For most people — indeed, even most builders — building codes are a dry subject far too complex to ever fully understand.
That’s why we have trained building inspectors, right? They even wear uniforms with badges. And for decades, the codes were slow to change, boring and didn’t really force us to think too hard or absorb unforeseen costs.
They told us how to build stairs so people didn’t trip, how tall to make a door so people didn’t bonk their heads, how low to make an egress window so we could climb out in an emergency. Once a builder got the hang of the basics, they were good to go.
Nobody ever really expected a builder to completely “know the code.” The International Residential Code book is 2 inches thick, printed in a font so small that anyone over 40 needs glasses to read it.
Testing for a contractor’s license is even an open-book test. The test isn’t intended to prove how much one knows but how quickly one can find the answers. Usually, a builder will buy and study whatever current edition of the code is being used for the test and then never buy another code book again — or even necessarily crack open again the one they bought in the first place.
But everything in the building code world changed with the development and introduction of the 2003 International Energy Conservation Code. There had long been a variety of different code books – plumbing, mechanical, electrical, fire, existing buildings — but they had all been predicated on the presumption that the point was about protecting life and the safety of building inhabitants.
Suddenly, a new code deviated from those narrow guardrails and addressed a subject fraught with political controversy.
When talk radio convinced people — including, perhaps, the president — that climate change and global warming are a hoax perpetrated by liberal elites, then the notion of energy conservation codes to help save the planet is just more proof of the vast conspiracy. There are plenty of pickups tuned to AM radio during job-site lunch breaks. Less so in Santa Fe, but more than you might think.
Adoption of the 2009 version of the IECC (they come in three-year cycles) was a matter of states getting and spending the billions provided by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, passed shortly after the meltdown of the homebuilding industry. The 2009 version was far, far more stringent than the 2003 or 2006 versions.
This state did its duty and approved a New Mexico-ized version in the first days of Gov. Susana Martinez’s administration in 2010. It never approved another. Despite the heated controversy at the time, that version was substantially similar the one labored over during the waning days of the administration of Gov. Bill Richardson, whose edict had been to “make it the most progressive in the country.”
Now the state is trying to decide whether to adopt the 2015 or the 2018 version of the IECC. The politics are beginning to heat up. The good news for Santa Fe builders is that our local energy codes are already far more stringent than the 2018 version or even the anticipated 2021 version. But the hinterlands of our state are not so ready, willing or able.
Kim Shanahan is a longtime Santa Fe builder and former executive officer of the Santa Fe Area Home Builders Association.