Downtown Kansas City.
Downtown Kansas City. Credit: Paul Sableman / Creative Commons

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A year ago, Kansas City seemed poised to become one of the first cities in the nation to add a new and much tougher energy efficiency standard to its building code. By postponing voting on a new efficiency standard, the City Council kept the option of considering a much more stringent standard that was still under development.

Although that new standard became public in January, City Council action is far off. Rather than make a recommendation to the council, the city’s planning department has sent the highly contentious issue on a detour almost guaranteed to delay council action until at least 2022.

The city typically updates its building code every six years, and was doing so last year when a group of clean energy proponents saw an opportunity for a great leap forward. If the council would postpone a decision on revising energy efficiency standards, they said, a more stringent 2021 standard would be available. Every three years, the International Code Council reviews a wide range of building standards that are adopted by cities worldwide. While revisions in recent years have hardly altered the efficiency standards, that changed with the 2021 code. It’s estimated that it will cut energy use by about 10% compared to the 2018 standards.

Clean energy activists were thrilled at the prospect that Kansas City, by postponing a decision on the code, could become a leader in building code efficiency standards.

“We couldn’t have asked for a better outcome,” said Joyce Raybuck, a local architect who has been a leader in the effort to adopt the 2021 code. But obstacles abound. The new code wasn’t released until January, and the planning department reported being too understaffed to move the process along.

Now, in what it characterizes as an efficiency move, the planning department has shifted the process to a task force that is updating the city’s climate action plan.

Because both processes will involve many of the same stakeholders, “We are trying to minimize peoples’ time in terms of two engagement processes,” said Andy Savastino, the city’s chief environmental officer. “We merged them into the process that will be captured under the climate action planning process.”

Savastino said he expects that process to reach completion by January. But he said it may not actually result in a specific recommendation on whether to adopt the 2021 code. More likely, he said, the task force could recommend that the council, whenever it is reviewing its building code, adopt the most recent energy efficiency language.

Although the building code issue now has been incorporated into the climate plan process, Savastino said it may not be resolved there. The climate action planning process aims for consensus, he said, something that has not characterized past discussions about energy efficiency requirements in the city.

In previous conversation about adopting more demanding efficiency standards, Savastino said, “I didn’t see a lot of consensus-building. Whether we’ll be able to do that in climate action planning I don’t know.”

Homebuilders and owners of large commercial and residential structures in Kansas City and across the country have made clear they don’t support more demanding energy efficiency standards. A New York Times article published two years ago spelled out a “secret agreement” that allowed homebuilders “to make it much easier to block changes to building codes that would require new houses to better address climate change.”

Despite plentiful evidence of the energy and financial savings that result from efficient construction techniques, the local chapter of the Building Owners and Managers Association sees little benefit in greater efficiency: just higher costs for its members.

“Our rental rates are based on the cost of production and maintenance on those buildings,” said Sam Alpert, president of Spectrum Real Estate Services and the advocacy director for the Kansas City chapter of the Building Owners and Managers Association, or BOMA. “Any change in the codes has a direct impact on what those costs are going to be.”

Alpert has been vocal in his opposition in recent years to higher efficiency requirements, and said he speaks frequently with Greg Franzen, the city’s building official. He is a pivotal figure in building code updates. The climate process will invite perspectives, and then seek answers to satisfy everyone. 

“It’s going to be interesting,” Savastino said. “We have two diametrically opposed groups. It’s typically BOMA and then groups like the Sierra Club. I’m sure both sides will have their version of data. It’s possible we can’t get it all resolved in climate action planning.”

Karen Uhlenhuth

Karen spent most of her career reporting for the Kansas City Star, focusing at various times on local and regional news, and features. More recently, she was employed as a researcher and writer for a bioethics center at a children’s hospital in Kansas City. Karen covers Iowa, Missouri, Kansas, Nebraska, North Dakota and South Dakota.