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Illinois builders, inspectors adapt to strict new energy code

Blower door tests will be required on all new construction in Illinois. (Photo by Brandon Stafford via Creative Commons)

Blower door tests will be required on all new construction in Illinois. (Photo by Brandon Stafford via Creative Commons)

For most of last year, homebuilders waged a pitched–and ultimately, losing–battle in Illinois against a new state building code that’s one of the most energy-efficient in the nation.

The new code went into effect on January 1, creating headaches for some home builders, but also opportunities for others in the construction sector.

Building codes are state or local rules that provide technical standards about how builders should construct new buildings. By tightening requirements for insulation, window and door construction, and the like, new buildings can be sealed better than older buildings, which reduces the energy required to heat and cool them.

Every three years the International Code Council publishes a new version of the International Energy Conservation Code (IECC). Each version of that code is designed to make houses 15 percent more energy efficient than the last. The most recent version was released in 2012, and according to the New Buildings Institute, the code improved energy efficiency 30 percent compared to conventional building practices.

The IECC code is detailed enough that towns, cities or states can adopt it wholesale or carve out exemptions. States can also choose to let their towns and cities choose a building code for themselves, and some do. However, all states that received money from the Recovery Act of 2009, the federal legislation designed to ease the recession, were required by that law to adopt the 2009 IECC standards and have 90 percent compliance with that code by 2017.

In the Midwest, Missouri and Kansas still have no statewide code at all, the Dakotas both have a voluntary code that mirrors the 2009 IECC code, and Wisconsin and Minnesota have statewide codes about as strict as the 2006 IECC code. Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, Iowa and Nebraska have all adopted the 2009 code.

In an energy-efficiency law adopted in 2010, Illinois mandated the adoption of a statewide code that mirrors the latest IECC code for both residential and commercial buildings within a year of its release. (That requirement was relaxed last year to 18 months.) By following its 2010 law, Illinois became just the second state in the nation, after Maryland, to adopt the 2012 IECC code.

A code to nowhere?

“We remain opposed” to the new code, said Bill Ward, executive vice president of the Home Builders Association of Illinois (HBAI). In 2012 the state “did not make the changes we thought could be done that would save us—would save homeowners—six to eight thousand dollars without losing any energy conservation in the home whatsoever,” he said.

Ward says many homebuilders are struggling to adapt.

“People are churning out these codes faster than the business can keep up,” he said. “I think moving to the 2012 [IECC] rules was a callous and uncaring decision that is going to hurt a lot of unemployed carpenters, electricians, plumbers and homebuilders.”

Throughout 2012, the group tried to weaken energy-efficiency requirements, first in an advisory committee, then in a state legislative committee. They simultaneously pursued legislation requiring the state to update the energy efficiency code every six years. The Illinois Senate killed that legislation, but the group will try again this year, Ward said.

Scott Dettmer, a Shiloh, Illinois, homebuilder, says many of the new rules add cost and hassle with little energy efficiency benefit. Dettmer helps run Dettmer Homes, a family business that builds anything from $130,000 townhomes to $360,000 custom homes in the St. Louis area, both in Missouri, which has no statewide building code, and across the Mississippi River in Illinois, which now has one of the strictest in the nation.

“I understand that we need to have a minimum level so we’re not having newspaper walls and going back to a 1930s level of insulation,” Dettmer said. “But I think we’re going a little bit overkill at this point, given the economy and the state of homebuilding. Then we pile on and say permits are down and let’s add more cost. How does that make sense?”

Homebuilders objected to several new requirements of the Illinois code, but “the one we shake our heads the most about is the one where they’re requiring us to duct our cold air returns,” Dettmer said.

Previously, builders could use properly sealed joist cavities—space below the floor of an upper story and above the ceiling of a lower story—as a cold air return, which returns cooler air to the furnace. “You’re almost creating a duct,” Dettmer said. Besides circulating air, the joist cavity did double duty; electricians ran lines and plumbers ran pipes through that space as well.

Now new houses must include actual ducts for cold air return instead of using the joist cavity. That means that “you have to reroute everything around those spaces,” Dettmer said, claiming the rule alone could add $2,500 to the cost of a new home.

