Connecticut homebuilders are pushing back against legislation that would allow municipalities to require new buildings to meet high efficiency standards.
The bill (HB 6572) would authorize municipalities to adopt a so-called “stretch” building code that would apply to new or substantially renovated buildings larger than 40,000 square feet. Developers would have to demonstrate that the buildings will use at least 10 percent per square foot less energy than the maximum levels permitted under the state building code.
Enacting a stretch energy code would put Connecticut in line with Massachusetts, New York and Vermont, all of which give municipalities the option of going beyond the state building code in the area of efficiency. And a major climate bill recently signed into law in Massachusetts will boost its voluntary stretch code to net-zero by 2023; that would mean new buildings would have to produce as much energy as they consume.
“We’re so behind — we’re just trying to get something in place,” said Melissa Kops, an architect and board member of the Connecticut Green Building Council, which supports the legislation. “Right now, cities want to be more aggressive than the base code and they cannot.”
That’s because building codes are determined at the state level and all municipalities must adhere to those codes. Jim Perras, the chief executive officer of the Home Builders and Remodelers Association of Connecticut, wants the state to keep it that way.
In testimony submitted to the Energy and Technology Committee, Perras said that allowing towns to adopt a separate stretch code for efficiency will make it “harder to build multifamily housing affordably.” Some lawmakers are currently calling for reforms that would encourage the development of more affordable housing throughout the state, he noted, but towns that enact a stretch code would likely deter such development because it will be more costly.
And, he speculated, some communities might adopt the stretch code for that very reason.
“It is a legitimate concern that wealthier communities in Connecticut will adopt these codes with the intention of circumventing their affordable housing responsibilities under the guise of embracing energy efficiency,” he said.
But Michael Li, energy bureau chief for the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, which proposed the legislation, said requiring greater efficiency won’t necessarily make such projects less viable. He noted that the Connecticut Housing Finance Authority requires the affordable housing projects it finances to be about 15 percent more efficient than the state code. And he said such a focus is common sense.
“Affordable housing isn’t affordable if the folks living there can’t afford the energy bills,” he said.
The cost of highly efficient materials and technologies is also coming down. A recent survey of Massachusetts developers constructing buildings to very high efficiency standards — net-zero or net-zero-ready — found that most are able to achieve the standard with little to no added cost.
Connecticut’s existing energy code is based on the 2015 version of the International Energy Conservation Code, developed by the International Code Council. The state’s Codes and Standards Committee was poised to update the code to the 2018 version last year, but that work halted when the legislature shut down during the pandemic, said John Butkus, an architect who sits on the committee.
A 2021 version of International Energy Conservation Code has since been released, with more stringent efficiency requirements, and the committee now intends to adopt that version by October 2022, he said.
“There are some who say that since we’re planning to adopt the 2021 code, Connecticut is already trying to get to the forefront,” Butkus said. “Adopting 2021 is a stretch for people to comply with. Adding 10 percent on top of that? You’re likely to get some pushback.”
But Li noted that the bill includes an adjustment mechanism. As of January 1, 2024, the Department of Administrative Services and the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection could lower the stretch code threshold if an analysis determines that it isn’t cost-effective.
“Ultimately, it supports the state’s goals of meeting our greenhouse gas reduction targets, as we know that a significant portion of those emissions are coming from buildings,” Li said. “The cheapest way of reducing future building emissions is to build them efficiently at the start.”
As it is now, Li said, the building industry wields “undue influence” over the model code. He noted that the International Code Council board of directors recently stripped public sector members of the ability to vote on amendments to the energy code. That decision came after state and local officials around the country voted in record numbers on the most recent version, resulting in a substantially more efficient code — and prompting complaints from building industry groups.
“The stretch code, to some extent, would preserve the ability of state and local code officials to go beyond the model code,” Li said.
Butkus said he favors the legislation’s approach. Rather than introducing a whole new codebook, it simply “moves the goalpost” by 10 percent, making it easier to enforce and easier to implement.
“It leaves the choice of how to get there to the owner and the design team,” he said.
And developers of buildings larger than 40,000 square feet will already be using engineers to calculate energy consumption, regardless of whether they have to adhere to a stretch code, he said.
Kops said she believes some builders are resisting the idea because “they are worried about the learning curve involved in doing anything new.” A stretch code would “bring along the slow adopters” and perhaps interest more builders in the various efficiency incentives available through the state’s utilities.
“We’re being left behind — we’re going to lose all our talent,” she said. “Anyone here who is interested in sustainable design has every incentive to go work in Boston or New York.”
The Energy and Technology Committee voted in favor of the bill by a vote of 16-10. It has yet to be brought to the House floor for a vote.