Air Force airmen attach insulation to a Habitat for Humanity house under construction on July 12, 2014. Credit: Zachary Cacicia / U.S. Air Force

New homes built in North Carolina will be more energy efficient after all.

The state’s Building Code Council does not plan to appeal a ruling that it broke the law when it weakened planned changes to the state’s residential energy conservation code.

The state’s new building codebook has been sent to a printer and will officially take effect Jan. 1 after a more than year-long saga over what efficiency advocates described as modest improvements over the previous version.

At the residential construction lobby’s request, the building council in December scrapped changes that would have required thicker wall insulation and better skylights, modifications adopted in June 2017 after months of deliberation and in-depth fiscal analysis.

The state’s Rules Review Commission later objected, saying that the council did not give adequate notice or chance for public comment on its December action. The decision came after several efficiency advocates wrote formal letters of protestThe council could reconsider the amendments sought by the home builders, but its chair said this month it had no plans to do so.

“Citizen participation actually works!” said Ben Edwards, senior associate at Mathis Consulting Company, a green building firm in Asheville, one of the letter-writers. “It’s a tiny victory for good government.”

‘Relatively minor’ changes

Household heating, cooling, and electricity use make up more than 40 percent of the average American’s energy consumption. Though homeowners can take some steps on their own to curb their use — like regulating thermostats or replacing old light bulbs — it’s builders who have the greatest potential to improve household efficiency.

Features like thicker insulation increase construction costs, though, and some builders have been loath to employ them in homes they can’t sell for a premium. Conservation standards in the building code help ensure every new home, no matter its sale price, meets a minimum standard of efficiency.

Nearly a decade ago, North Carolina committed to improving these standards by 30 percent as a condition of receiving a federal grant. But the state hasn’t met its goal yet for residential buildings largely due to protests from the state’s home builders lobby.

“It is assumed that there will be some penalty, payback, or loss of future funding if the compliance goals are not met,” an analysis published last year by the Building Code Council said.

The efficiency improvements first added to the code last year were needed to “get closer to the 2008 target,” the document said.

The changes thicker wall insulation, skylights that trap more heat, and requirements for tighter air seals will add up to $611 to the cost of a 2,500 square-foot home but save $81 annually in energy costs.

The improvements and their justification were the product of public hearings and months deliberation by a committee of builders, academics, and other stakeholders. The Building Code Council adopted them a year ago with little controversy.

There weren’t a lot of changes,” Jeff Tiller, professor at Appalachian State University and one of the committee members, told the Energy News Network last year. “They were relatively minor.”

A violation of ‘black letter law’

Almost as soon as they were adopted, the Building Code Council began to backpedal on the conservation improvements and in the process ran afoul of state law.

In September, the council took public comments on what critics called an “erroneous and incomplete” proposal submitted by Robert Privott, a lobbyist for the North Carolina Homebuilders Association.

“This proposal purported to bring the [new] insulation requirements back to the [existing] requirements,” David Neal, an attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center, said in a protest letter to the Rules Review Commission. “But the chart instead proposed a further weakening of insulation requirements in North Carolina buildings.”

At the December meeting, the chart had been changed and three new charts were presented to the council, rendering Privott’s proposal “substantially transformed since it had been noticed for public comment,” Neal wrote.

Council chair Robbie Davis allowed no public comment and little debate, and the proposal passed with only one dissenting vote.

In a February letter, the commission rejected the last-minute changes, reminding the Building Code Council the law required at least 15 days public notice and opportunity to comment on new rules.

“The [Administrative Procedures Act] requires agencies to publish notice of rulemaking,” said Amanda Reeder, counsel for the rules commission. “The agency did not comply and staff recommends objection to this proposed Rule change.”

Neal was glad for the ruling but not surprised. “It’s pretty black letter law about what process you have to follow if you’re going to change administrative rules,” he said.

Even with its new conservation improvements, North Carolina’s lags more than two dozen states in building efficiency, according to the nonprofit American Council for Energy-Efficient Economy.

The state’s building code can be amended at any time, and council chair Davis said his panel would reconsider relaxing the energy conservation standards — this time according to the law — if the North Carolina Homebuilders Association asked.

But Privott hasn’t done so yet, and the council has met twice since the rules-review panel made its decision. Asked at the June meeting about his future plans, Privott said, “I don’t have anything right now.”

Based in Raleigh, North Carolina, Elizabeth has covered the state’s clean energy transition for the Energy News Network since 2016. She has also produced features for Environmental Health News and SEJournal, the news magazine of the Society of Environmental Journalists. A former communications director for the nonprofit Environment America, Elizabeth brings over two decades of environmental and energy policy experience to her reporting.