The Battle Over the Energy Code Development Process [Part 1]

Battle over energy code development process

Competing objectives and special interests dominate the energy code debate as the ICC considers process changes.

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Published April 13, 2021
Reading Time: 10 minutes
Published April 13, 2021
Reading Time: 10 minutes

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Tension Surrounds the Energy Code Development Process

Ever since the International Code Council (ICC) was formed in 1994, there has been tension between the people who construct buildings and the people who enforce the building codes adopted by local jurisdictions. Along with some special interest groups, these stakeholders comprise the ICC membership that creates the codes that are widely used throughout the U.S. and many other countries.

Tension has continued to tighten among the stakeholders and has put the ICC in a position of considering changes to the procedures it follows. This change would be creating a standard rather than a code for the critically important International Energy Conservation Code (IECC).

The Difference Between Codes and Standards

Codes are created and approved by the government members who use them, while standards are created by technical committees with public comment and approved by the ICC Board of Directors. These processes have drawn the attention of the House of Representatives Committee on Energy and Commerce, which is concerned about progress toward reducing carbon consumption in buildings.


Codes

Created and approved by the government members who use them.

Standards

Created by technical committees with public comment and approved by the board.

The Debate Between Home Efficiency and Affordability

A great debate has roiled between the homebuilders striving for home affordability that will benefit first-time homebuyers and minorities and the government code enforcers seeking to increase energy efficiency in homes to Zero Energy Building (ZEB) by 2050. There is a paradox here: these conflicting and competing objectives are both a part of President Biden’s priorities to “build back better.”

Advocates of more robust energy efficiency codes claimed that the home builders’ influence on key committees slowed progress on toughening energy efficiency standards. On the other hand, the home builders claimed that special interests manipulated the process by flooding the voting on the code with last-minute registration efforts of officials that aren’t in charge of enforcing the building codes.

The ICC has a goal of developing a single set of national model construction codes and standards. Their building codes are widely used by municipal forms of government that establish construction standards for residential projects. Building codes are updated every three years. The ICC is a Washington, D.C.-based non-profit organization and the leading building code writer for residential construction.

The New York Times Blasts Home Builders Over Slow Progress

In an October 2019 piece by Christopher Flavelle, The New York Times (Times) claimed that “there was a secret agreement that allowed the nation’s homebuilders to make it much easier to block changes to the building codes that would require new homes to better address climate change established by the ICC.”  The Times alleges that “an agreement with the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) was not disclosed to ICC members, yet it guaranteed the NAHB four of the 11 voting seats on two powerful ICC committees that approve building codes.“ 

“Even as a minority, this block of votes makes it tougher to pass code revisions the industry opposes,” states Times energy investigator Christopher Flavelle. Citing a federal analysis, he claims that “energy efficiency increased 32% prior to the agreement and only 3% after the agreement.” The U.S. Department of Energy’s Building Energy Codes Program Manager David Cohan stated, “The influence doesn’t get any stronger than that. It makes it such an uphill battle.” (Flavell)

As we will see throughout this article, those taking sides on the issues may be prone to specious claims.

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ICC Rejects Times' Accusations of a "Secret Agreement" with NAHB

The ICC responds that “it has agreements to secure committee seats for other groups as well that includes the International Association of Fire Chiefs and the National Association of Fire Marshalls, among others."

“The ICC has not tried to keep this [agreement] a secret,” states Whitney Doll, ICC’s vice president of communications, although it has never made any official public statements about it. (Flavell)

Critics assert that the agreement empowered the NAHB to obstruct code changes that “would have made new houses more energy-efficient or more resilient to floods, hurricanes and other disasters.” (Flavell) Critics also claim that the NAHB and the ICC made a deal to give the NAHB guaranteed seats on key committees in exchange for their continued support of the ICC codes, according to a Times’ source. (Flavell)

"The agreement shows that homebuilders accrued 'excessive power over the development of regulations that governed them,' said Bill Fay, head of the Energy Efficiency Codes Coalition (EECC) - now merged into the New Building Institute (NBI), which has pushed for more aggressive standards." (Flavell) The EECC was a group of building sector supporters with a goal of making the IECC more stringent, setting America’s model building energy code on a faster glide path to Zero Energy Building.

Allan Merrill is the chair of Beazer Homes and spoke on behalf of the Leading Builders of America (LBA). He claimed that the special interest groups such as NBI/EECC manipulated the IECC approval voting process by adding 696 new voters at the last minute. In doing so, ICC rules were violated. The EECC alone recruited 273 new voters.

According to the Times reporter Christopher Flavelle, “homes accounted for nearly one-fifth of all energy-related carbon dioxide emissions in 2018.”

Since buildings account for nearly 40% of U.S. energy consumption and climate emissions, and the IECC serves as the basis for almost every state’s building energy code, this vote could improve nearly all new commercial and residential building construction in the country.

Energy Conservation Code Debate Heats up in 2020

2020 was a year filled with controversy when it came to approving the building energy code. After approving a 2021 energy code that will be more demanding than ever before, the ICC considered changes to the code development process that some believe will reduce local government input.

In December 2020 the ICC announced it wants to change how the nation’s model building energy code is developed (International Code Council-Comments). They propose "moving it from a large, open process to a development by committee without input from the local government building officials, home builders, and other stakeholders.” Some claim that the wide-open process is unpredictable and easy to manipulate (Leading Builders of America), while others claim the change would totally eliminate input from local code officials. (Urbanek)

The current code development process has been in place for the past decade and a half. Those that support the code process stress that the issue is the proposal represents a substantial change to the process used to develop codes referenced in federal law and adopted by jurisdictions in every state of the country.

