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Building Code Upgrades Sideline Older Buildings

November 10, 2014

Marla and John Ray relocated to Denver from Washington, D.C. in 2008, partly because of the weather.  But there are days they’d never know they left the stifling Potomac lowlands because their townhouse in central Denver is so hot.


Marla, who owns Denver’s Moving Boxes, works from a third-floor bonus room in her house, a space which fries several months a year. “We’ll have the heat on in one room, and the air-conditioner on in another,” she says of the four-story townhome in the Whittier neighborhood. Unsurprisingly, her electric bills are hundreds of dollars, especially in summer when her air-conditioner runs full-tilt-boogie and triggers “peak” pricing – Xcel Energy’s slap on the hand to homeowners who use excessive power to stay cool.


Their problem isn’t old or shoddy construction, though. The house is a custom 3,100-square-foot duplex built in 2009. Instead, their issue is that the house meets the bare minimum required in building codes, and the energy codes that feed into them are insufficient. Thankfully, those energy codes – the 2009 “IECC”version – are becoming roughly 15 percent tougher this year in Denver, as well as in a number of Colorado counties and places across the country.


“Energy codes matter because people have a basic expectation when they buy a property,” says Shaunna Mozingo, Energy Code Consultant and Plans Analyst for Colorado Code Consulting. “When it snows, the roof will hold the load. When the wind blows, it won’t blow the house down. The plumbing works,” she says.


But Mozingo says these buyer expectations also extend to energy use. “Buyers also expect to be comfortable, and they expect the home to be efficient. They expect that their first energy bill isn’t going to put them out of their next mortgage payment.”



IMAGES : (1) The Rays' house in inner-city Denver.  (2) GreenSpot Energy auditor Jerry Garner teaching owner Marla Ray how to program a thermostat. (3) Infrared (IR) photo of third-floor walls and ceiling. Disparities between the framing and cavities in the Rays' house show insufficient insulation, and new energy codes would help the Rays live more comfortably and affordably in their home.  And (4) differences in building energy codes, including the new 2012 version.


As with computer processors, there’s a “Moore’s Law” in energy efficiency – the bar gets raised routinely in energy-efficient features and systems in homes. In the same way that old Commodore computers with 280-bit processors are now quaint relics, homes built five, 15 or even 50 years ago must step up with energy efficiency or risk devaluation when it’s time to sell.


For example, the new codes will make 80-percent furnaces museum relics. ‘Ever wait for the shower water to heat? Hot water pipe insulation will now be required. So will mechanical ventilation to keep inside air fresh and safe. And one of the more exotic and visible changes going forward is mandatory blower-door testing – energy auditors put large fans and adjustable canvas frames into doorways to measure building airtightness.


These raised codes would have helped the Rays if they built new in 2013. Increased ceiling insulation would better shield Marla’s office with 22 percent more insulation (R-38 to R-49 insulation values), more energy-efficient lighting and better windows would be required, and the heating and cooling ductwork would leak less. Not only are the Rays done with big Xcel bills, but their air-conditioner contractor made out like a bandit, installing two big units that can’t even keep up. As it stands now, the Rays are on the hook for any after-market changes so they can be comfortable.


Not only does energy efficiency affect utility bills, it also impacts property valuation. In May 2012, the Appraisal Institute officially recognized green buildings (and specifically energy savings) with higher appraisal values in commercial real estate. And this is happening in residential, too, as data from around the country is starting to show that green homes and features sell faster and for more money.


Even though raised energy codes benefit anyone buying or building a new home, Mozingo says there’s pushback and resistance to change, with some jurisdictions choosing not to play at all. “There are over 340 jurisdictions [building departments] in Colorado, and about 70 of them don’t have a code. And a number of codes were written in 1960,” she says.


Also, Colorado’s “home-rule” whereby local governing bodies rather than the state dictate policy, causes confusion for general contractors and builders working from county to county. “Home rule is a great thing, but it’s not a great thing if you’re a designer or a contractor. Or if you’re trying to be energy-compliant because no one’s doing the same thing.”


Even with raised energy codes, there are some outlier communities – a handful in Colorado – that regard the stricter 2012 codes as a nice start. Boulder, Colo., has a carbon tax, a green building code and acceptance of Kyoto Protocol greenhouse gas emission levels driving city and county policy.


“We have national codes, and in addition, many municipalities will adopt additional codes. The national building codes are pretty quiet on ‘green’ issues. Yet the City of Boulder said we’ll take a stronger position,” says architect Ron Flax, the sustainability examiner for Boulder County Land Use.  Boulder County is on the leading edge of green build, and Flax and his colleagues craft green-code solutions on the fly.


“They created the Green Points building codes – one of, if not the first, green building codes in the country. It’s not just insulation and air-sealing, but also green materials, material sourcing, waste and water.”


Mozingo says 50 percent of Colorado counties aren’t even up to the 2009 energy codes, and when it comes to buying a home or building, caveat emptor. “If owners would do more research, then everyone in the state would bring the code up to date because owners would throw a fit that there isn’t even a minimum,’” she says.


“I really want to stress to building owners and buyers to do their homework to see what went into their house and commercial building. They know – instead of expecting, they know. Then they can make that choice whether they want to buy that [home or] building.”



 - Melissa Baldridge, GreenSpot




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