By Grey Lee

The USGBC MA Chapter, as part of our national agenda, joins with colleagues at Acadia Center and the Sierra Club to urge the Commonwealth to enact better building codes – in particular, a stronger stretch code. Recently, information was made public at a 9/8/15 meeting indicating the State's regulatory agencies are not committed to real improvements of the stretch code, already two years delayed, to help those municipalities designated “Green Communities” reach their energy efficiency goals. Without leadership from regulatory agencies, advocates such as our organizations will look at corrective measures from the legislature including considering where a net-zero pathway for buildings and real estate could play out.

Massachusetts has a great building code. We have excellent regulations on the energy performance of new construction. You can read about the codes here – for some, it is a lot of fun to explore! Due in part to the commitment to improving codes and energy performance in buildings, Massachusetts has become the #1 state in America for energy efficiency, according to ACEEE (American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy).

Through the passage of the Green Communities Act of 2008, the Commonwealth created a pathway for communities to strengthen their building code for improved building performance. The optional “Stretch Code” was an “overlay” to the base building code which enabled a municipality to enforce a stronger code for energy performance. The New Buildings Institute has some good information on why stretch codes are good for communities. Almost 150 communities have adopted the stretch code.

The Massachusetts Board of Building Regulations & Standards (the BBRS) is the regulatory authority for building codes. They have agreed to a process of continuous updates to the State's building codes, based on the International Energy Conservation Code (IEcc), which updates every three years. Thus, in June 2013 Massachusetts prudently updated its base building code to the 2012 IEcc – requiring that code since 7/1/14. 

However, communities that adopted the stretch code, based on IEcc 2009, have not been given guidance on what or how the stretch code will improve. Since the stretch code was based on the anticipated (stronger) IEcc 2012, when the base code updated to that IEcc 2012, the stretch code is effectively not a stretch. In fact, the detailed comparison finds the non-updated stretch code inferior to the new base code! Yet, without a state-sanctioned updated stretch code, these communities have no way of enforcing more aggressive performance in the buildings being built in their jurisdiction! 

The original purpose of a stretch code was to allow municipalities the option to require a more stringent energy efficiency code prior to adoption by the BBRS. The Northeast Energy Efficiency Partnerships (NEEP) has done a lot of work on this – and we are working with NEEP colleagues Carolyn Sarno Goldthwaite and Kevin Rose. They produced a great overview of the MA stretch code history here. The original stretch code (of 2009, based on the authorization in 2008 of the Green Communities Act) was approximately 20% higher energy efficiency. In residential construction, these increases are measured by a Home Energy Rating System (HERS) developed and maintained by the national Residential Energy Services Network (RESNET). In commercial construction, these increases are measured through the IEcc, with some adjustments, and referring to ASHRAE 90.1-2007 energy standards.

A strong stretch code is a good thing. It can align many of the relevant market participants. A stretch code can help people see where base code is going to go – it's like a preview. Having a sense in advance of future changes, it helps builders and product suppliers to compete for future market share – anticipating what will ultimately be needed to get to code. This tends to lower prices for developers and owners.

One concern from the 9/8/15 public meeting on codes at BBRS is that the draft updated stretch code will only apply to buildings over 100,000s.f. – which is a very small portion of buildings being built, and less of additions to buildings. And inherently, focusing on new construction, this code effort does not address existing buildings in any material way. Another concern is that this draft code was actually proffered in April – there haven't been any other meetings since then, but the minutes were only recently posted, reducing the public's ability to participate in the process. We will continue to examine the details but the early observations are that this new stretch code is “too little, too late.” We know authentic concern for energy efficiency would result in a stronger, more widely-applicable and better stretch code. Where is the leadership in the state government to push for something meaningful?

This new stretch code is not okay. It will leave major savings, economic benefits, and opportunities “on the table.” We should have a stretch code that enables communities to meet their local market conditions more appropriately and a code that really pursues excellence and ambition – rather than being a watered down “moot code” which distracts us from our goals of improving energy performance in the built environment.


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