A blower door test is a way of measuring how airtight, and therefore energy-efficient, a house is. (Photo by Brandon Stafford via Creative Commons)

Illinois is on track to become the first state in the Midwest to require new homes pass a blower door test and meet rigorous new standards for air tightness and insulation.

The requirements are among the expected changes to the state’s building code that are due to be finalized this summer and implemented early next year.

The dry and technical subject of building codes has become a cornerstone issue for some energy efficiency advocates in recent years. The Midwest Energy Efficiency Alliance (MEEA), for example, made building codes a priority in 2008 and played a central role in upgrading Illinois’ rules (MEEA is a member of RE-AMP, which also funds Midwest Energy News).

Building codes are the sets of state or local rules that spell out the technical requirements for building design and construction. While they lack the flash of solar panels or electric vehicles, building codes can significantly reduce energy consumption by mandating subtle, often invisible improvements to buildings using commonly available tools and techniques.

About 40 percent of U.S. energy consumption goes toward heating, cooling, and providing power to buildings.

Under the rules being implemented in Illinois, homes will be 15 percent more energy efficient than those built under the 2009 version of the same code, which were 15 percent more efficient than those built under the 2006 version.

The Home Builders Association of Illinois, however, objects to the code changes, saying they add to the cost of construction and are updating faster than developers and code officials can keep up.

Following international standards

The codes come from an organization called the International Code Council, which publishes an updated version of its International Energy Conservation Code (IECC) every three years. A parallel energy conservation code for commercial buildings is issued every three years by an organization called ASHRAE. With each update, the rules require more energy conservation.

According to the New Buildings Institute, the 2012 IECC rules include energy efficiency improvements of up to 30 percent compared to conventional building practices.

The Energy Policy Act of 2005 requires states to review and consider adopting the most current IECC and ASHRAE codes, but they aren’t required to use them. The Midwest lags the coasts in adoption. Some states have no energy codes and leave it up to local governments to decide. Others have codes that haven’t been updated since 2006 or earlier.

When MEEA started working on energy codes in 2008, four states in its territory had pre-1999 codes in place, and Illinois had no residential code at all.

“This has become a huge priority issue for the Midwest, and I would say with the adoptions we’ve done we’re really leading the nation,” said Stacey Paradis, MEEA’s deputy director.

Its biggest success story, and the focus of its current work, is Illinois. With support from Environment Illinois, the Environmental Law and Policy Center and the American Institute of Architects, it helped pass the Illinois Energy Efficient Building Act in August 2009. The law, which took effect last year, requires state administrators to adopt the latest version of the IECC code — subject to review and comment — within a year of its publication.

The process of implementing the 2012 IECC rules is in the later administrative stages, said Isaac Elnecave, MEEA’s senior policy manager for building codes. The state is in line to become the second or third state to adopt the rules after Maryland and possibly Massachusetts.

“The big focus on adoption is getting Illinois across the finish line,” Elnecave said.

The state’s legislation will keep it perpeptually updating its energy code to the latest standards. In most Midwest states, legislation authorizes administrators to adopt an energy code but doesn’t specify how often it must be reviewed or updated. Nebraska requires legislative approval before newer energy codes can be adopted.

What happens now

Even though legislation isn’t typically needed to change the codes, updating them is still a political and often difficult undertaking. State homebuilder associations tend to oppose the changes, which create new rules for their members. Municipal government associations tend to oppose updates, too, because its members are the ones who enforce the codes.

“Homebuilders are not prepared for the code change,” said Bill Ward, director of government affairs for the Home Builders Association of Illinois.

The changes are coming faster than builders and code enforcers can learn them, Ward said, and they’re adding to the cost of construction. Complying with changes in the 2012 code will add $5,000 to the cost of constructing a typical 2,000 sq. ft. home, the association estimates.

Ward accused special interest groups of pushing for code changes so they can profit from educational seminars and sell products and materials required in the code. The homebuilders group is pushing for legislation that would delay implementation of the updated code.

Seth Sommer, a building code official in Rockford, Ill., said the reaction he’s heard from developers is mixed, as expected. Some are all for it. Others just want to know what it means so they can comply and move on.

“I think with education and outreach the difficulties will be a minimum,” Sommer wrote in an e-mail to Midwest Energy News. “[E]veryone generally understands that as a whole; we need to conserve energy.”

In the Midwest, Iowa, Indiana, Michigan, and Nebraska have the 2009 IECC rules in place, and Ohio is in the process of implementing the same standard. Minnesota and Wisconsin have the less efficient 2006 version in place. Kansas, Missouri and the Dakotas have no statewide energy code for buildings.

Even in states with advanced energy codes, the impact will be muted if training and enforcement isn’t also sufficient. Some states used stimulus funding to offer training sessions on new energy codes, but a long-term funding source remains elusive in many states.

“There’s still this challenge of where these training materials and education opportunities come from,” Paradis said.

The Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity is putting on 30 multi-day trainings across the state as it prepares to implement 2012 IECC rules. MEEA is also working with a stakeholder group in Minnesota to conceive a partnership in which utilities would help fund training and enforcement of energy codes.

Residential Building Energy Code Adoption in the Midwest (Source: MEEA)

Correction: A previous version of this story misidentified the organizations that lead the push for passing Illinois’ Energy Efficient Building Act.

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