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North Carolina panel hits pause on new building energy efficiency rules

Amid sustained opposition from the developer lobby, North Carolina’s Building Code Council on Tuesday hit pause on its proposal to overhaul building efficiency rules, sending it back to the public for comment in September and delaying its final adoption until at least December. 

In the works for two years, the proposed energy conservation rules would replace the state’s 2009-era standards for insulation thickness, window quality, and other features in new home construction — a move experts say will save homeowners in the form of lower utility bills. 

But the powerful North Carolina Home Builders Association has objected strenuously to the code update, arguing the upfront costs of added insulation and the like are too expensive and that homes are efficient enough already. 

The dispute set up competing measures at this week’s meeting of the code council: one freezing the current rules in place until the end of the decade, and another moving forward with the revamp meant to align the state standards with the latest international guidelines. 

Though a majority of the council appeared to support the proposed new code, all but one member voted in favor of sending the builders’ proposal for the status quo to a public hearing.

“When we have issues that are this important,” said Bridget Herring, Asheville sustainability director and chair of the council, “it’s important that we hear from the public.”

The code overhaul also hit a technical snag Tuesday: though a cost-benefit analysis by Pacific Northwest National Laboratory commissioned by the council was completed in March, the study didn’t undergo the bureaucratic paces required by law. 

At the same time, the builder lobby has repeatedly insisted the cost-benefit analysis is outdated, since an initial draft was based on 2020 dollars and didn’t reflect pandemic-era inflation and supply chain issues. Gary Embler, a Concord builder and member of the council, brought up those concerns again Tuesday, suggesting that the study contained “errors.”

However, a March 2023 version provided updated costs and still demonstrates savings for homeowners. Despite claims from builders otherwise, the lab has confirmed its numbers as recently as May. 

It’s not clear if that will quell complaints about the validity of the study. But Herring made clear it would be the basis for a proper fiscal note that the public can comment on in September.

By then, the state’s part-time legislature could render all this procedure moot with the passage of House Bill 488, which outlaws a new conservation code until 2031. But Herring and other council members continue to hold out a sliver of hope for compromise between conservation advocates and developers.

“I believe in the process. I believe we need more public comments on this,” said council member Rob Zapple, a Wilmington builder and advocate for the updated code. “There may be shifting opinions. Let’s keep talking.”

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