VA Builders Respond to Energy Code Requirements
Originally published by: Lynchburg News & Advance — April 8, 2012
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A recently updated statewide building code is turning up the dial on energy-efficiency measures that will mean more costs for homebuyers in a struggling economy.
But some Lynchburg-area builders are optimistic the changes — which went into full effect last month — will help potential buyers save in the long run with less energy costs.
The Virginia Uniform Statewide Building Code, updated and adopted very three years by the General Assembly, is placing a major emphasis on energy conservation in residential and commercial construction. The Virginia code reflects a mandate from the federal government to increase energy efficiency by 30 percent by 2015, said Gary McIver, Bedford County’s building official.
“It could drastically increase the cost of new construction,” McIver said of the impact to builders and homebuyers. “It’s going to be more time consuming and require more materials. It’s going to add some additional expenses.”
He said the code has become very detailed in eliminating air infiltration and limiting heat loss by sealing all seams, penetrations and air ducts. All wood-burning fireplaces now are required to have gasket-sealed doors to prevent heat loss, for example, and programmable thermostats also must be in place, he said.
McIver described the new regulations as “an inconvenience” for the additional work and inspections it will require. “I don’t see it inhibiting the construction,” he said. “It’s just going to be more of a hindrance during construction to achieve these standards.”
And more work will be put onto local governments’ building departments in checking up on the requirements.
“It’s going to require more inspections,” said Joseph Heddings, Campbell County’s building official. “We have to make due with what we have (in staff).”
The “intensity” of inspections also will increase as a result of the new code, McIver said. Bedford County estimates four to five added inspections per home in the course of new construction.
In tight budget times, McIver said additional inspections will have to be met utilizing existing staff.
“We’re all in the same boat,” he said, referring to local governments. “We have to absorb the additional workload.”
‘Less of a carbon footprint’
Contractors have had time adjust to the new building standards, which actually went into effect in March 2011. with a single-year “grace period” for construction under the previous code that was not as stringent on energy efficiency.
Custom Structures, Inc., a Lynchburg company that provides residential and commercial design and construction, has built many projects under the new code before the “grace” year ended, said Scott Elliot, president and general contractor.
“I’m kind of torn on it,” Elliot said of the code changes. “I’m old school in I believe people have the right to use certain materials and things like that. But the other part of me believes green alternatives are a good thing.”
He said he personally likes the new energy efficiencies, but understands they do cost the homeowner more money. The “fine line” is the long-term savings an owner can realize with a more energy-efficient home, he said.
“It’s going to cost people more money right now,” he said. “But over time there will be some savings, and that’s what I like.”
Setting “too many rules” halts plans of many people building homes when it comes to personal budgets, he said. But he also said it’s responsible to design and build structures that leave “less of a carbon footprint for future generations.”
“As far as some as some of these energy measures, I think that’s been in a positive direction,” Elliot said.
Andy Flint, president of LG Flint Construction in Lynchburg, said code changes level the playing field for builders, who must all follow the same rules. There are some measures that builders can voluntarily do to achieve energy efficiency, he said.
“It’s really the way we were starting to build anyway, because energy costs are going up,” said Flint. “We’ve been making these changes incrementally over the past several years. It’s not going to be a big hurdle for us get through.”
The only real drawback, he said, is the added costs on the “front end” of construction.
“It will make it a little tougher on the consumer at the beginning; hopefully they can realize some savings on energy,” he said. “Change isn’t always a bad thing. I think long-term, it will be for the benefit and quality of the home we’re putting together.”
The business decision for Long Meadows, Inc. to build more energy-efficient structures was made four years ago, said Chris Mowry, owner of the Lynchburg construction company.
“Number one, it’s a market decision at the time,” Mowry said. “It’s better to get ahead of the curve.”
The company has built thousands of homes in the Lynchburg area since the 1970s, he said, and nearly two dozen since 2008 has been “Energy Star certified.” Prior to the new changes, he said his builders were using “very tight” framing insulation systems and energy-efficient windows.
Mowry said that with so many different housing plans, it is difficult to gauge an overall average for increased costs emanating from the new building code. He gave an example of a two-story, 1,500-square-foot "starter home" he is building in Lynchburg and selling for about $180,000. He said the new code changes would translate into $6,000 in additional costs for that particular project.
“We’ve learned to make it affordable,” he said of abiding by new code standards. “You either adjust or you don’t keep up. It’s much cheaper to do it on my terms than a building inspector telling me to.”
‘Awareness is key’
Building officials from the cities of Lynchburg and Danville and counties of Bedford, Amherst, Campbell, Appomattox, Pittsylvania and Franklin have recently met to review and agree on “consistent enforcement” of the code across the area to benefit contractors and homeowners, McIver said.
Presentations were recently held in Lynchburg, Bedford and Rustburg that drew dozens of contractors and tradesmen at each gathering, according to officials. McIver said his office has been advertising the changes for the past year and will continue to do so.
“The more aware they are of these changes, the simpler the transition will occur,” he said. “Awareness is the key.”
Code updates have always come on a three-year cycle, he said, and mandates have been “gradually getting worse.” The difference in this particular transition, he said, is a shift from “nuts and bolts” of safety standards to energy.
“We always hang our hat on safety,” he said. “This is energy efficiency, which is a little different for us.”