Friday, February 18, 2011

Is county energy code too ambitious?

Goals would be unattainable, too costly, builders say

Express Staff Writer

Solar thermal collectors top the house of energy-conscious architect Dale Bates in Ketchum. The collectors, which provide hot water and radiant heat for the house, could become a more common sight in Blaine County if the commissioners vote to approve stricter energy efficiency codes. Photo by Willy Cook

Despite the pressure of an impending building season, Blaine County commissioners determined Tuesday that they were not comfortable approving an amended energy code.

"Basically, I'm comfortable with the approach," said Commissioner Larry Schoen. "I just don't have enough information."

More than 30 people attended the commissioners' meeting to weigh in on the proposed code, which would require builders and architects to go beyond international energy code standards.

The 2009 International Energy Conservation Code requirements, which guide the energy efficiency of residential buildings, have been adopted by the state but have yet to be adopted by the county. The county is required to approve the code, but is in the process of working on amendments that would require buildings to conserve even more energy.

While builders said they already built smaller homes to the code's proposed regulations, building larger homes to the sliding energy efficiency scale the code would establish might be impossible. Even if it is possible, builders argue it will be costly and discourage construction in the county.

"I don't think any of us knows if it is attainable or what it will cost," said Dave Wilson, a Ketchum-based builder. "There are a lot of unknowns that even we don't know."

The scale, which sets acceptable Home Energy Rating Systems scores for new homes over 2,500 square feet, would require houses over 11,000 square feet to receive a HERS score of zero. That score effectively means all the home's energy must be produced by solar power or other renewable energy systems.

Brian Poster, a builder from Ketchum, said the cost of achieving such efficiency would outweigh any actual energy savings.

"It's economic stupidity," he said. "It doesn't make sense."

Poster said a net-zero home has never been built in Blaine County, making speculation regarding costs and benefits difficult.

"We still don't know what it takes to get a zero, because no one has ever done one," he said.

Certification though the National Green Building Standard or Leadership Energy and Environmental Design would also constitute compliance with the county's proposed energy-efficiency code.

Tom Harned, an energy auditor and owner of Airtight Homes in Hailey, said at the meeting that he was able to get his home to comply with LEED standards while expending only an additional .2 percent of the construction costs. But Sawtooth Board of Realtors spokesman Bob Crosby said costs to achieve that in some homes could range up to 30 percent of total construction costs.

The commissioners scaled back on the energy requirements slightly in response to public comment, suggesting that the sliding scale should flat line at a HERS score of 10, which would be more attainable and potentially cost less to achieve.

"I will not support a sliding scale that goes to zero," Schoen said.

Schoen suggested that the scale flat line at a 40 HERS score, which he said he felt was more realistic.

Commissioners Angenie McCleary and Tom Bowman agreed that they would support a set line, but would prefer it to be set at a HERS score of 10 to better reflect the intent of the amendments.

"I'm afraid that if we stop at 40, we might as well not do anything," Bowman said.

"Going to 10 is much more reflective of what we're trying to achieve," McCleary added.

Builders and other industry stakeholders also objected to the mandatory nature of the code amendments. Crosby stated that some families may have special cases in which they needed to build an addition to their home—for example, to care for an elderly relative—but might not be able to afford the additional costs of a required energy audit or other efficiency measures.

Ketchum builder Dave Wilson said the requirement for homes to undergo an outside energy audit is another discouraging expense that will keep landowners from building.

"It won't hurt my clients," said Wilson, who mainly builds larger homes, "but it will hurt the guy building a 2,000-square-foot house."

Energy audits range from about $600 to $800 for a small home. Homes under 2,500 square feet would need to score a 70 or under on the HERS index, certified by an outside energy auditor. County Planner Shana Sweitzer said smaller homes could also comply by installing certain approved energy-efficient components.

Schoen said he supported the idea of an outside auditor who could act as an "advocate" for the homeowner, to ensure that he or she is in fact getting what the architect promised.

McCleary said she had no plans to eliminate the mandatory nature of the requirements, and Bowman said he agreed,

The commissioners agreed to gather more information on the feasibility and costs of getting a larger house to comply both with a HERS score of zero and of 10 before making a decision on the proposed code. McCleary said she wanted to make a decision on the code during the commissioners' continued hearing on Tuesday, Feb. 22, at 1:30 p.m.

"It won't take much time, one way or another," Bowman said.

Katherine Wutz:

Code Compliance

For new construction, homes of more than 2,500 square feet would receive a Home Energy Rating System (HERS) score. The score measures the efficiency of the home as compared to the energy consumption of the HERS "Reference House," a twin of the proposed home built to specific standards. A 1000 sq. ft. home and a 10,0000 sq. ft. home may both receive a HERS score of 70 but the 10,000 sq. ft. home uses significantly more energy.

Due to this, the amendments have a sliding HERS scale requirement dependent on home size. The original proposal required Homes over 11,000 square feet to have no net consumption, though county commissioners have stated they would prefer the scale reflect energy consumption of the average-sized county home, consequently flat-lining at a HERS score of 10 or higher.

New homes smaller than 2,500 square feet must receive a HERS score of no more than 70 or use energy-efficient furnaces and hot water heaters, while sealing the building envelope tighter.

Certification though the National Green Building Standard or Leadership Energy and Environmental Design comprises compliance.

Homeowners adding additions of more than 300 square feet must either:

- Improve the entire house's HERS score by 30 points, if the original HERS score was above 100; or

- Use approved insulation, reduce air leakage in the house's duct system by half and achieve as low a building envelope leakage rate as possible.

Remodels and renovations require a professional energy audit or a self-audit, respectively. Heated driveways and large heated pools and spas are required to have onsite renewable energy or pay a fee used to develop renewable energy elsewhere.

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