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Utah commission adopts a more energy-efficient building code. Next stop? The Legislature

Condo construction along Highland Dr. in the Sugar House neighborhood of Salt Lake City, June 20, 2022.
Brian Albers
Condo construction along Highland Dr. in the Sugar House neighborhood of Salt Lake City, June 20, 2022.

More than 60 people gathered online and in person on Wednesday to voice their opinion about updating Utah’s building code to be more energy efficient. Supporters said the revisions would vastly improve air quality throughout the state, save homeowners money on utilities and pricey renovations and reduce the burden on Utah’s energy system. Opponents argued changing the building code could be cost-prohibitive in some cases, reduce Utah’s already low housing stock and would be hard to enforce.

Utah is required to update its residential building code every six years. The public hearing hosted by the Utah Uniform Building Code Commission revolved around the adoption of the 2021 International Energy Conservation Code recommendations for new commercial and residential buildings.

IECC’s big suggestions include installing more ceiling and wall insulation in new construction, strategically placing windows and doors in areas that retain heat and updating HVAC and duct systems to maximize energy savings.

The commission made amendments to the recommendations, including reducing the amount of insulation proposed and maintaining the same testing regulations for duct systems. It also opted not to test mechanical ventilation systems in new homes.

Those in favor

Nonprofit leaders, like Kevin Emerson with Utah Clean Energy, said the IECC’s recommendations are timely as Utah continues to grow at a rapid rate. Emerson said Utah would see big energy savings if the commission were to adopt an unamended version of the proposal.

Another common argument supporters made was that it’s easier to build energy-efficient homes the first time around than it is for a homeowner to retrofit.

A study conducted by Pacific Northwest National Laboratory projected that if the proposal went into effect, Utah would save $2.2 million in energy costs statewide and more than $300 for the average homeowner during the first year of implementation.

The study also said it would reduce CO2 emissions by more than 18,000 metric tons in the first year alone. Over a 30-year period, the laboratory said the IECC’s proposal would drop CO2 emissions by more than 9 million metric tons.

For Emerson, there will be long-term consequences if the commission doesn’t give IECC’s recommendations the green light.

“If buildings constructed today are built using older and out of date and not the most recent practices for energy conservation, then you'll see across the state a higher than necessary level of energy consumption,” he said. “And this can result in excessive demand on our utility system.”

Michael Jaffe, a physician in Draper, told the commission he uses three inhalers a day due to Utah’s air. His father suffered a heart attack while visiting Utah last Thanksgiving, and Jaffe said the poor air quality contributed to the medical emergency.

He said following the IECC’s guidance would improve Utah’s air quality and have positive impacts on the health of Utahns.

“Building codes will affect the air quality for a hundred years. It is a wonderful opportunity to change things,” he said. “Every effort should be made to maximize the efficiency to reduce our local emissions.”

Those opposed

There weren’t many people in the hearing that objected to the updates, but Ross Ford with the Utah Home Builders Association had the most pushback to the proposed building codes.

From his perspective, the commission shouldn’t pass the current building code without a cost analysis — a “critical” step in the process, he said.

“Some codes provide minimal benefit but have high cost, while others provide significant benefit with minimal cost,” Ford said.

He said the price tag of these energy-efficient protocols could create an undue burden on Utahns trying to tap into an already out-of-reach housing market.

“We should work tirelessly to find an effective strategy to lower costs and help people find a path to purchase safe, sturdy and efficient homes at a reasonable price,” Ford said.

Mitch Richardson, the founder of Building Science West, approved overall of the recommendations for commercial buildings but had concerns about the lack of rebate programs included within the new residential housing code.

“The rebate programs are what's been doing the heavy lifting over the last 20 years for getting improved homes built in Utah, not code enforcement,” he said.

Richardson expressed a lack of confidence in Utah’s code enforcement, which was echoed by other participants in the meeting.

From his experience working in the construction industry, homeowners are the ones taking steps to retrofit their homes, while code enforcement has made it harder.

“Code officials do not enforce the full energy code,” he said “Enforcement's outright spotty.”

And nowhere in the proposed code does it mention an increase in officials ensuring homes are meeting current or future standards.

Homeowners can receive help from the state to make their homes more sustainable. However, those incentives, Richardson said, only exist if updates aren’t mandated. The current proposal would require updates that for now are only encouraged through rebates.

“Bottom line, if you update the code, you're going to get worse homes, not better. You’ll get more pollution, not less,” Richardson said. “If we update now, it will be a victory on paper, but a real-world loss.”

The commission left what Shawn Teigen, the vice president and research director of the Utah Foundation, considers to be a “loophole” in the housing code — Utah’s current performance mechanism known as a REScheck. Efficiency advocates would prefer to implement an Energy Rating Index that would create a minimum energy performance standard for homes.

A REScheck essentially allows homebuilders to trade off what energy-efficient protocols to follow. For example, if a developer installs an energy-saving furnace, they can get away with not putting the required amount of insulation in the walls.

The commission approved their amended version of the housing code and sent it off to the Utah Legislature’s Business and Labor Interm Committee for approval. If approved, lawmakers will vote on the housing code during the 2023 legislative session.

Corrected: August 12, 2022 at 10:03 AM MDT
An earlier version of this story misstated the name of the Utah Uniform Building Code Commission and the assignment of the code to the Legislatures' Business and Labor Interm Committee. Additionally, updates were made to clarify the intent of some code amendments and some energy advocate criticisms.
Saige is a politics reporter and co-host of KUER's State Street politics podcast
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