Environment: Building Code Backpedal

Eco-Friendly Rules Debated In Run-Up To City Council Vote

Margaret Wright
6 min read
Building Code Backpedal
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The government just keeps rolling them back.

Earlier in the year, the
City Council nixed a rule that required new big buildings to meet high environmental standards.

Then, in the summer,
the state yanked New Mexico’s energy-efficiency building codes and replaced them with more lax regulations.

Now the Council’s looking to take another step back and repeal Albuquerque’s code, replacing it with the freshly relaxed state regs.

Homes and office buildings account for a massive amount of the energy consumed in the U.S.—more than all cars on the road, and more than industry. Energy conservation codes are designed to minimize that impact. Since tough regulations were enacted under former Mayor Martin Chavez in 2009, Albuquerque has been at the forefront with standards that go beyond national minimums.

Despite moves around the country to follow our example, these standards are on the verge of repeal. The City Council is considering a measure that would replace the 2009 Interim Energy Conservation Code with the more relaxed state code that was just adopted by New Mexico. A bill sponsored by conservative Councilors Trudy Jones and Dan Lewis was scheduled for a vote on Oct. 5 but will be deferred, Lewis says, until the city finishes a review of the code’s cost and efficiency. “We want to make decisions based on some good data,” he says.

Mayor Richard Berry, who
built a career in the construction industry over 20 years, requested councilors consider rolling back the stringent code. Builders and real estate developers have also been lobbying hard for the changes. They contend lower energy efficiency requirements will decrease construction costs—savings that could be passed along to buyers with the hope of boosting industry and the limping local economy.

Conservation advocates argue the move would extend to Albuquerque environmental setbacks enacted by Gov. Susana Martinez. They say if buildings and houses aren’t efficient, buyers will pay extra utility costs over decades. They foresee harm to consumers in the face of future utility rate increases, as well as to the environment. New Mexico is ever-hungrier for energy produced by power plants, which consume vast water resources. The state’s power plants also rank among the worst pollution emitters in the nation.

Industry reps such as the
Home Builders Association of Central New Mexico and NAIOP agreed not to oppose Albuquerque’s stiff regulations when they were adopted by the Council during the Chavez administration. Two years later, they say application of the code has proven to be expensive and technically troublesome.

“This was the first time any city had tried this sort of thing, and we recognized that there would have to be changes going forward,” says Jim Folkman, executive vice president of the local Home Builders Association. He participated in the consensus process that led to the city’s tough 2009 rules.

The state’s code—the more lax one that could replace Albuquerque’s strict regulations—is a revised version of an international template. Construction industry folks assert that despite loosening Albuquerque’s efficiency standards, the proposal will still achieve energy savings that exceed those of other cities in the region—places the governor says we’re competing against to attract jobs and corporate investment.

Members of the local commercial development association NAIOP are also aligning with the homebuilders against Albuquerque’s current code. NAIOP President Lynne Anderson says association stakeholders were “devastated by the recession,” with dim prospects for recovery in the near future.

City leaders are taking the bad economy and its hit to the industry seriously. Architect and City Councilor Isaac Benton speaks of widespread concern for the metro area’s long-term outlook. But unlike the measure’s co-sponsors, Benton says he’s withheld support because axing the regulations is too drastic. “They want to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Two powerful groups—the same people who said it was OK before—have gone to the mayor and asked him to repeal.”

Benton also outlines concerns about the process leading up to the proposed repeal. “When we enacted the code in the first place, Councilor Jones herself asked for an economic impact analysis," he says. A thorough study was conducted at the time by an independent engineer. "Those same engineers advocate for the value of their work and stand for what they said before: that it is a good code, easily implementable and not excessively expensive,” Benton says. When the repeal measure was put forth, he asked that another analysis be conducted. It is still underway.

Tammy Fiebelkorn of the
Southwest Energy Efficiency Project agrees there should be another study, insisting that a large-scale view of the impact is crucial. “Cost does trump all, and that’s why these energy conservation codes are so important,” she says. “I have more concern for every business and homeowner in the city who has to pay for buildings that are not built to be the most efficient and the most operational. Those folks are stuck with those energy bills for however long the building is there.” 

Fiebelkorn also stresses the effects of inefficient construction on fixed- and low-income families and small business owners. “You’re saddling them with utility bills that they cannot afford.”

There are green homebuilders in Albuquerque who routinely go beyond the city’s stiff regulations to create efficiency. They’ve weathered the economic climate better than others, says Folkman of the Home Builders Association. But, he adds, their success isn’t due to the city’s strict standards.

Green builders "have been very intentional, purposeful and scientific in the way that they’ve designed their homes. They didn’t just have to respond to the building code." They’ve made plans for the homes they construct around cost-benefit analysis, he adds, and they qualify for energy star credits and a number of other incentives.

John Bucholz is the city’s former Green Building Program Manager and author of the today’s code. He says in the course of his 26 years as a public code official, he’s never seen a mayor advocating the repeal of standards instead of trying to improve them.

But the resistance to government oversight is not unusual, he adds, and this isn’t any different than when the Americans with Disabilities Act requirements went into effect. "The design industry, the builders, the architects—everyone said that construction was going to come to an end, and we wouldn’t be able to build any new buildings because it would be too expensive," he says. "It’s the exact mantra I’m hearing today. And here we are, 20 years later, and no one thinks about it any more. People are now proud of the fact that we make buildings that are accessible to everyone.”
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