The Energy Code’s Deep Freeze
Polarized reactions to the repeal of building standards
By Margaret Wright
It's not 2007 anymore, said Councilor Isaac Benton.
He was speaking at a late December City Council meeting, right after his fellow councilors voted to scale back Albuquerque's eco-friendly building standards. Benton was recalling a time when public officials and environmentalists worked over many months to draft the city's building code, a frontrunner in energy efficiency for the nation. The Council unanimously approved it, and the final version went into effect in 2009.
At the tail end of 2011, Albuquerque's rules were replaced with state regulations—also weakened under Republican leadership.
Polarized reactions to the vote signaled the depth of the ideological division that has grown among citizens and politicians.
The rollback measure's co-sponsors, Councilors Trudy Jones and Dan Lewis, lauded the passing of their legislation, which they carried at the request of Mayor Richard Berry. The mayor—who hails from the construction industry—and the councilors argued it would offer a badly needed leg up to development and real estate. If those industries are healthy, they said, we'll see more job opportunities.
"But that’s part of the problem in this country today: people wanting to buy something cheap up front, without any regard for the long-term costs."
Councilor Isaac Benton
Opponents said the move was shortsighted. Homeowners, environmental activists, engineers and architects testified in favor of retaining Albuquerque’s code.
Benton took the floor in a vigorous nine-minute defense of the tougher regulations. He highlighted the results of an updated study. Commercial and residential buildings could save between 5 percent and 19 percent more if built with the city's high standards as opposed to the state's relaxed rules. The study concluded that Albuquerque’s regulations were more expensive to meet, but reductions in energy use would offset the extra cost and save money in utility bills.
Benton said it's clear that higher energy-efficiency requirements benefit the consumer, though not right away. "But that’s part of the problem in this country today: people wanting to buy something cheap up front, without any regard for the long-term costs."
Moving backward, he said, will impact coming decades. “If your house or building is less efficient because you chose to save a few dollars, why should that cost be externalized to the rest of society?" Homes built with lax standards are going to be around for, on average, 30 to 50 years, he said. "Our grandchildren are going to be living in those homes long after the first-time mortgage is paid off. It’s disconcerting to be moving in this direction.”
"It makes deals that were on the edge doable because they make a lot more economic sense.”
Lynne Anderson, president of NAIOP’s local chapter
John Bucholz authored Albuquerque’s overturned code as the city’s first Green Building Program Manager. He said the benefits to local businesses will be outpaced by higher energy bills for tenants and homeowners, in addition to hidden costs that are left out of conventional economic measurements. “There are hospital and insurance costs associated with particulates that are spewed into New Mexico’s atmosphere by some of the dirtiest coal-fired plants in the country," he said. "Water is lost to evaporation at these plants and water is wasted ... . The externalized costs are a big part of the story but didn’t get adequate consideration in the debate.”
But plenty of folks were happy that rules were relaxed. The construction industry and developers pushed hard over many months for this, with industry groups out in force.
Lynne Anderson is the president of NAIOP, a trade association for developers and realtors. In a phone interview, she said she was confident the switch to the state’s simpler guidelines would have an immediate, positive effect on local economy. “It suddenly makes Albuquerque a lot more competitive in terms of new jobs and being able to accommodate standing companies already here," she said. "It makes deals that were on the edge doable because they make a lot more economic sense.”
Councilor Lewis, a Republican contender for Congress, and newly elected City Council President Jones both said in post-vote interviews that building codes affect business owners and homeowners, as well as landlords and tenants. They emphasized the power of free market forces to direct the kind and quality of the city’s buildings.
Lewis said industry had a frustrating time trying to implement the city's confusing and costly code. But some builders were already going beyond Albuquerque's rules because of market demands, "and it’s happening without the government mandate.”
Espousing a similar free-market philosophy, Jones recalled a resident’s testimony about struggling to pay high utility bills in a house built before strong energy-efficient standards. “My response to that is, Well, move,” said Jones. “Landlords pay attention to these things. Landlords, developers, people who want to sell property or manage property—they will build to what people want. If people want a higher standard of energy savings, the builders will build that for them.”
Edward Mazria is a Santa Fe architect whose policy and research organization, Architecture 2030, was a key influence during the creation of Albuquerque’s now-defunct efficiency standards. He agreed that market forces are transforming industry, and he was able to see a bright side to the ideological divide.
“Change is hard, and the people who are entrenched in doing things one way and only one way—you have to pull them along," he said. "Seeing this kind of contentious issue happening here means that the pulling is working, that things are moving in the right direction, and people that are not changing are being left behind.
“New Mexico was in a trendsetting category as one of the states that was aggressively moving things along, and with that you have people trying to slow things down,” he says. “I think that government can help speed things along. But they can’t kill the momentum.”
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