Kudos to Santa Fe County commissioners for their recent unanimous decision to align county energy efficiency building codes with the city’s. Builders have needed that for years. With new Commissioner Hank Hughes leading the way, it finally happened.
Timing was perfect. Since March the state has been on the 2018 version of the International Energy Conservation Code. We’d been stuck on the 2009 version for more than a decade. Because the county does not have a building inspection department, it’s been wholly reliant on state building officials to review and approve plans, do all necessary inspections during construction and then issue certificates of occupancy upon completion.
In the 2018 version of the code, which the state amended and approved, a compliance option was added, making it possible for the county to do something it had long pretended to do: mandate energy efficiency in new homes from a performance code rather than a prescriptive code.
The city has been on a performance code since 2009, one of the few jurisdictions in the country and certainly one of the first. It is inevitable that every jurisdiction in America will be on a performance code someday.
So what’s the difference and why will they do it?
As we imagine net-zero energy homes by 2030 and a carbon-free economy by 2050, plus a Green New Deal sometime along the way, there is no way a prescriptive code could ever be detailed enough to prescribe how to get there. Nor should it.
From the 2003 version until the 2018 version — new codes come in three-year cycles — the prescriptive codes became ever more stringent. Insulation levels were upped, window performance improved and new tests to measure building tightness became required. Those levels have about come to their cost/benefit maximums. But a home built to the new levels is still a long, long way from net zero.
If prescriptive codes were the only way to march to zero, then future prescriptive codes would need to radically limit window sizes and quantities, ban skylights, eliminate tall ceilings and shape houses as close to a cube as possible. Think Yeti cooler. Or 200-year-old adobe. Still a long way from zero.
One would think mandating superefficient mechanical equipment to heat, cool, cook and wash are logical prescriptive elements toward zero, and such equipment does exist. But a quirky national regulation says jurisdictions, like a state or county, can’t have equipment requirements more stringent than minimum national standards. Albuquerque tried to 10 years ago and was stopped in federal court.
On the other hand, a performance mandate simply says this: Achieve a particular efficiency score, as verified by trained private sector professionals, and you can do darn near anything you want. Want tall walls of glass facing the northeast mountains? Get the best equipment and more solar panels, and you’re there. It’s liberty. It’s freedom.
And while you’re enjoying your creative freedom, the score will be ratcheted down over time by any governing body determined to get to zero. The city’s number is 60. For now.
The county’s new score is a 61, down from the 70 it’s had on the books for years, a score it could never enforce. The state refused to enforce it. Now the 2018 version adopted by the state allows for compliance by a third-party rater if a home scores a 61.
Finally, allowing third-party compliance is a big deal for the state and a windfall for the county. The city has shown how to do it for over a decade. Santa Fe builders, consumers and the planet are the beneficiaries. Get ready for a 50 someday soon.