“We’re not California, where you grow up in a culture of energy efficiency and environmental stuff,” Dettmer said. “We’re the Midwest. We grow up with coal plants 100 miles away.”

“Buyers are basically looking to buy a house at a certain price range. You tell them this house is $10,000 more and it will save you this much in energy—they don’t care,” he said. As a result, the new requirements cost builders money that they can’t recoup.

Dettmer and Ward maintain that there are too few professionals available to perform blower door testing and duct testing.

“In our area there are only two people who do this work. You’re potentially asking them to test 500 homes a year,” Dettmer said.

“We’re basically creating an industry, which is a bad thing for government to do,” Dettmer said. “But we’re creating one that is short-handed.”

Tight houses, new business

Actually, there is plenty of training available to help the construction sector adapt, said Darren Meyers, president of the International Energy Conservation Consultants, LLC, a Chicago-area firm that has contracted with the state’s Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity (DCEO) to provide training on the new code.

The firm has been training workers all through the construction sector on the latest IECC codes since 2006, Meyers said. From January to May 2012 alone, the firm trained 989 construction professionals at 20 locations around the state. They included 120 field inspectors and 48 plan reviewers, the town and city officials who check construction plans for a proposed building to make sure it meets code requirements. In all of 2012, the firm trained 1,700 construction professionals, and they’ll train many more in 2013, Meyers said.

The HBAI “wants to make it sound like we’re not prepared,” Meyers said. “Their desire is to debunk the whole thing.”

But not all homebuilders are the same, Meyers points out. While some smaller and medium-sized homebuilders are still adapting, large homebuilders like M/I Homes, Ryland Homes, Gallagher and Henry, and D.R. Horton have “already engineered compliance with the new code into their design and figured out a way to do it economically so they can differentiate themselves in the market,” Meyers said.

What’s more, the energy efficiency code is the only one of 15 codes out there, including building, fire, plumbing and electrical, that pays the homeowner back, Meyers said.

A 2012 study conducted on behalf of the Energy Efficient Codes Coalition found the new Illinois code would only increase the cost of a home by $1,500, with homeowners starting to see net savings in less than a year.

“They could put the money in a 401(k), spend it at the grocery store, or put it under a mattress,” Meyers said.

The Midwest Energy Efficiency Alliance (MEEA), an energy-efficiency advocacy group (and member of RE-AMP, which also publishes Midwest Energy News) is also pushing for third-party trainers who focus specifically on the energy code to complement other building inspectors who focus on everything else. And the state Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity provides an FAQ and technical assistance to help people comply with the new code.

Now that the code is on the books, it also has to be enforced, said Isaac Elnicave, senior policy manager for building codes at MEEA. The organization is working to get training for building inspectors—both those who work full time for cities, and third-party testers who hire themselves out for smaller towns who can’t afford a full-time building inspector.

“We’d like to see 300-400 people,” Elnicave said. “If you assume 10,000 homes built a year [in Illinois], that means each person would do 25 homes a year.”

The new code has also spawned new business for Corbett Lunsford, executive director of the Illinois Association of Energy Raters and Home Performance Professionals. With funding from the DCEO, Lunsford employs 12 trainers to teach one-day courses around the state. Completing the training, called the Duct & Envelope Tightness Verifier, puts individuals on a state-published list of third-party professionals who are certified to do blower-door tests now required for new construction. Retrotec, a company that makes blower doors and duct tightness testing equipment, donated equipment for the training courses.

The new tests have the added advantage of keeping builders of energy-efficient homes honest, Lunsford said. Rather than just relying on visual inspection of insulation, caulking, windows, and the like, now the house will be tested to see how air-tight it really is.

“We’re going to fill this state up with people who can do these tests,” he said.

Comments (1)

As an Weatherization Speciallist I realize the savings and potential greatly outweighs the negative aspects from Building Contractors. If they were to personally review and correct the inefficiencies in their own home they would realize the returns and capitalize on their production of homes. The time to air seal and to properly insulate starts at the foundation.

By David Minor on Jan 7, 2013