[In 2019] governmental members showed up in a big way to develop the 2021 IECC, with voter turnout at its highest level ever. They voted in droves to approve proposals to make the 2021 code the most efficient one yet, claiming improvements in insulation, lighting, and other building components that may reduce energy consumption while lowering energy bills and keeping inhabitants more comfortable.

The 2021 IECC online voting process garnered the highest participation levels of any previous I-code. Many key efficiency proposals received over 1,000 votes in their favor. Comparatively, proposals in previous code cycles typically only received between 200 and 300 votes total. This code would not have been possible without increasing the participation of the code officials, sustainability officers, and other public officials who took the time to learn about the proposals and make their voices heard. Opponents of many items placed into the code say that many government officials not well-versed in construction industry practices were encouraged to register as ICC members and vote for codes they were not familiar with. (Urbanek)

Kimberly Cheslak of the New Buildings Institute supports the IECC as passed before any appeals.

After about a decade with few meaningful updates, the 2021 improvements are poised to help the code catch up to modern-day building technology and practices[...] The energy code is unique compared to other health and safety codes because regulating energy use in buildings is a critical tool for achieving state and local climate goals. Codifying these approaches allows for consistency across the country. In fact, the 2021 IECC update is poised to deliver the biggest reductions in climate emissions from buildings housing seen in the last decade in building codes.

The process in 2019 put the final vote in the hands of the code officials and other local government employees who are the ones using the code. Yet, anyone with a vested financial interest in the code’s outcome can campaign financially for the passage of a stricter code.

Not everyone was happy with the results of the 2021 IECC. Despite the overwhelming majority vote in favor of increased efficiency and other improvements in the model building code, including transitioning from gas appliances to electric models and electric vehicle readiness, several groups with financial stakes in the outcome of the code brought appeals against 20 proposals.

The home builders opposed changes to the code that would require better insulation in attics and around air ducts. Also, the code mandated the installation of a power circuit to charge electric vehicles. The home builders opposed these changes, stating that these requirements would add thousands of dollars to a new home’s price. This would significantly impact affordability, particularly for entry-level homes and rentals, making it more challenging to increase minority homeownership. Most home builders offer wiring for an electric vehicle as an option.

Appeals from the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB), the Leading Builders of America (LBA), and the American Gas Association (AGA), among others, were largely unsuccessful. The ICC Board of Directors, which has the final say on the code, ultimately did overturn proposals related to constructing a home so that it is easy to replace gas appliances with efficient and lower-carbon electric options at a future date, electric vehicle readiness for homes and commercial buildings, efficiency requirements for residential water heaters, and a prohibition on continuously burning pilot lights. Environmental groups strongly disagreed with these decisions, especially since they disregarded the voters’ will.

Momentum for Change to Improve the Process

The ICC board first raised the idea of using an ANSI Standards Process to develop the IECC model code as part of a code appeal decision in October 2020. The recommendation was then taken up by the Committee on the Long Term Code Development Process (LTCDP) in early November, with the motion being made by a representative of the National Association of Home Builders. The LTCDP Committee vote for the change was a split decision (nine votes in favor, six opposed, with two abstaining), but it ultimately recommended that the Code Council Board move the IECC from a code to a standard. The proponents argued that this is a minor change. Environmental interests opined that removing voting members from the process is anything but minor. (Urbanek)

Many questions and concerns remained with those seeking stronger energy conservation codes. Lauren Urbanek, Senior Energy Policy Advocate, Climate & Clean Energy Program for the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC), explains that there is serious concern about disenfranchising the voices of thousands of ICC governmental members, when the process as it stands has clearly been successful at developing a strong and relevant final code.

“There is no stated commitment to improving the efficiency of the code,” Urbanek states. This depends on the makeup of the Committee with efficiency advocates or pro-environmental interests to balance those members with financial interests.

If this moves forward, government officials will have little control over the substance of the energy code, to the detriment of the cities and states that rely on the IECC as a crucial policy tool. Buildings are responsible for more than 40 percent of U.S. carbon emissions, and we must pick up the pace of progress in order to achieve a zero-carbon economy by 2050. Better new buildings are a critical component of this goal. Governmental officials understand that and have used their votes in favor of efficiency, innovation, and a better future for all.

Ken Gear, CEO of the Leading Builders of America, provides more detail to challenge the Times claim and other concerns:

Due to its political nature, development of the IECC/IRC Ch. 11 poses unique challenges that the other ICC codes do not.

The current development process with respect to the energy code has devolved into a highly adversarial and polarizing process leaving virtually no opportunity for collaboration or compromise.

The result is a ‘winner-takes-all’ outcome.

This is not consistent with ICC values or the true meaning of consensus.

- Ken Gear, CEO of the Leading Builders of America

Conclusion - The Pursuit of a Peaceful Process Continues

For years the building energy code development process has been contentiously fashioned by home builders, industry interests, building code officials, and environmental groups. Building a consensus on the IECC was a battle marked by manipulation and power plays, often adversarial and polarizing.

Competing objectives and special interests have dominated the debate in establishing the IECC. The ICC Board of Directors saw a momentum developing for a change in the process that would relieve the political adversity.

Join Us in Part Two to Explore...

  • The debate over homebuilder influence
  • The debate between affordability v. Net Zero carbon efficiency goals
  • The debate over a government Consensus Process v. Standards Consensus Process
  • Home Builder responses
  • House of Representatives Inquiry
  • The ICC’s Resolution

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Jeff Whiton Housing Tides Research Team Member

About Jeff Whiton

Jeff formerly headed operations for Lennar and KB Home in Colorado building nearly two per cent of the state’s total single-family housing stock. He was honored as Colorado’s Home Builder of the Year in 2001. Whiton also served as the CEO of the Home Builders Association of Metro Denver for eight years reviving the association from near bankruptcy after the Great Recession.

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