The Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission’s (MORPC) Center for Energy and Environment held an educational forum, “Energy Efficient Building Codes: What’s at Stake?” on Friday, to discuss building and energy codes, Ohio law, and the housing market.

For the past two years, a coalition including environmental organizations, civic groups, code experts, and business representatives has been calling for stronger residential codes. Much debate has heated up over the proposals to enact stronger building codes that would make new homes more energy efficient. The forum focused on the energy codes being considered in Ohio, any alternatives to the codes, and the pros and cons of enacting a stronger code given concerns over today’s economy and the environment. 

A panel of speakers from all sides of the debate gave their perspectives about energy efficient building codes and provided a better understanding of the issues surrounding this on-going discussion. Panelists included Maria Ellingson, senior program manager, Building Codes Assistance Project (BCAP); Bill Owens, president, Ohio Homebuilders Association (OHBA); Jim Hilz, executive director, BIA Central Ohio; Amy Gomberg, director of government affairs, Ohio Consumers’ Council (OCC).

“MORPC feels that it is important to host community conversations about significant policy matters that have an impact on our region’s economy and sustainability,” said Laura Koprowski, director of public and government affairs for MORPC. “As we watch surrounding states in the Midwest adopt new energy codes, it is timely and necessary for our state to consider if new approaches would be in the best interest of Ohioans.”

Jerome Tinianow, director for MORPC’s Center for Energy and Environment, hosted the event and opened by saying that there is about 100 years left of non-renewable energy sources in the world, and eventually the world economy will need to exist entirely on renewable sources of energy, which he believes will be a portfolio, but mainly solar.

“The longer we put off a solution, the more expensive it gets,” he said. “The good news is we are not in crisis and can make some deliberative decisions.”

The panel was given a set of questions and each presented his or her view on energy and building codes at all levels of government and its effects on the economy in the state.

Ellingson said BCAP will be releasing a report on the status of building codes in Ohio. In her presentation she said that what builders do is important for energy consumption, energy efficiency and the longevity of a building which averages 30 to 100 years.

She said buildings consume 72 percent of electricity, and 40 percent of all U.S. energy use. Because Ohio is a net importer, this means more money is being sent out of the state, which is bad for the state’s economy and ultimately bad for taxpayers.

Energy inefficiency also costs taxpayers federal dollars with programs such as LIHEAP, which helps pay low-income Americans heating and cooling utility bills. In 2009, $220.8 million was paid out by the federal government in low-income assistance for energy bills. Further through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, over three years $267 million will be paid out to low-income Americans.

“It costs less to build it right the first time,” Ellingson said.

Some statistics Ellingson cited for why building codes are important included:

– Ohio’s industrial sector is one of the highest users in the nation.
– 4th most coal-consuming state.
– 2nd highest in CO2 emission in the U.S.

Building codes protect individuals from substandard living and working conditions by setting minimum standards for acceptable practice. Energy codes set the minimum standard for the energy efficiency of buildings, she added.

Energy codes began as an answer to the 1970s energy crises. Since 1978, when Congress passed energy efficiency standards for new buildings, the codes have undergone many updates and improvements, especially over the past 10 years, Ellingson explained.

Ohio’s current residential energy codes are based on 2006 International Energy Conservation Codes (IECC) although Hilz was quick to point out that most new housing construction follows 2009 codes, as well as Energy Star certification. It depends on the builder, he explained, as did Owens.

Looking at a map of states with regards to IECC building code standards that have been adopted, Ohio meets or exceeds the 1998-2003 IECC or equivalent overall. However, states like Illinois and Pennsylvania meet or exceed IECC 2009 standards overall.

Code adoption in Ohio falls under the authority of the Department of Commerce, Board of Building Standards (BBS). The BBS was created in 1955 for this purpose, while residential energy codes were added to its authority in 1977, Ellingson said.

In 2005, 125-HB175 (Buehrer) created the Residential Construction Advisory Committee (RCAC), to provide the construction industry input into the code adoption process, and to assure that building codes are feasible and realistic. The committee consists of nine members, appointed by the director of the commerce department, with construction experience, including three general contractors, one RES contractor with remodeling experience, one architect, two building officials, one certified fire safety inspector, and one municipal mayor.

According to Ellingson and Owen agreed, it would be helpful to include on RCAC a building scientist who has expertise in construction of energy efficient buildings.

RCAC believes that they must recommend a code to the BBS in order for it to be adopted. Rules proposed by BBS are filed with the secretary of state, the Legislative Service Commission, and JCARR at least 60 days prior to adoption.

Local government code departments enforce these building and energy codes. However, according to Ellingson, about 80 percent of the state population has an enforcement structure, while 20 percent has no enforcement.

Gomberg, who represents Ohio utility consumers, said energy and building codes are about energy bills. She said one in 10 Ohioans are struggling with their energy bills, and 800,000 Ohioans are currently in arrears for their utility bill up to 60 days.

“We care about energy codes and see it as a clear and direct link to paying energy bills,” Gomberg said. 

She also pointed out that homebuyers are not the only areas to target for energy efficiency measures such as weatherization and Energy Star appliance upgrades, but renters and landlords. She explained that because the tenant does not own the building or have any real investment in the property, these buildings often are inefficient because there is no incentive to upgrade the building.

Hilz said he is concerned with a private nonprofit association controlling building and energy codes, not the government. As an example, he said Energy Star is a government program that provides flexibility for the builder.

Owens agreed with Hilz and said the industry needs time with respect to mandating tougher building and energy codes, due to the current housing and economic crisis.

Ellingson responded by saying that marketing a home as being energy efficient is a great marketing tool for the industry and it should see the energy codes as way to spur the housing market.

Hilz said most new homes are energy efficient, but the level of efficiency from one developer to the next can vary. Owens said at this time he does not support more stringent codes.

Of the panelists, ideas for improvements to the laws that have already been set out in 125-HB175, Owens said he would just like to see chapter one of the residential codes enforced. Hilz said he would like density mandated. Gomberg would like the state to adopt the most recent energy and building standards, while Ellingson said her recommendation would be to assign a building scientist as a member of RCAC.