North Carolina building code raises the bar for energy efficiency

North Carolina building code raises the bar for energy efficiency

After investing years and thousands of dollars to increase energy efficiency in his home, Charlotte, N.C. resident Frank Lorch knew he wanted his next house to come with the same or better efficiencies.

"My wife and I were able to be pretty choosy," the Angie's List member says. "We were looking for homes with low-E glass windows, a tankless or solar water heater, and well-insulated walls and ceilings." They also wanted a home certified by a green building organization.

The couple chose a new home in the Dilworth [N.C.] area that came with a huge selling point: it's Energy Star rated. The label indicates the home is at least 15 percent more efficient than current building code requirements, as verified by an independent home energy tester.

That level of efficiency is expected to become the new building standard in North Carolina next year, under the proposed 2012 residential building code. The code, which awaits legislative approval as of press time, calls for all new homes, additions and remodels to be built 15 percent more energy efficient than the 2009 code in effect today.

Contractors and remodelers must achieve the increase by, among other changes, adding more insulation, using more energy-efficient lighting fixtures, and conducting duct and air sealing tests to ensure a tight building envelope. The new code resulted from a two-year study funded by the U.S. Department of Energy and, if approved, would take effect in early to mid-2012.

Kevin Holdridge, owner of highly rated KDH Residential Designs, which specializes in green homes, looks forward to the change. He hopes it'll raise the bar for all building projects. "When [it] comes out in 2012, the building code is actually going to be Energy Star, and Energy Star is going to become more stringent," he says. "You're going to see everything become more efficient as we get older."

The national Energy Star program is already increasing its standards, starting with new home permits issued in April and for all homes beginning in January 2012, according to Jon Passe, spokesman for Energy Star residential programs. "Our brand promise is that by buying an Energy Star qualified home ... you get something significantly more efficient than the standard," Passe says. Research indicates lower utility bills increase sales prices, and Holdridge says he's heard of builders putting efficiency ratings on houses as a selling point.

Under the new Energy Star guidelines, homes must perform 15 percent more efficiently than the standard international building code, but they're expected to be 25 to 30 percent more efficient overall when combined with the additional requirements - such as for water management and HVAC system quality.

That efficiency comes at a cost, though. The North Carolina Home Builders Association raised expense concerns after the N.C. Building Code Council approved the code changes last December. The state's study team estimated the efficiencies would add $1,000 to $1,500 to the cost of a new home, according to council spokeswoman Kerry Hall; however, the NCHBA estimated it'd increase building costs an average of $2,800 for an 1,800-square- foot, two-story home, according to Robert Privott, director of codes and construction for the group.

"Anytime anything's new, everyone immediately says it's going to be more expensive," says Holdridge, a Certified Green Professional through the National Association of Home Builders. "Yeah, components we're using are more expensive, but are there different techniques we could use, such as advanced framing that uses less wood, so we can pull the cost out of the framing materials?"

Randolph Goers of highly rated Randolph Goers Inc. in Charlotte, says most of the code's new contents make sense. "Whether they're mandated or not, they're still good building practices," Goers says. "The building code is the minimum, not the maximum. Some of the stuff is easy to accommodate, but some is going to be more expensive."

For example, he'd like to see higher requirements for window efficiency and ceiling insulation because those are cheap upgrades with quick payoffs in lower utility bills, but he doesn't expect an equally quick return on the cost of air-duct testing or added wall insulation. He worries increased costs may harm an already frail industry. "If you add $2,000 more to a house, you're going to push some people out of the market," Goers says.

Home designer Kevin Holdridge says green building starts with planning by using advanced framing techniques to reduce waste and installing low-E windows that maximize natural light but reduce energy loss. Energy efficient appliances and lighting complete the home.
Photos by Jeremy Deal

When Angie's List member Beverley Anderson designed her Energy Star qualified home in Sherrills Ford [N.C.], she says environmental concerns, not cost, topped her list of considerations. She opted for an all-electric home, extra cotton insulation and Energy Star qualified appliances. She says she was willing to pay a premium for efficiency, but has seen the payoff in lower utility bills and more comfort.

"I don't know that there's a high percentage of people who want to build a home knowing it will cost more, but it's better for the earth," Anderson says. "I think it's great they're building it into the laws."

In April, the state building code council approved some cost offsets that builders proposed to minimize the increased expense. For instance, they reduced foundation footing requirements to decrease material costs and no longer require vapor barriers in crawl spaces. The council rejected requests that raised safety questions, such as those to ease smoke alarm requirements or reduce designated hurricane-prone regions, which require more wind-resistant construction.

Privott says the builders' list aimed to give the council some price-saving options. With the offsets approved, Privott says the association supports the code. "We'll be cost-neutral at this point," he says. "It's taken a tremendous amount of work, but we've gotten there."

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