McDonnell administration set to fail Virginians on building codes

Everyone agrees that cutting energy waste is the most cost-effective way to meet our energy needs while reducing reliance on fossil fuels. And making new buildings efficient from the start is the surest way to achieve energy savings. Energy efficiency is the Mom-and-apple-pie part of our energy policy. Who could oppose it?

The Home Builders Association of Virginia, for one. They would rather build cheap housing than efficient housing, even when high utility bills turn cheap housing into expensive housing.

Bowing to aggressive lobbying from the home builders, the Board of Housing and Community Development (BHCD) has backed away from the national model building code provisions that would have improved the efficiency of Virginia residences by as much as 27.4%, according to a U.S. Department of Energy analysis. And, the McDonnell administration has signed off on the weak regulations. Virginia’s Department of Housing and Community Development has proposed a watered-down code that is currently open to public comment until September 29.

The McDonnell administration prides itself on fiscal prudence and its love for the business community. Here is a case where fiscal prudence demands tough love. A watered-down code means money wasted.

The model code provisions would have required higher “R” values in ceiling and wall insulation, resulting in homes that cost less to heat and cool. It would also have required builders to check for leaks mechanically, rather than just eyeballing it, to catch air leaks while they can still be fixed. The code that Virginia is set to pass jettisons these improvements, and others.

It’s cheaper for builders to skimp on insulation and not worry about air leakage, but the result is a home of lower quality and value. Owners and tenants end up having to pay more to keep warm in winter, and cool in the summer. These higher utility costs paid by occupants quickly eclipse the savings to builders.

What’s more, the cost of fixing defects later is much greater than building the house right to start with. Drafty houses are a classic example of the need for strong building codes, because sealing and insulation aren’t visible to buyers, and trying to add them later is difficult and expensive.

Customers who are buying brand-new homes have the right to expect a quality product. Virginians should tell the Department not to waste this opportunity to improve our housing stock for years to come.

A strong building code will also reduce Virginia’s reliance on fossil fuels and help low and moderate-income residents in one of the most cost-effective ways possible. Housing built for the low-end market is particularly vulnerable to poor construction. Buyers usually don’t know where corners have been cut, or don’t care because they plan to rent out the buildings and won’t themselves shoulder the high utility bills.

Some builders do cater to sophisticated buyers with homes that meet higher standards, but the vast majority stick only to what the code requires. Utility bills consume a disproportionate share of the income of residents with low and moderate incomes, and can also be a particular burden for seniors and others on fixed incomes. The failure to keep pace with the national model code means a missed opportunity to help homeowners across the state, as well as future owners and tenants.

The more rigorous model code standards would result in some additional upfront cost to buyers, but the Department of Energy calculates that savings on utility bills would more than cover the additional payment on a mortgage. Over 30 years, the average consumer would see more than $5,000 in savings.

Unfortunately, the pressure from the home builder lobby has resulted in a proposal with greatly weakened provisions that mean most new homes will remain unnecessarily expensive to heat and cool.

Virginians should not have to live with leaky, inefficient homes. The Department of Housing and Community Development should restore and adopt the full 2012 model building code standards, to improve our housing stock now and for the future.