A home construction scene.
Credit: Creative Commons

Facing fierce opposition from developers, the panel in charge of North Carolina’s building codes will weigh changes to its proposal for thicker insulation, more efficient lighting, and other energy-saving features in new homes.

The Building Code Council’s planned code overhaul is more than a year in the making and has broad support from clean energy advocates, climate activists, and the building professionals that comprise the council itself.

But the developer lobby — whose influence has kept the state’s current code anchored to outdated guidelines from 2009 — packed a public hearing last week to protest the revamped rules, claiming they would cost three times more than projected by an independent laboratory. 

With the powerful North Carolina Home Builders Association well-positioned to convince the state legislature to reject or modify any code it opposes, members of the council agreed to meet early next month in search of a compromise.

Still, it’s not clear any can be found. Among the over two dozen builders who spoke against the proposal last week, none offered specific amendments, and several argued for no update to the code at all.  

Advocates, when asked about the potential for concessions, stressed the strength of the original proposal and the diversity of its supporters. 

“The North Carolina Sustainable Energy Association applauds the ten speakers who showed up and spoke in support of improved building codes,” Dr. Rita Joyner, senior advisor to the group, said over email. “We call on the Council to listen to the diverse voices seeking energy efficiency and approve the update.” 

‘Not keeping up’ 

The less fossil fuel burned for heating, cooling, and lighting our buildings, the lower our global warming emissions. And one of the best ways to limit energy use is with insulation, windows and other features that keep the temperature safe and comfortable inside no matter the weather outside. 

Many of these building elements are difficult and costly — if not impossible — to upgrade after the fact. That’s why international guidelines for new construction are updated every three years, incorporating the latest in building efficiency technology.

But in North Carolina, a 2013 law only allows updates to the residential code every six years. That, combined with pressure from the builder lobby, means the state’s existing code — adopted in 2018 — most closely resembles guidelines from over a decade ago. 

“I’ve spent a lot of time in Washington,” said Tom Phoenix, a Greensboro architect and engineer, at the code council hearing last week. “When I would go there and tell them I was from North Carolina, they would just scowl at me, and want to know why North Carolina was not keeping up.” 

Homes are the second largest energy users behind transportation in the state, and 90,000 new units are built each year. That’s part of why a recent study from the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy found that adopting the 2021 guidelines would benefit North Carolina more than nearly any other state

‘Numbers matter’ 

Last December, an ad-hoc committee of the code council proposed to do just that, albeit with some modifications. 

“Our subcommittee spent a lot of time listening and reviewing and making sure the changes we did were right for North Carolina,” Phoenix, a member of the ad-hoc group, told the council last week. “They’ve been validated by an independent lab.”

An updated analysis from Pacific Northwest National Laboratory found that the proposed energy conservation code would cut energy costs by an average of 18.7%, creating annual operating savings from day one. The increase in construction cost of about $5,000 would pay for itself in four years or less.

“This demonstration of cost-effectiveness was even before recent applications from [Duke Energy] for dramatic increases in rates,” Ward Lenz, the executive director of the North Carolina Sustainable Energy Association, told the council. 

The lab also found the proposed new code would have the same effect on carbon emissions as removing 29,000 cars from the road each year — motivating faith-based environmentalists and other climate activists to speak up for it at the hearing.

“We cannot continue to be held back by special interests who are primarily focused on their short-term profits,” said John Rees, a member of nonprofit Interfaith Power and Light. “Let’s take positive action that will benefit future generations.”

Rob Howard, a general contractor from Granite Falls, was among the few builders who spoke last week in favor of the code revamp. “I spent most of my construction career with Habitat for Humanity,” he said. “I know what it means to provide affordable housing to our community.”

Today, Howard builds net-zero ready homes that have resulted in monthly utility bills under $100, he said, for an average increase in costs of about $5,000, a figure in line with the independent lab’s estimate. 

“I’ve been doing this for over 20 years,” he said, “and I’ve tracked the costs of these homes very closely. Numbers matter.”

Public comments still accepted 

But most of the builders at the March 14 hearing sang from a songbook written by the North Carolina Home Builders Association, claiming additional consumer costs were as high as $28,800 in the state’s coolest northwestern counties. Since most of the state’s 100 counties are in a warmer climate zone, the weighted average increase would be $20,400, including a 20% profit margin.

“These are not worse-case numbers,” said Cliff Isaac, a lobbyist for the group. He opposed the code, he said, “due to the additional mandatory tax it places on all residential buildings.”

Several builders said new homes were efficient enough, and policy should help people afford to move from older homes into new ones. “Today’s code is not the problem,” said general contractor David Menaker, who said he’d built homes in Raleigh and the Outer Banks for decades. “The houses built 20 and 30 years ago are the problem.” 

Kim Wooten, the building code council member who led the ad-hoc committee, disputed the builders’ cost figures, and said the group had already accepted suggestions from the Home Builders Association in developing their proposal.

And while she and her colleagues agreed to meet on April 3 in a final effort to entertain constructive amendments from builders, she emphasized that their current position of keeping the existing code unchanged is a non-starter. 

The Building Code Council, meanwhile, is accepting comments on its original energy conservation proposal until April 17. Comments can be emailed to Carl Martin at carl.martin@ncdoi.gov or mailed to Carl Martin, Secretary, NC Building Code Council, NC Department of Insurance, 1202 Mail Service Center, Raleigh, NC 27699-1202.

Correction: This article was updated to correct a quotation from Cliff Isaac; he said he opposed the code “due to the additional mandatory tax it places on all residential buildings.”

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.