homes under construction
Homes under construction in Greenville, North Carolina, in 2020.

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Taking its cues from developers, a North Carolina House committee on Wednesday advanced a sweeping bill to block new standards for thicker insulation, more efficient lighting, and other energy-saving features in new homes — locking in the state’s current outdated rules until at least 2031. 

Sponsored by Union County Republican Rep. Mark Brody, House Bill 488 would erase nearly two years of effort by the state’s Building Code Council, which sought to bring the state’s 2009-era energy conservation code roughly in line with the latest international guidelines

An independent analysis estimated the code revamp would cut energy costs by almost 19%, creating operating savings from day one. Spread over a 30-year mortgage, the increase in construction cost of about $5,000 would produce net benefits in four years or less.

But residential builders balked at the code overhaul and produced their own figures, alleging that after a 20% profit markup the average cost passed on to the consumer would be over $20,000 and take decades to pay off.  

“Unless I hear wrong, that’s a lot of money,” Brody, a builder himself, told the committee. Of the 2021 international guidelines, he said, “we might take pieces of it. We’re not going to adopt this until we can figure out what we want to do.” 

In a move that would dilute the power of the governor, House Bill 488 also creates a new council to govern residential construction, comprised of six appointees from the General Assembly and seven from the governor.  

The existing, 17-member council — stocked entirely by appointees from Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat who has made climate action a priority — would be left to govern less controversial commercial building codes. 

“I don’t think it’s in the best interests of North Carolinians to keep the building codes separate,” Kim Wooten, the Building Code Council member who led the ad-hoc group that developed the energy conservation code update, said in an interview.  

“There will be a lot of confusion in the design and construction industry,” Wooten said. “It’s going to cost a lot of money to implement this. This will introduce ambiguities and conflicts into the state building codes.” 

Brody swept aside similar concerns raised at the committee hearing, saying the bifurcation made sense because commercial building was more “heavily engineered” than home building.  

And he dismissed arguments raised at the hearing that outdated codes disqualify the state for certain FEMA grants – an assertion that appears in conflict with a December 2021 memo from the Chief Deputy State Fire Marshal and an August 2021 letter from the state’s Department of Public Safety.  

Asked about the bill, which flies in the face of Cooper’s climate priorities, spokesperson Jordan Monaghan said only: “The Governor will review the legislation.”  

While the Building Code Council, architects, and a lobbyist for the International Code Council voiced concerns about House Bill 488 on Wednesday, the North Carolina Home Builders Association spoke in its favor. 

“All of the provisions in this bill, we’re very supportive of,” said Steven Webb, a lobbyist for the builders association. “They’ve been thought out carefully over months and months and months.” 

But Webb’s organization has also spent months engaging with the Building Code Council on its proposed code overhaul, offering changes council members say they accepted. When builders nevertheless came out in force to oppose the revamp at a March public hearing, the council agreed to entertain further compromise at a meeting on April 3 — hoping to avoid exactly the legislative showdown that began Wednesday. 

“This bill took everybody on the Building Code Council by surprise, including me,” Wooten said. “What we had hoped to have next week was a productive meeting with the North Carolina Home Builders Association — bringing to the table their suggestions for modifications to the energy code.” 

It’s unclear how the advancement of House Bill 488 will change that possibility. The measure garnered at least one dissenting voice vote in committee and has two more panels to clear before reaching the floor of the House — a chamber controlled by Republicans who include some proponents of energy efficiency.   

Negotiations between Building Code Council members and builders, meanwhile, remain on the schedule for next week. 

“We are still more than willing to work with the Home Builders Association,” Wooten said, “and come up with reasonable compromises.”

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Elizabeth Ouzts

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.