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Minnesota builders divided on energy code update

(Photo by kingdafy via Creative Commons)

The home builders association in Minnesota is on the offensive against an updated state energy code currently being considered by state regulators.

The Builders Association of Minnesota claims the set of efficiency-related code changes would add more than $7,000 to the cost of building a typical home in the state.

But some of its members — builders who already use energy saving methods and materials in their construction — say the association is exaggerating the costs.

The rules, known as IECC 2012, would require better insulation, tighter ductwork, and mandatory blower door tests on all new homes. If adopted, they would replace the state’s existing energy code from 2007.

The home builders association held a meeting in St. Paul three weeks ago to outline the problems it foresees for the industry if the code is adopted. Costs will surge, buyers will be priced out of the market, and moisture problems may occur in some homes.

The claims didn’t sound right to Ray Pruban, whose company, Amaris Custom Homes in White Bear Lake, specializes in building highly efficient homes that cost about the same as conventional ones.

“They were mixing some facts with misinformation,” whether on purpose or not, said Pruban.

Pruban later described his concerns in a letter to the editor published in the Duluth News Tribune. Fresh Energy, which also publishes Midwest Energy News, has advocated for the code changes and encouraged Pruban to tell his side.

Meanwhile, six other builders signed an open letter accusing the association of misrepresenting the cost of complying with the code.

“[T]he Builders Association of Minnesota’s publicity machine has been hard at work, and unfortunately they are grossly misrepresenting and confusing issues for a purpose that does not serve Minnesotans or those builders who believe in building responsibly,” the letter said.

Updating the code

Every three years, the International Code Council publishes an updated version of its International Energy Conservation Code, a set of suggested rules for state and local governments to use for encouraging energy efficient home building.

States aren’t required to adopt the rules. Some don’t have energy codes at all and leave it up to local governments to set standards. Others have codes based on IECC versions from 2006 or earlier.

Recent updates to the model code have included significant efficiency improvements. One study determined that a home built to the 2012 code would be 30 percent more efficient compared to the 2009 code.

Those big gains have caused energy-efficiency advocates to campaign for states to adopt newer versions of the code. In every state, they’ve faced strong opposition from state home builders associations.

In Minnesota, the state’s labor and industry department last fall started soliciting feedback from builders, efficiency advocates and other stakeholders about IECC 2012. As in most states, the energy code is changed through an administrative rule-making process rather than going through the legislature.

The Builders Association of Minnesota released materials that claim moving to the 2012 code would create thousands of dollars in new costs as well as durability issues for some homes.

In materials handed out at the association’s event earlier this month, the association says a typical 2,500-square-foot home is going to cost $7,300 more to build under the 2012 rules compared to the state’s existing code. More than $4,600 of that, the association says, would come from meeting new wall insulation requirements.

Numbers challenged

The only way to arrive at that number, Pruban said, is to assume for several worst case scenarios.

“They took the worst of the worst of the worst possibilities,” said Pruban, who suspects the calculation might reflect a misunderstanding of how newer insulating materials are actually used in building projects.

One of the materials called for in the suggested 2012 code is a rigid, exterior insulation. When used correctly, the hard panel insulation allows builders to use less of other materials, such as lumber and plywood, Pruban said.

“It’s not costing us anything,” he said. And in some cases, he’s actually able to save money using the improved insulation.

The counter-claims by individual builders that the association is exaggerating costs are supported by an analysis from the Building Codes Assistance Project (BCAP), funded by the pro-efficiency Alliance to Save Energy.

The BCAP paper projects the cost of complying with the 2012 code will be in the range of $2,700 to $4,000 per home, and that home owners will save between $19,000 and $23,000 in energy costs over a 30-year mortgage.

The builders association wrote a letter to BCAP demanding that it retract its analysis, which it says understates costs and overestimates savings.

The BCAP cost estimate is closer to what builders like Pruban said they have experienced, but even its numbers are on the high end, they said. There does appear to be a flaw in BCAP’s cost savings calculations, however, stemming from the fact it compared energy use to a national average, Pruban said. Minnesota homes are already far more efficient than the national average, meaning actual savings would be less.

An honest dialogue?

Michael Anschel, owner and principal of Otogawa-Anschel Design Build in Minneapolis, thinks the builders association’s opposition is more about politics than good policy.

“I think the association is looking to show its members that it’s fighting government and fighting regulation,” Anschel said.

In this case, though, Anschel believes regulation will be beneficial. Most of what’s in the code are things responsible builders already do, such as making sure duct work is sealed. Making them requirements will level the playing field so they don’t have to compete will cheap, corner-cutting contractors.

Anschel, who wrote the critical letter signed by himself and five other builders, also thinks the association is using one flaw in the code as a red herring to attack the entire work.

The 2012 code contains a rule that involves insulation coming into contact with basement walls in a way that might cause moisture issues in cold climates. Anschel said everyone involved in the Minnesota process recognizes that it won’t apply here and needs to be amended, but the association continues to attack it.

In an interview Wednesday, Pam Perri, executive vice president of the Builders Association of Minnesota, focused at length on the basement insulation flaw and said she was frustrated with criticism from builders like Anschel.

“We’re the only ones doing their homework,” Perri said. “It’s our job to be detail-oriented. We can’t afford to not pay attention to what the details of the code say.”

But builders are a diverse group with different opinions, Anschel said. While the association does good work on many issues, this is one where he believes the association is acting on its own and not representative of its members.

Pruban said he’s requested a more detailed breakdown of how the association arrived at its cost projections, but so far he hasn’t received them. He said he’s disappointed his industry has decided to defend the status quo rather than push for better quality homes for Minnesotans.

While he believes the association is being disingenuous with some of its cost projections, he also says some environmentalists seem willing to push for efficiency gains at any cost.

“I do believe there’s a middle ground here that does make sense,” Pruban said. “I just think let’s at least get the right facts on the table so there can be an honest dialogue.”

Comments (5)

Great article that objectively looks at the issue.

It is a shame that even when asked directly, Pam Perri continues to avoid the real issue by talking about an insulation issue that everyone at the table agrees should be removed. If everyone agrees, then what exactly is she talking about needed to be detail oriented about?

By michael anschel on May 1, 2012

An energy savings of $19-23K in 30 years? The medium home price in Minnesota is $140K…I find it hard to believe there will be an energy savings of $60.00 per month. I would live to see the data that supports this. Any building cost increase in today’s market is too much…

By Jean DeWitz on May 2, 2012

Jean – the BCAP study is linked in the story, but as Dan pointed out, those numbers are likely on the high side.

Another study from Illinois that we wrote about last month arrived at figures in the $10,000-$11,000 range.

By Ken Paulman on May 2, 2012

It’s interesting the rebuttals do not mention the IECC 2012 requirement of blower door (and dust blaster) testing. History tells us that measuring is the only way we can realize true value. In the absence of measuring, we can be mislead by false claims of what an energy efficiency of a home really is. I would think that a reputable builder would want the testing to prove he has delivered a home that not only meets but, in some cases, may exceed the units of measurement listed in the guidelines of these testing devices.

By Ken Sheldon on May 2, 2012

That’s Duct (not dust) Blaster (Testing).

Adding that these test are relatively inexpensive especially when compared to marketing costs relative to the home building industry. Nothing says energy savings louder or prouder than a good to great test score.It would be a real plus for your real estate agent to sell your homes.

By Ken Sheldon on May 7, 2012