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Overhaul of building energy code deals setback to gas ban backers

The council responsible for developing model building codes overhauled its process for setting minimum energy efficiency requirements, blocking a pathway that local governments have used to secure decarbonization measures like building electrification and electric vehicle charging.

The move drew swift criticism from environmentalists, some local governments and Democratic leaders, who called the move a sign of the influence of building developers and the gas industry within the council, the International Code Council Inc., or ICC. Groups like the National Association of Home Builders and Leading Builders of America viewed the overhaul as a means of preventing climate-focused groups and civil servants from compromising the council's mission of fostering safe, affordable building development.

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Every three years the International Code Council updates model building codes, including energy efficiency requirements, that are followed by most U.S. states.

Source: Peter Funnell/Moment via Getty Images

At the heart of the uproar is the ICC board of directors' decision to switch from a code development system to a standards process for updating the International Energy Conservation Code, or IECC, which addresses energy efficiency and greenhouse gas emissions reductions in buildings.

Under the standards process, a committee will develop new model energy codes. That committee will include voting members representing government. Under the previous code development system, the ICC allowed governments to apply to send voting delegates, creating an opportunity for municipalities to send sizable delegations and for delegate groups to organize into a large bloc to vote directly on code updates.

The move came after municipal governments and green groups organized in 2019 to secure ambitious updates to the 2021 IECC update through the voting process. The proposals that passed with support of the coalition would produce at least 10% efficiency improvement in buildings from the previous code, representing the second biggest efficiency gain over the prior 10 years, according to the New Buildings Institute.

"This is a classic case of changing the rules in the middle of the game," Lauren Urbanek, senior energy policy advocate at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said in a March 4 statement. "It's extremely troubling that the ICC board unnecessarily voted to strip the power from local government officials on the very codes they oversee, after they voted overwhelmingly to make our homes and other buildings more energy efficient and avoid harmful pollution from burning fossil fuels inside them."

Change comes after victories by green groups, local governments

Among the 2021 code provisions supported by the coalition were minimum percentage requirements for electric vehicle-ready spaces in parking lots and a mandate for developers to include electric paneling in buildings with natural gas hookups, which would allow homeowners to switch to electric heating and appliances. The get-out-the-vote campaign dovetailed with the rise of natural gas prohibitions in new buildings and all-electric construction requirements in California, which has galvanized a national building electrification movement.

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The ICC asserted that the conservation code would "remain a strong avenue for communities to reach their energy efficiency and sustainability goals globally." It said the process has produced an average 8% increase in efficiency requirements per code cycle since 2006.

"The Code Council is committed to furthering the progress the IECC has made to date and ensuring our energy code continues to meet the needs of governments around the world to advance their energy efficiency goals," ICC CEO Dominic Sims said in a March 4 statement. "We have heard clearly feedback from the building safety community asking us to strengthen the IECC and create new resources to help communities address their climate goals."

The ICC updates model building codes every three years. The codes provide minimum standards for states, which typically incorporate the updates into their own three-year update cycles. The change means coalitions like the one formed in 2019 will have less power to secure stringent new standards that will serve as models for the entire country.

The American Gas Association, which represents U.S. natural gas utilities and opposes restrictions on gas use in new buildings, said "the new standards process is inclusive of the stakeholders needed to help ensure reasonable, viable efficiency improvements for the built environment."

Debate over motivation for change

Some organizations, such as the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers, have long used a standards development system to establish minimum energy efficiency. But environmentalists noted that the ICC did not remove direct voting from non-energy aspects of the building code update process.

"States and cities are eager to lead in combating climate change, and building codes are an important tool for reducing emissions," Mike Henchen, a principal on the carbon-free buildings team of RMI, formerly known as Rocky Mountain Institute, said in a March 4 statement. "The ICC chose to limit the input of local leaders in favor of industry groups resistant to change. The climate crisis won't wait for these opposing forces to come around, so the federal government and local leaders must work together to accelerate modern, healthy, zero-emissions buildings."

U.S. Rep. Frank Pallone, D-N.J., and chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said he was "extremely disappointed" in the ICC board's decision. "Today's action by the ICC will upend the energy code development process and inexplicably remove the voting role of states and local governments," he said in a March 4 news release.

Pallone said the decision would compel him to build on his legislative work to make the U.S. building stock more efficient, including through the CLEAN Future Act, which he introduced on March 2.

National Association of Home Builders Chairman Chuck Fowke said the organization was still reviewing the proposed framework, but said it appeared to provide a "clear improvement for the energy code development process."

"This is an important change that we expect to result in a model energy code that meets the needs of consumers, builders, building officials and energy efficiency advocates," Fowke said in a March 4 statement.