West Tisbury moves to stretch its building code

Ralph Stewart

The West Tisbury Energy Committee (WTEC) has placed an article on the April annual town meeting warrant that would add additional building inspection requirements and higher minimum energy conservation standards to the town’s building code. The addition of what is known as the stretch code would stretch, or toughen, the energy efficiency requirements for new construction and some renovation work.

The Massachusetts Department of Energy Resources’ Green Communities Program (DOER) estimates that the total additional cost of meeting the stretch code might be about $3,000 for a new, single family house of modest size and finish, and add one to three percent to the total costs for commercial and larger residential buildings.

Tisbury adopted the stretch code last year. It went into effect January 1. Tisbury building inspector Ken Barwick said he has not yet seen any building permit applications for projects that would require the additional inspections.

Island builders who are already building to standards that meet or exceed the proposed stretch code said that the energy savings more than make up for those cost increases in the short term and result in substantial savings in the long run. These builders see the new code as a natural, if not inevitable, evolution of the building codes.

The WTEC held an informational meeting about the stretch code at the Howes House at on Wednesday, January 18. Sue Hruby, a member of the WTEC, who is working on the implementation of the stretch code, described the gathering, “We had a good turnout, about 40 people, people from different West Tisbury committees and a lot of builders. We had an interested crowd, not a hostile crowd, and I expected some hostility.”

Ms. Hruby added that she had heard that in other communities the concerns were largely about adding more expense to building costs, “But apparently here we have a lot of people who are pretty savvy about reducing energy costs. Maybe we have made the leap, at least to some extent, with our building community to seeing that changing some of the practices makes sense.”

Stretch code defined

The stretch code does not require specific construction changes from the current code. It is a performance-based code upgrade. It requires a 20-percent savings in energy costs over pre-stretch standards. These savings are to be realized as the result of more energy-efficient design and building techniques that use already accepted materials in combinations that meet the new requirements.

DOER says that the building improvement measures needed to meet stretch code requirements are standard techniques that experienced builders and contractors know – installing high-efficiency heating systems, ensuring insulation is installed correctly, making sure air infiltration sealing is done well, and putting in highly efficient light fixtures and bulbs.

The stretch code would require that new construction and some large renovations be inspected by a third party licensed Home Energy Rating System (HERS) inspector, who cannot be the town’s building inspector. The inspection would require a detailed physical inspection of the plans and of the construction project and a blower door test and or a duct blaster test and results in a HERS rating.

The costs

The new inspections will cost in the range of $900 to $1,500, according to estimates included in a DOER report. DOER points out that there are also rebate and tax incentives currently available for using some energy efficient materials that help reduce the overall cost of building to the new code. The Massachusetts Energy Star Homes program will rebate $1,300, for a net cost of $1,700.

Independent economic modeling, done for the state, estimates that, for a 2,700-square-foot, single-family home, building to the stretch code specs will reduce electricity and heating costs by about $500 a year compared with a house built to the 2009 base energy code’s requirements, while only adding $130 to annual mortgage costs — a substantial net savings beginning the first year of home ownership.

Builder reaction

“It sounds like a great idea,” builder Bruce Stewart from Edgartown said, “but I imagine it would require a number of visits from the inspector to enable him to see the various stages of construction, before things are covered up and that can sometimes be difficult.”

He said that he is spending most of his time on renovations lately and that he has a growing appreciation of the new tighter building codes. “It’s really hard to tighten up some of the older houses.”

Edgartown architect Steve Pogue, who worked in California before relocating with his family to Edgartown several years ago, said that he is used to dealing with building requirements in California that have had strict energy standards for many years. He said the proposed upgrades are “a good thing, as long as they do not increase the costs for the owner ridiculously.”

His clients, he explained, “generally like houses with lots of windows, which makes meeting the standards a little more challenging. It will increase the costs unless there are trade-offs. More efficient windows cost more.” Mr. Pogue said that blower door tests are pretty common in California but that he has not been asked to do one here.

Local builder Bill Potter of Squash Meadow Construction has been constructing energy-efficient buildings on the Island for several years. “We have been building to even more stringent standards than the new code,” he said. “For us, it is just another day at work.”

Mr. Potter said that in his experience the additional costs of meeting the stretch code, especially the inspection costs, are more than the state estimates for the houses he has built, but he confirmed that in most cases even those higher costs have a payback in the range of the DOER estimates.

John Abrams, president and design supervisor of South Mountain Company in West Tisbury and a long-time proponent of energy-efficient building, said the stretch code “increases the requirements of the energy code which have been increasing for a number of years, but changes it less than it has already been changed between 2000 and now.”

He said he thinks “the stretch code will become a standard code in a very short period of time and then it will go beyond that. So the question is whether we wait for the code to change in this way or if we proactively become a green community and therefore are able to take advantage of some of the funding that comes along with that status,” referring to incentives that the Commonwealth is offering to communities for implementing the stretch code along with other State and Federal incentives for utilizing energy saving measures.

Mr. Abrams said he believes it will not be long before a HERS rating will be a required part of a pre-sale inspection, similar to septic inspections which are required now. He said South Mountain has been doing a HERS rating on every building it has built for years. “The reason we started doing it is that we can make better buildings.”

He added that his company has been able to take advantage of funding programs for affordable housing projects that were dependent on HERS ratings. “That’s why we started.”

But, he adds, “The fear, which is well founded in a way, is not in what it is pushing us to do or how it is pushing people to change their practices. It adds a layer of complication and bureaucracy to a process that becomes more complicated all the time. Building used to be so simple, and it’s not so simple any more.”

That blower door test

An important element in establishing a HERS rating and the energy efficiency of any building is the blower door test. It requires the use of a machine that measures the air-tightness of buildings. A blower door fan is used to either blow air into or out of the building. A gauge is used to measure the change in the building’s air pressure. This change reflects the overall porosity of the house. Specific leaks in the building are detected using infrared cameras and smoke from a smoke pencil or smoke-wand, which is placed near a leak to give a visual indication of where the air is flowing out of a building – places that should be sealed. The blower door test can also be used to measure airflow between building zones. When a similar test is conducted on the heating and air conditioning system, it is called a duct blaster test. These tests are required by the stretch code.

Many Islanders have had blower door tests performed on their own to uncover leaks that lead to energy loss. Adam Hayes of Adam T. Inc. and Steps to Greenhomes is a builder and a licensed HERS inspector, one of three on the Island. He said that of the “over 100 houses he has inspected 70 percent have been older homes.” Mr. Hayes pointed out that while the blower door test alone can take as little as 45 minutes and cost in the range of $200 for a small home, larger houses and a complete HERS evaluation, which is much more involved, can cost considerably more. He pointed out that a HERS inspection is a comprehensive inspection that is designed to ensure a “safer, healthier home with healthier air quality.”

“To get a HERS rating you have to have the proper air exchange in the house… New homes are being built tighter and tighter and it is imperative that you build tight and ventilate right.”