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Proposed energy efficiency standards for new homes spark controversy in St. Louis County

The St. Louis County Building Commission members (Jeff Aboussie, Barry Glantz and John Finder, right) listen to Sierra Club supporters on August 2015. The model house is covered with the names of 529 area residents who want stricter energy efficiency stan
Veronique LaCapra
The St. Louis County Building Commission (Jeff Aboussie, Barry Glantz and John Finder, right) listens to Sierra Club supporters on Wednesday. The model house is covered with the names of 529 area residents who want stricter energy efficiency standards.

The Missouri Sierra Club is raising the alarm that new residential building codes under review by St. Louis County would reduce home energy efficiency below existing standards.

But the Home Builders Association of St. Louis and Eastern Missouri (HBA) believes the changes are needed.

The Sierra Club wants the county to adopt the latest energy efficiency standards into its residential building codes. The new standards, known as the 2015 International Energy Conservation Code (IECC), would require new home construction to incorporate updated energy efficiency measures, including:

  • reduced air infiltration verified with a blower door test
  • increased duct tightness verified with a duct leakage test
  • more energy efficient lights
  • increased energy efficiency for windows
  • increased wall and ceiling insulation

The county's current energy efficiency requirements for new home construction are based on an amended version of the 2009 IECC.

But the regional HBA wants to make changes to the 2015 IECC standards before the county adopts them into new residential building codes.

In an email to St. Louis Public Radio, regional HBA Executive Vice President, Patrick Sullivan, said his organization is driven by the needs of the consumer and has to consider more than just energy efficiency.

“Our members know from their accumulated experience as well as professional training that consumers want very 'livable' residences,” Sullivan said. “That means—after safety is accounted for—they must be affordable. They must be energy efficient. They must be comfortable and designed in a manner that accommodates the lifestyle of the occupants. They must be considered attractive.”

Sullivan said public policies have to be flexible enough to meet the needs of different homebuyers. “Some will want more energy efficiency than others. Some will put upfront cost — what they can afford — at the top of their list,” Sullivan said.

The regional HBA estimates that implementing the 2015 IECC energy efficiency standards would cost county homebuyers between $32,420 and $42,345 more than what the energy efficiency measures required by the county’s existing code. "The point is that what may seem to be insignificant upfront cost barriers to the Sierra Club are very real barriers to millions of American families, who must actually pay their housing expense," Sullivan said. "As upfront prices go up, more families—especially lower income families—are forced to continue living in older, less-energy efficient housing because that is all they can afford."

The Sierra Club's Gretchen Waddell Barwick looks on as supporters of her group speak in support of having St. Louis County adopt 2015 international energy efficiency standards for new home construction.
Credit Véronique LaCapra | St. Louis Public Radio
The Sierra Club's Gretchen Waddell Barwick looks on as supporters of her group speak in support of having St. Louis County adopt 2015 international energy efficiency standards for new home construction.

But former home builder and Habitat for Humanity board member Richard Reilly said the costs don’t have to be that high. “Perhaps those are accurate numbers given to them by various suppliers and contractors,” Reilly said. “I also think one could sharpen the pencil, and have those numbers significantly reduced.”

The Midwest Energy Efficiency Alliance (MEAA) — which analyzed the county's proposed building codes for the Sierra Club — agrees. According to MEEA estimates, if the county were to adopt the 2015 IECC standards, homebuyers would make back all their additional up-front costs in less than five years — and save an estimated $436 a year in home energy costs.

What’s more, another MEEA analysis found that some of the amendments proposed by the HBA would actually weaken energy efficiency standards below the county’s existing requirements. Specifically, the MEEA says the HBA amendments being considered by the county's Building Codes Review Committee (BCRC) would:

  • Make existing requirements designed to prevent air infiltration voluntary
  • Eliminate duct leakage testing requirements
  • Eliminate requirements for energy efficient lighting

MEEA Building Policy Associate Ian Blanding said taken together, his organization estimates that the HBA-modified standards would add $152 a year to home energy costs, compared to homes built under existing county building regulations. “Energy codes are designed to improve the energy efficiency of homes, Blanding said. “Currently, St. Louis County is moving backwards, as far as energy efficiency goes, with these proposed amendments.”
Sullivan called those allegations “incorrect, misleading and sophomoric,” adding that the Sierra Club and its allies are misrepresenting costs to homebuyers and failing to take building safety into account.

But former home designer-builder James Trout, who works for the Community Action Agency of St. Louis County, said the new IECC standards would improve indoor air quality, helping to reduce the risk of asthma, COPD, and other health problems.

“We now know that based on older codes, we are breathing contaminated air in homes,” Trout said. “The new codes rectify that. They ask for mechanical ventilation, that will solve that problem, and they require testing that will tell us if you’ve addressed it or not. Really simple. And not terribly expensive.”

The new building codes will ultimately need to be approved by the St. Louis County Council — but that vote is likely months away. And the Sierra Club said before anything is finalized, the public will get a chance to weigh in.

For science, environment and health news, follow Véronique LaCapra on Twitter: @KWMUScience

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