Tuesday, May 11, 2021
May 11, 2021

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In Our View: New homebuilding standards necessary hurdle

The Columbian
Published:

The timing of new energy-efficiency standards for homebuilders in Washington is, indeed, unfortunate. But the urgency of climate change demands action, not more rounds of claiming “now just isn’t a good time.”

Updates to the Washington State Building Code and Washington State Energy Code were adopted in 2019 and were scheduled to go into effect July 1, 2020. But during the chaotic first few months of the COVID-19 pandemic, industry leaders successfully lobbied Gov. Jay Inslee for more time to prepare.

Inslee announced in April of last year that he would delay the code updates until Nov. 1. The State Building Code Council subsequently issued two more extensions — first to Feb. 1, 2021, and then to July 1. Inslee last week overturned the second extension, moving the start date back to Feb. 1.

“Almost a year after the pandemic’s arrival in Washington … there is no need for further delay,” Inslee wrote in a letter to the council.

The Building Industry Association of Clark County is dismayed by the move, writing in a press release: “In a time when home prices are skyrocketing due to increased demand (caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and low interest rates), labor and supply chain disruptions, and historically low inventory of existing and newly built homes, this is the absolute worst time to institute new and costly building codes.”

We can empathize with builders about the short notice for implementing the changes. Perhaps a delay of an extra month would have been beneficial.

But the issue allows for an examination of how governmental action easily overlooked by the public can help address climate change. The code awards points for energy-efficient features such as heat pumps or adequate insulation. Homes are required to achieve a minimum number of credits depending on square footage — three credits for houses smaller than 1,500 square feet, up to seven credits for houses larger than 5,000 square feet.

There also is an emphasis on eliminating natural gas heating systems in favor of hybrid or electric systems. Natural gas heating now results in a point being docked from a project’s credit score, reflecting a desire to limit the use of fossil fuels.

Reducing carbon emissions from a single home or one development will not have a large impact on statewide emissions or global climate change. But the new code reflects a commitment that must be embraced. Improving structures, both residential and commercial, is an essential step to reducing emissions.

“Buildings are one of our state’s most significant and fastest growing sources of carbon pollution. We must do better — and we can do better,” Michael Furze, head of the state energy office, told the Seattle City Council last week.

Local builders say the new energy standards will add to the cost of homes, up to an additional $30,000 for a 5,500-square-foot dwelling. But as Jon Girod, owner of Vancouver-based Quail Homes, said: “I understand the cost ramifications, believe me I do, but at the end of the day (buyers) are paying more for quality, and it’ll pay them back.”

An analogy can be found in regulations for the auto industry over the past several decades. Critics claimed that requiring air bags or adding safety measures or increasing fuel standards would harm the industry by increasing prices; but consumers quickly embraced new standards and demonstrated they are willing to pay a premium for quality.

When it comes to making homes more energy efficient, now is as good a time as any.

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