, maybe they'll come across a rain dance that makes their homes better. 

Comment by David Eakin on January 27, 2016 at 10:09am

@ Nate and Tony: what you are attempting to do is replace the run-of-the-mill "code" builders and remodelers with yourselves as the customers' agents (again, as per my previous comments). This is not a recipe for a whole-scale demand side solution. This is not buying appliances, sporting goods, or vacation spots where relying on a large social media group will help you independently sift through the hype from the facts. Using your current business models, the general home-buying public will be no better at judging good design vs poor vs "code"; they will be no better at judging best industry practice at implementation vs poor vs "code". Face it - you will not make building science "nerds" out of the majority of people who own or want to own a residence, and those people (and their social networks) will buy 1, 2, maybe 3 or 4 houses in their lifetime. No where near enough to keep up with best industry practices nor remediation for their particular situations. They need a "big brother" on their side to ensure they are getting a long-lasting and low-cost-to-run product, not just something that "looks pretty" for a quick sale. Just like the other government regulators I mentioned previously (think of what kind of science "nerd" you would need to be to become knowledgeable in wholesale food processing, automotive design and air traffic oversight to keep yourself from injury if you did not rely on these agencies).

Comment by Tony Hicks on January 27, 2016 at 8:36am

We've had a lot of positive feedback. We started using more energy efficient products on the last 2 houses, and we completed these houses recently. So we haven't had much time to sell yet.

We raised our margin by a little, but we haven't sold either house yet. The reason we haven't sold the houses is because of the lot, and not because we inputted energy efficient products and priced our self out of the market.    

Comment by Nate Adams on January 26, 2016 at 8:54pm

@David, I've been puzzling through how to write about the demand side. The ultimate solution needs to come from demand, not that we shouldn't pursue code enforcement. I think I have a decent argument figured out. Basically, rather than tell people they should do something, make it in their financial interest (at least partially in housing value) to do so. Efficiency will happen when there is consumer demand, not from ramming it down builder throats. Keep an eye on the One Knob blog. OK, enough stealing Chris' thunder.  It doesn't need to be either/or, it can be both/and. 

@Tony have you seen higher selling prices/margins?

Comment by Tony Hicks on January 26, 2016 at 5:46pm

I wouldn't say completely no to demand side solution. We have been promoting HERS scores and our competitive advantage in energy efficiency for Slab Insulation (even though we're getting screwed here). We have been doing other means of increasing energy efficiency which is shown through our improved HERS scores compared to other builders. If a builder has a competitive advantage over another builder, then the better builder will try to promote his product as well as he can. For example, we have 11X17 sheets in our house that explain why we're more energy efficient than other builders. I agree with you, but not completely. 

Comment by David Eakin on January 26, 2016 at 4:54pm

@ Nate Adams - "Is there a way to change this to a demand side solution so consumers drive the change?" Short answer - no. Not enough buying experience (either by individuals or their social networks) to differentiate between any quality levels; too many outside interests (e.g., realtor commissions, builder/remodeler profit margins, etc.) competing for buyers' $. Not many have enough interest to become well-versed in building science, so either explicitly trust "someone else" - who may/may not be working in the buyer's best interest. A uniform, NATIONAL (get local government out of the picture as they are dragging us down) set of building codes is needed - that corresponds to a national energy policy - so that general buyers are protected similar to the FDA, NHTSA, FAA, etc.

Comment by Everblue Training on January 26, 2016 at 12:07pm

Great concept! Just posted about this on our Facebook page. Hopefully that'll help give you some survey respondents.

Comment by Chris Dorsi on January 25, 2016 at 2:43pm

The issue of code compliance always generates lots of heat in the construction word. Yet it should be a simple question of "Here's some good rules, let's follow them." The devil, of course, is in the details.

At the Compliance Project, our work is focused on moving high performance construction into the mainstream. I believe that the best way to do this is to help the existing trades integrate performance -- whether measured by prescription or by testing -- into their work.

So I appreciate the comment by @NateAdams, "Codes are top-down... solutions (rules). With rules, it's human nature to wiggle out of them." Yet I wonder why the idea of simply following the codes is debatable. I don't see electricians trying to save money by running 14-gauge wire where 12-gauge is specified. I don't see concrete contractors pouring foundations without rebar because "their experience" tells them that the foundation doesn't need it. We are lucky to have gotten so far in the implementation of good energy codes. They are not perfect by a long shot, but let's at least try to enforce what we have!

Good comments, too, by @TracySavoy. I agree that the U.S. hodgepodge of code adoption and enforcement is a mess. The whole idea of "home rule", where local building authorities can determine whether and how to enforce codes has become almost archaic in its belief that the locals always know better. And yes it's true that occasionally the codes are just wrong -- take a look at attic and crawl space regs to recognize how a little regionalism is sometimes needed in the interpretation of code.

But those bonafide building science exceptions are rare, and most code non-compliance is based on less lofty goals. Sometimes it's just a matter of education of code officials, and other times it's about local budgets for building departments who are tasked with enforcement (and education?). Oftentimes it's a belief that the builders can't make the transition. But the vast majority of non-compliance is nothing more that entrenched habits on the construction site. So that should be great news, since we know how to fix entrenched habits. You just adopt a code and enforce it! Remember the advent of construction adhesive under sheathing back in the 1970s? "It's so messy!" the framers complained for a year or so. How about the introduction of grounded circuits, back in the 1950s? "We'll go broke!" the electricians howled. So it's just a matter of time before industry figures out how to follow the rules, and in the world of energy codes, the time is now.

At the Compliance Project, we're developing an education package for code officials which we expect to release in the next few months -- designed for forward-looking pros who want to make some progress in their regions, it'll include brand-able media and guidance for how to tell the story in your own communities and help force progress.

And it's an important point made by @TonyHicks. I agree that slab insulation is under-rated in every code, and it's an obvious code-plus upgrade up North. There are plenty of examples where even the most current codes are vastly underwhelming. Codes are, after all, the minimum a contractor can do and not break the law, and all the best builders go way beyond code in many ways. Which is all the more reason to force compliance with energy codes -- it's just not that hard.

Comment by Tony Hicks on January 25, 2016 at 12:50pm

Great article Chris. I think a huge improvement the industry can make is enforcing slab insulation by the energy code. I think this could be a quick fix since the rule is already in place, and doesn't need to be approved by a committee. 

IRC and IECC code requires that slab insulstion start at the top of the slab, although almost all builders I see don't abide by this code. Many building officials have allowed a work around by leaving foam below the top of the slab because of construction difficulties. I've heard in climate 4 & 5 that 50% of heat loss is due to improper slab insulation practices. 

We're a small builder in Indiana, and we used a product called Insul Slab, which is a product that provides a complete thermal break. We ended up getting the same HERS score as holding the foam 4" down, which shouldn't be given the same score based on energy efficiency. We called RESNET and other building officials to notify them of this inaccuracy, but they didn't do anything to reflect that we should be given a higher HERS score. The building departments and energy evaluators aren't helping to solve this problem.  

At the end of the day slab insulation seems to be the lowest hanging fruit to push a higher standard of energy efficiency throughout construction. This is a lack of code enforcement and not a lack of rules. As an energy efficiency enthusiast and builder I hope this problem can be improved quickly. 

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