NC House bill would block energy efficiency upgrades to state building code

A bill introduced in the General Assembly this week would effectively freeze parts of existing home building rules for the rest of the decade and overhaul who crafts building codes in North Carolina, drawing criticism from the N.C. Department of Insurance and state building code officials.

For the last two years, the N.C. Building Code Council has worked to rewrite the rules that govern how homes in the state are built, a code that is revised every six years.

The rules around how home builders must address energy efficiency — aspects like how much insulation is required in walls or what kinds of heating and cooling equipment should be used — have become a key point of contention between the council and the N.C. Home Builders Association.

If it becomes law, House Bill 488 would prevent the Building Code Council from making any changes to the energy efficiency, fuel gas or mechanical rules until 2031. Mark Brody, the bill’s primary sponsor, is a contractor.

“What we’re doing is requiring the Building Code Council to not adopt what’s called the International Energy Conservation Code at this time because there are just so many issues that have been brought up with it that we’ve got to really study it before we put it forth,” Brody, a Union County Republican, said during a committee meeting.

The International Energy Conservation Code is a set of standards around energy efficiency developed by the International Code Council. Proposed changes to the state’s energy code have largely been shaped by the international code, but North Carolina has made some tweaks.

Building Code Council members say proposed changes to the state’s energy efficiency rules for homes would cost about $4,500 up front but would pay for themselves in lower energy costs. Home builders say the actual costs of upgrades will increase new home prices by about $20,400 statewide and take decades to pay off.

House Bill 488 a ‘huge surprise’

Kim Wooten, a Durham engineer, chaired the Building Code Council’s subcommittee that has been working to change the state’s energy efficiency rules. The Building Code Council had no notice of House Bill 488, Wooten told The News & Observer.

“We’re on a cycle and our understanding was that everybody was working in good faith to produce new codes for North Carolina. So it was a huge surprise,” Wooten said.

House Bill 488 was introduced Tuesday and had its first appearance in a committee Wednesday.

Proposed changes to the state energy code would increase energy efficiency for homes by about 18% from current levels, Wooten said.

“We are out of date, and if it doesn’t change and this bill gets passed by the House and the Senate, then North Carolina could be locked into residential building codes that are 20 years out of date,” Wooten said, noting that many of the current energy efficiency rules are based on the 2009 code.

The N.C. Department of Insurance has “significant concerns” about the legislation, a spokesman told The News & Observer.

Leaving parts of the existing code in effect until 2031 could negatively impact the state, Barry Smith, the spokesman, wrote. Doing so could make it difficult for North Carolina communities to receive funds from FEMA’s Building Resilient Infrastructure and Communities program, and result in higher insurance costs, Smith wrote.

“This could be caused by essentially creating a residential code that could age 16 years before the next adoption/update cycle would be allowed by law. We continue to have those same concerns and are hopeful to be able to work with bill sponsors to find some middle ground that might have some less adverse effects than the current proposal,” Smith wrote.

Brody, the bill sponsor, argued that implementing other aspects of the 2021 International Code Council model would make North Carolina competitive for FEMA funds.

“Those are millions of dollars, by the way. So we saw that,” Brody said, also suggesting that the General Assembly could make further adjustments to the building code if necessary.

NC’s building code rewrite

The N.C. Building Code Council has 17 members, appointed by the governor. At this point, all of the members have been appointed by Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat. The General Assembly is controlled by Republicans.

House Bill 488 would also create a new building code council to solely address residential buildings. That council would consist of 13 members, with seven appointed by the governor and six by the General Assembly.

In 2019, the Cooper administration released a Clean Energy Plan that said North Carolina’s energy code was falling behind. The plan recommended the Building Code Council improve energy efficiency in new buildings to limit energy use and, therefore, greenhouse gas emissions.

Steven Webb, a lobbyist for the N.C. Home Builders Association, said adopting the energy code changes proposed by the Building Code Council would worsen North Carolina’s housing affordability crisis.

“By adopting the 2024 energy code, it would only push housing affordability out even further. Twenty thousand dollars on top of land cost and labor is just something people in the middle can’t afford right now,” Webb told the committee, adding that the bill had been crafted over “months and months and months.”

Under existing rules, any changes to the residential code must be approved before July 1, 2024, or the current code will remain in effect until 2031.

The existing process also allows the legislature to review the proposed rules and potentially strike them down if 10 people write letters of opposition to the N.C. Rules Review Commission.

“I will implore the legislature here to let the Building Code Council process play out. You have an opportunity in reg review to oppose it and send it to the legislature in 2024 where you can get a full hearing, everybody can weigh in on it and you’ll actually have an opportunity to see what that code is at that point,” David Crawford, the executive vice president of American Institute of Architects - North Carolina, said during Wednesday’s meeting.

Shortly before the House Local Government - Land Use, Planning and Development Committee met on Thursday, all members received an email from Building Code Council chair Bridget Herring labeled “Concerns with HB488.”

Herring’s list of worries about the legislation included potentially creating confusion between commercial and residential building codes, disregarding the work done by Building Code Council committee members and making it difficult for the state to obtain the FEMA resilience money. Herring also wrote that not updating standards could mean that North Carolina homes end up using outdated equipment.

“For example,” Herring wrote, “HVAC equipment is regulated at the federal level and if Residential Code requirements are frozen for more than 12 years, the North Carolina residential mechanical provisions are likely to require equipment that is no longer available due to a change in standards outside the State’s purview.”

The Land Use committee approved a version of House Bill 488 at Wednesday’s meeting, sending it on to the the House Finance committee, from which it would move to House Rules before receiving a full vote on the House floor. The Senate would also need to approve the legislation before sending it on to Cooper.

This story was produced with financial support from 1Earth Fund, in partnership with Journalism Funding Partners, as part of an independent journalism fellowship program. The N&O maintains full editorial control of the work.