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William Penniman column: Building code updates are needed to protect Virginians
Health, Safety and Welfare

William Penniman column: Building code updates are needed to protect Virginians

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Virginia’s Uniform Statewide Building Code is required by law to “protect the health, safety and welfare of residents of the commonwealth” and to be, at least, “consistent with recognized standards for health, safety, energy conservation and water conservation.” Unfortunately, today’s statewide building code does not protect Virginians from either high energy costs or the growing harms from climate change, which the governor and legislature have recognized are urgent threats to residents’ health, safety and welfare, and to the commonwealth’s future.

Nearing the end of its three-year, code-review cycle, the Board of Housing and Community Development (BHCD) should more effectively protect residents’ health, safety and welfare by maximizing energy efficiency, removing impediments to carbon-free energy resources, and helping Virginia achieve “swift decarbonization” consistent with the purposes of the code and the commonwealth’s energy objectives and policies.

Smart, efficient building construction and renovations are critical. Buildings represent 70% of electricity consumption, 54% of gas consumption and 40% of overall energy consumption. Inefficient buildings do long-term harm since the average building operates for 70 years, and retrofits are far more costly than maximizing efficiency during initial construction when walls are open and workers are present. Structural efficiency, like wall insulation, saves money for the life of a building, while high-efficiency appliances save money for their 10- to 20-year lifetimes.

Low-income residents and communities of color disproportionately are burdened with high energy costs from poor energy efficiency in single- and multi-family dwellings. Their high energy-cost burdens increase the risks of defaulting on rent, mortgages and utility services, in addition to diverting funds from food and other essentials. Laid-off workers face similar risks. Late payments and evictions also harm landlords and lenders, as well as ratepayers who end up covering utilities’ losses.

Builders should be required to maximize energy efficiency in new construction rather than imposing higher costs on residents and the public. Just this decade, Virginia and its utilities will spend hundreds of millions of dollars to subsidize retrofits of inefficient structures and appliances, and to help residents avoid defaulting on rent, mortgages and utility bills.

Virginia law requires building code standards for energy conservation because, like fire and water hazards, building inefficiencies are hidden in walls, attics, invisible air leakage and shiny but inefficient appliances. When buyers are told that new or rehabilitated buildings “meet code,” they should be assured that construction meets the highest standards for energy efficiency, whether in the International Energy Conservation Code (IECC) or other recognized standards, such as EarthCraft or Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design.

Global warming’s accelerating threats to Virginians’ health, safety and welfare are urgent, and require action now to mitigate the long-term impacts of buildings. The arithmetic is simple: New buildings will consume energy and contribute to carbon pollution for 70 years or more, and we have 25 years (or less) to achieve a net-zero carbon economy in order to avoid probable catastrophes. If the building code fails to maximize efficiency and to facilitate conversions to zero-carbon energy, the harms will be felt long after the buildings themselves are gone.

Unfortunately, BHCD has followed a process that favors builders, not residents. Home builders blocked compliance with the 2012 IECC standards, raising residents’ energy costs ever since, and their lobbyists have continued to hold Virginia back by refusing to consent to sensible updates offered in advisory group meetings, often without any analytic support. Given very little time to review the many proposals before it, the board has defaulted to approving just the unopposed (“consensus”) proposals, rarely taking up “non-consensus” proposals, regardless of the merits. The results disserve buyers, tenants and the commonwealth, and are inconsistent with recognized building standards.

Now pending before the board are multiple proposals to update the building code to reduce residents’ energy costs through greater efficiency, and to make it easier and less costly for residents to reduce energy costs and carbon footprints in the future. These include proposals to fully comply with 2018 IECC standards for building envelope efficiency and air leakage; make dwellings ready for additions of solar energy and for electrification of appliances and vehicles; require heat pumps instead of resistance heating that uses twice the energy; establish clear performance standards for dwellings marketed as “zero-energy” or “zero-energy ready”; and require builders to install one energy-saving measure chosen from a list of options.

These measures will protect the health, safety and welfare of residents and the commonwealth, and are supported by grassroots organizations with more than 30,000 members. They will produce benefits exceeding costs and are based on recognized standards. It is vital that BHCD members step up to consider and approve these proposals or stronger ones.

William Penniman practiced law regarding energy issues for more than 40 years. Now retired, he volunteers in various capacities, including as the sustainability issues chair for the Virginia chapter of the Sierra Club. Contact him at:

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