An unfinished home.

A controversial change to North Carolina’s building energy code remains on the table despite a budget review that could prolong its adoption by up to a year.

Proposed by the state’s developer lobby, the change would allow builders to bypass basic requirements such as wall insulation by adhering to the latest green building standard set by the nonprofit Residential Energy Services Network, or RESNET.

The state’s Building Code Council voted to approve the measure in December. But it stalled last month, when a rules review panel sent it to a state budget office for fiscal review, after critics argued it lacked an economic impact analysis required by law.

Ben Edwards, an expert with Asheville building consultant Mathis Consulting, had hoped the procedural snag would derail the amendment indefinitely. At the council’s meeting this week, he offered a substitute proposal allowing builders to use the most recent RESNET standard without evading bare minimums on efficiency.

The council — using a byzantine committee process designed to amplify developers’ voices — voted not to even consider the concept.

‘Fundamentally broken’

National energy conservation advocates liken this week’s machinations to shuffling deck chairs on the Titanic: North Carolina’s residential building energy conservation code is already nearly a decade behind the international model standard, and it’s far from enabling the ideal of “net-zero” buildings — hyper-efficient structures that don’t require any energy from the grid.

But state advocates don’t want North Carolina to fall even further behind, especially when it comes to the building envelope, a core component of building efficiency. Tight air seals, thick insulation and windows, and other aspects of the envelope dictate how much energy a building will need, and they’re hard to add or augment after the point of construction. Efficient appliances and solar panels, on the other hand, can always be replaced or added later.

“First reduce the load, then meet it efficiently, then meet it efficiently with renewable energy,” Edwards said. “You can’t just stick solar on an energy hog.”

The state’s building code already allows some flexibility, even where the all-important envelope is concerned. In one “alternate compliance pathway,” residential builders who adhere to RESNET’s 2014 green building standard must still meet a set of bare minimums, albeit more lenient ones than in the prescriptive code. 

To be sure, this pathway isn’t popular. According to the North Carolina Building Performance Association, about 30% of new homes get a RESNET or other similar rating each year — likely for marketing purposes — but only 3% use it for compliance. The minimum requirements, some green building consultants believe, may be too high to attract builders.

At the same time, RESNET has put out a new green building standard, the “301‐2019 Standard for the Calculation and Labeling of the Energy Performance of Dwelling and Sleeping Units using an Energy Rating Index.”

Updating North Carolina’s code to reference the 2019 edition is reasonable, advocates say. So, too, could be a tweaking of the backstop for the energy rating compliance pathway, to make it more attractive to builders.

But the proposal from the North Carolina Home Builders Association doesn’t do either. Rather than replace the 2014 standard with the 2019 version, it creates a new provision in the energy code, without any of the legal architecture of the existing section that references RESNET. As a result, it lacks an array of minimum requirements for lighting, testing, insulation, and even a thermostat. It also omits definitions, software guidance, and other crucial details that critics said made it utterly unworkable.

“It’s so fundamentally broken in so many ways,” Edwards said.

Controversial amendment lives on

The Building Code Council approved the proposal 13-4 despite that assertion, sending it to a review panel, called the Rules Review Commission. 

Substantive concerns are outside the commission’s purview, but because the measure lacked a fiscal note, it could not address critics’ claims that the measure would cause a “substantial economic impact.”

The law dictates what the commission must do in that case: Ask the state budget office for help. Thus, commission counsel recommended sending the rule to the Office of State Management and Budget, and the panel voted unanimously last month to do just that.

Marcia Evans, a spokesperson for the Office of State Management and Budget, suggested the Building Code Council might opt to drop the proposal in light of the vote, telling the Energy News Network in an email, “we do not plan to review the proposal until the [council] confirms that it intends to move forward with the current proposed amendment.”

But Carl Martin, deputy commissioner of engineering with the Department of Insurance, who staffs the Building Code Council, gave no indication that was an option at the panel’s Tuesday meeting. Instead, he reported that “there was a request for a fiscal note,” for the item in question. “I’m working with OSBM now to produce that fiscal note. We need to establish that it was, indeed, not a substantial change.” Otherwise, the proposal would need to undergo another nine to 12 months of rulemaking.

“That’s not too bad,” said council chair Robbie Davis, a general contractor from Rocky Mount.

(In an email after the meeting, Evans said, “OSBM will work with … staff to determine if the economic impact is expected to be substantial. But OSBM will not conduct the full economic analysis and draft the fiscal note.”)

‘The process is broken’

Later in the meeting, the Building Code Council considered the proposal from Edwards to update the RESNET standard to the 2019 version without “breaking the code.”

Edwards’s proposal had all the components the builders’ version lacked: software guidance, minimum requirements, definitions, and — a particular hobby horse for Edwards — the correct title of the 2019 standard.

In virtual comments before the council, most of whom were meeting in person, Edwards acknowledged his proposal may need massaging as it moved through the council’s process, but he wanted to set that work in motion.

“I did this because it seemed like the North Carolina Home Builders and the majority of the council wanted to move to the 2019 RESNET standard,” he said. “And the previous item was not going to be workable.”

An arcane process governs any change to the residential building code. Prescribed by law, a seven-member “super committee” of builders and engineers must greenlight the start of the process and oversee it throughout. None of the councilors who most frequently vote with conservation interests are on this omnipotent committee.

Maddeningly for the lay observer, councilors are constantly shifting between a meeting of the super committee and the full committee. Once a motion is made by the former, often without any discussion by the latter, non-super committee members can’t debate the proposal, let alone vote on it.

In that manner, the Edwards proposal met its quick and thorough demise. Wayne Hamilton, a retired assistant fire chief from Asheville, moved to recommend it but failed to draw a second. Minutes later, a motion to reject the measure passed 5-2. 

Hamilton argued that his super committee colleagues were rejecting too many measures out of hand too early in the process. “Everyone deserves a fair bite at the apple,” he said. “I just don’t want to see proposals die before they’re fully heard.”

Many proposals from Ryan Miller, head of the North Carolina Building Performance Association, have fallen victim to super committee procedures in recent years, even though he characterizes them as reasonable and modest. Tuesday’s actions, he said, “highlight how the process is broken.” 

Edwards may eventually try to bring his proposal back to the council. If the builders’ amendment survives, it’s also imaginable it would morph into something like what Edwards suggested; after all, both proposals nominally do the same thing.

No matter what, energy conservation advocates like Edwards and Miller say the fiasco shows the need for more allies on the 17-member Building Code Council, which currently contains only one person of color and four women. Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat, is in charge of appointments to the council, and five members’ terms expire this year. 

“We’d love to see more support for energy and the environment on the code council,” Miller said, “and members that better represent the diversity of North Carolina residents and businesses.”

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.