Builders feeling chilly toward requiring extra insulation to new homes

Hearing next week will address a substantial residential building code update.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) South Jordan prepares for Daybreak development at Highland Park with 6,000 additional housing units between the Kennecott mine and the Mountain View Corridor as seen on Wednesday, Aug. 11, 2021. The Utah Uniform Building Code Commission has put forth its recommendations for updating the residential building code, which applies to all new homes built in Utah.

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In a tough housing market made tougher by inflation, should Utah update its building code to require builders to spend more on insulation, knowing it will raise the upfront cost?

The Utah Uniform Building Code Commission will hold a public hearing Wednesday at 9 a.m. on updating the state’s building code for new housing in the state. Utah is only required to update its residential building code every six years, and the code will apply to housing that is expected to last 50 years or more. So any change has a lasting impact. The Uniform Building Code Commission will finalize its recommendation after next week’s hearing, and then forward it to the Utah Legislature, which ultimately sets Utah’s building code.

The version on the table for next week’s hearing requires more insulation — a tighter building “envelope” — than the current code. Still, the draft lacks the full 2021 International Energy Conservation Code recommendations, said Shawn Teigen, research director of the nonprofit, non-partisan Utah Foundation, an independent research group that has been advising Utahns on public policy for decades. The IECC updates codes every three years, and they are considered a worldwide standard for energy efficiency in home construction.

Teigen said adopting the full code — and without the tradeoffs that allow Utah homebuilders to include less insulation in exchange for more efficient furnaces — would improve air quality. In the long run, he said, that would save Utahns money. Funded by a grant from the Utah Clean Air Partnership (UCAIR), Teigen is preparing a report on Utah’s building codes that will come out this fall.

That report will recommend full IECC 2021 adoption. “We determined that the piecemeal approach doesn’t make sense for residential building codes,” Teigen said.

The U.S. Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory has produced a report that says Utah homeowners would save 16.5% on energy costs if the IECC standard were adopted, saving an average of $325 per year. The report estimated the extra cost of meeting the standard would add $4,291 to the cost of a new home, meaning that upfront cost would be recovered in a little more than 10 years, or less if energy costs continue to rise. The report also said requiring the 2021 standard statewide would reduce 9.1 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions over 30 years.

Teigen points out that since most homeowners take out mortgages to buy new homes, the slightly larger mortgage payments of an IECC-compliant home are offset by the savings on energy costs. On a cash-flow basis, homeowners wouldn’t see much difference, and it would save energy and improve air quality along the Wasatch Front. Housing is believed to contribute less than 10 percent of the emissions that cause air pollution along the Front, but he said that is still a significant amount worth addressing. “There aren’t many levers to pull.”

The Utah Homebuilders Association has resisted the more stringent code. When asked about the association’s position on the proposed code update, Association executive director Ross Ford said the association has been heavily involved in the process, but he was circumspect about the proposed version. “Building codes are difficult and the adoption process is even more challenging, so it’s not as easy as we support it or not.” He said the commission hasn’t completed its cost analysis, which makes it harder to evaluate.

Ford sees a growing concern over federal involvement in building codes. “The energy code has also seen an unprecedented push from the federal government. It is unsettling for the industry to have government officials hijack an industry-developed process designed to improve all aspects of construction.”

Ford said earlier this year the benefit of extra insulation does not justify the cost. He said you can point an infrared heat detector at the higher-insulated wall and see no difference in heat loss vs. the current standard. “You hit that point of diminishing returns,” he said.

He also disputed the cost estimates in the PNNL study, noting the costs of building materials have risen dramatically since the report was prepared.

Only three states (California, Washington and Vermont) have adopted the full 2021 code, and nine other states have adopted the full 2018 code. Neighboring Colorado does not have a statewide building code, but in 2019 it passed a law requiring local jurisdictions to comply with one of the last three IECC standards, and state legislators are considering a law that would require 2021 code compliance.

Utah is at the 2015 IECC code level, but is one of the few states that still allows builders tradeoffs to lower the amount of insulation in exchange for including more efficient furnaces and water heaters. Most Utah homebuilders use those tradeoffs.

The downside of the tradeoffs is that the life of a home extends far beyond the life of a furnace and water heater. The opportunity for a 50- or 100-year improvement is lost.

One member of the building code commission, Jörg Rügemer, said he would have liked to see the commission adopt the full 2021 IECC code. “What comes out is a much better building. It’s that simple.”

Rügemer is an associate professor of architecture at the University of Utah and operates his own architecture firm in Park City. A native of Germany, he said Germans have had strict energy requirements for new construction, which has resulted in “much more durable buildings, better performing buildings.”

He said the current proposal “is definitely an improvement” in energy efficiency, but it’s still “baby steps” toward what he sees as an inevitable adoption of tighter codes.

Wednesday’s hearing will be held in conference room 474 of the Heber Wells Building, 160 E. 300 South, Salt Lake City.

Tim Fitzpatrick is The Salt Lake Tribune’s renewable energy reporter, a position funded by a grant from Rocky Mountain Power. The Tribune retains all control over editorial decisions independent of Rocky Mountain Power.