Energy Codes Matter To All Of Us

written by MEC’s Buildings Department program manager, Mary English

Yup, this blog is about new building energy codes. Don’t look away: it will be relevant to you – John or Jane Q Resident or Business Owner. Right now this conversation is very relevant because both Kansas City, MO, and Kansas City, KS, are in the middle of discussing updates to these cities’ building energy codes.

Why does this matter? It matters because if we adopt updated energy codes, MEC and our partners can move on from debating energy codes to actually doing building energy retrofits. If we can move on to focusing on retrofits, then we can start to make a real dent in our large greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions attributed to metropolitan-area buildings. Our region is over 20 points higher than the national average in the percentage attributed to building greenhouse gas emissions. (Kansas City’s buildings represent 63% of GHG emissions where the U.S. as a whole, hovers around at 40% for buildings’ share of GHG emissions).

If our cities, however, don’t update energy codes, then we will be stuck in the cycle of having to retrofit poorly insulated structures for years to come. And retrofits – adding insulation, updating heating and cooling equipment, among other items – is much more expensive than using best practices in new construction. And being stuck with buildings built to low efficiency standards will perpetuate problems associated with weak building codes: health problems for the occupants as wide temperature differences boost mold growth; resiliency issues for the buildings as we enter the age of extreme weather events; comfort and affordability issues as in many cases an inefficient electric heater is all that helps residents stay warm in the winter.

In taking a deeper dive into these issues, here are the reasons we should all care about advancing better buildings via updating our energy codes:

1. Updating codes will right the wrongs current codes are still creating in new residential buildings.

An example: duct and infiltration testing aren’t currently required. They should be. Do you have rooms with big comfort issues – say a room over a garage or a corner second floor bedroom that never heats up or cools down? Chances are that leaky ducts aren’t delivering the air they would if they’d been tested and sealed. As a former energy auditor I’ve analyzed hundreds of homes – old, new and during construction. And I can tell you that energy specialists regularly find problems in homes built recently to current or recent codes. I had several clients that would not only hire me to test the ductwork, but also conduct a “smoke test” in the delivery systems prior to drywall in new builds. I would find completely disconnected ducts that would have been hard to locate once the drywall was installed.

Secondly, wall insulation requirements in the current residential code allow for poor installation. The result? Big gaps and cold spots in our houses. Our region’s cities have been passing code “updates” that have been heavily amended to keep insulation levels to the 2009 energy code. This means that an R13 fiberglass batt is still the most prevalent choice for wall insulation. This is very outdated and can lead to problems if not installed correctly. Here is what poorly installed insulation looks like through an infrared camera:

Pictured: Infrared imaging of cold spot created by fiberglass batts that have been smashed and “compressed” within the wall cavity. This cannot be fixed without gutting the drywall. Very cold spots can lead to mold growth in the walls.

2. Current Kansas City building codes are not robust enough to withstand extreme weather events

In February 2021 Texas made news when the grid failed during extreme winter weather. An estimated 246 people lost their lives during widespread power outages. Close to two-thirds of these deaths were attributed to hypothermia as their buildings were not insulated and air-sealed well enough to shelter residents until the power came back on. Kansas City experiences similar extremes in both summer and winter, and we should take note of what Texans endured.

The unamended 2018 and 2021 IECC (International Energy Conservation Code) which are under consideration in both Kansas Cities have more robust thermal values required than today’s rules. A well-insulated building can keep the temperatures more moderate for much longer than an under- or uninsulated building. And to be clear: our current residential codes are too weak. If we want the metropolitan area to be ready to withstand stronger, windier and/or colder storms we need to upgrade the energy code. Consider it a long-term durability – i.e. structural – plan.

3. Renters face equity issues that must be addressed.

Roughly half of our residents rent their homes. Renters have zero control over fixing their homes and depend on good policy to protect them from the negative financial and health impacts of inefficient buildings. For those that suffer in under- or uninsulated buildings, today is the beginning of a new day to ensure that new buildings don’t fail in the future by upgrading our energy code.

Additionally, we have hundreds of multi-family residential buildings that need to be upgraded. New codes will let us concentrate on them. Let’s stop building inefficient, and therefore unhealthy and uncomfortable homes for our fellow residents so we can start to focus on the all the renovation work ahead of us.

4. A changed climate isn’t coming, it’s already here

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) issued three reports this year where they made it explicit that the world has to lower emissions by roughly half by 2030 if humanity is to have a chance to save ourselves. This statement – this strict timeline issued by the world’s climatologists – was unprecedented. In the 34 years since the IPCC started issuing reports, they have never issued a warning with a deadline. They have this year in an appeal to world leaders to “start cooperating” to stave off disaster.

As world leadership doesn’t appear to be in a cooperative mood, it will be up to our cities to initiate plans to lower our GHG emissions. Kansas City, MO is rolling out a new Climate Protection Plan which is still being negotiated as I type this blog. Upgrading our energy codes will show that we are paying attention and care about the type of lives we’d like for our children to experience.

5. Stronger codes help energy-burdened households.

Since I entered into the building performance field fifteen years ago, I have been struck by the prevailing idea that energy codes are just useful in saving a few dollars for funny money. As I hope I’ve convinced you thus far, this is not the only reason. This is just one box to check in a long list of ways buildings impact our lives. However, as inflation is also putting upward pressure on energy prices, this should be considered another critical motivation to upgrade our energy codes: it helps people – especially in low-paying jobs – save much needed income for other useful things. We have the technology to keep households from flushing their hard-earned cash down the toilet so to speak, so let’s use it.

As the Kansas City region is suffering the impact of extreme weather events both regionally and from the Western fires, I’ll leave by posing this question: what are our obligations as a society and community to ensure a safe and habitable planet for future generations? Especially when knowing that these upgrades represent a positive impact on quality of life for our citizens today.

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