The International Code Council (ICC) expects to develop the 2024 versions of its influential energy code on time, but municipal building officials won’t be voting on it this time.
The ICC’s board of directors has adopted new procedures that will leave updates of the International Energy Conservation Code (IECC) to board-appointed residential and commercial development committees. Eliminated is the current step in the process that puts changes to a vote of the ICC membership, a group that includes thousands of municipal officials around the country who enforce building codes.
The recommended changes went out for public review late last year after the changes were recommended by two ICC committees. Dozens of municipal officials, architects, and others warned that the move would cede too much control to the home-building industry and make it harder to adopt more aggressive energy-efficiency requirements.
With the exception of energy provisions, new versions of the International Residential Code (IRC) will be developed with the existing process.
The ICC says its new development standard would allow more in-depth deliberations, speed up the development of new codes, and help develop wider support for new codes. Its summary of the changes can be viewed here. New ICC codes are issued every three years. It’s up to individual states to adopt the model codes, with or without revisions.
The American Institute of Architects (AIA) was quick to react. In a statement released March 4, the same day that the ICC made its announcement, the AIA said the new approach favors special interest groups.
“We are deeply disappointed to see the ICC move forward with this change, which we believe will present a step backward for climate action,” Robert Ivy, the group’s CEO, said in a written statement. “This heavily opposed decision stands to only serve select special interest groups and will no doubt erode progress toward the modern codes that are desperately needed to heal our planet.”
The AIA was among many critics of the proposal. Energy advocates argue that more efficient houses are only marginally more expensive to build and have significant environmental benefits. The National Association of Home Builders (NAHB), on the other hands, believes tougher codes make houses cost more and thus harder for buyers to afford.
NAHB was upbeat about the new rules. “This is an important change that we expect to result in a model energy code that meets the needs of consumers, builders, building officials, and energy efficiency advocates,” NAHB Chairman Chuck Fowke said in a written statement. “At this point we are reviewing the details of the proposed framework, but it appears to provide a clear improvement for the energy code development process going forward. ”
New committees will do the work
Under the new rules, the ICC board will appoint residential and commercial IECC development committees to represent a “variety of perspectives and building science expertise.” Nine interest categories will be represented with one-third of the committee membership and the voting committee chairs coming from government regulatory organizations.
“Recognizing the important role of governments in the adoption and use of the IECC, the framework ensures that government officials continue to have a leading voice,” a summary of the changes states.
In a telephone call, Ryan Colker, the Code Council’s vice president for innovation, said there would be ample opportunity for public input in the new process and that proposals for code changes can be submitted by anyone, as is the case now.
No decisions have been made on how many people will serve on the committees. But the ICC’s announcement specifically says that no seats will be reserved for any particular interest groups. Asked whether this nullifies a controversial deal guaranteeing the NAHB seats on a development committee for the IRC, Colker said:
“No. But for the energy code moving forward it would not apply. For the [IECC], the set-asides do not remain. For the general agreement around NAHB support of the codes as a whole, we do expect that would stand.”
That agreement, first brought to light by The New York Times in 2019, set aside four seats on the code development panel in return for NAHB’s support of the building codes. Critics complained that the arrangement gave builders too much influence and stymied progress on adopting more energy efficiency codes. The NAHB will continue to have guaranteed seats on the IRC development committee, according to the ICC. But the chapter of the residential code that deals with the thermal performance of a new house—insulation, windows, and the like—is a pickup from the energy code.
Colker said the new standards process would involve necessarily involve builders of many persuasions, not just NAHB members.
“Green builders do have a place at the table, do have input into the code and the final outcome,” he said. “If you’re looking at the revised scope for the IECC, they have to be involved. There’s no way to get to some of the commitments within that scope without having a variety of different experiences within the homebuilders’ sphere.”
Colker also cautioned against putting too much emphasis on a loss of voting rights for governmental representatives, a key bone of contention in the public comments after the ICC released a draft of its proposal late last year. He acknowledged that there was a perception that governmental members would be losing their voice, but he added that it’s ultimately up to state and local governments to decide what version of the code to adopt and whether they want to amend it to suit local conditions.
“At the end of the day, they still make the decisions on what is incorporated into their state or local code,” he said. “We set the model codes, and communities can certainly amend those codes up or down. State and local governments are in control of their building codes.”
ICC’s revised scope
The ICC said each new version of the IECC would require greater energy efficiency, following a pattern that has seen efficiency increases of 40% between 2006 and 2021, or about 8% per year.
In addition, the ICC said the code would include pathways toward zero-energy buildings by 2030, and could include non-mandatory provisions on electric vehicle charging and embodied carbon. It also promised to establish an “Energy and Carbon Advisory Council” consisting of public and private interests. The panel would offer advice to the code development committees, which, the ICC said, would represent a range of interests.
“Committee membership will be determined through an open nominations process with no seats reserved for organizations,” the plan states. “Committee membership will represent a diversity of climate zones, organization sizes, businesses, and jurisdictions, and a range of experience in building types and energy efficiency strategies. Committee appointments will strive to achieve an equitable and diverse committee membership that represents racial, gender, and socio-economic diversity.”
The ICC also pledged to launch what it called a “suite of resources” that communities could use to reduce greenhouse gas emissions reduce energy consumption.
The ICC responds to Congress
Reports of the agreement between the ICC and NAHB prompted a request earlier this year for more information from the House Committee on Energy and Commerce. The panel’s chairman and two subcommittee chairs wanted, among other things, a copy of the full written agreement, which the ICC had previously declined to make public.
Colker said the ICC responded in early February with a letter from CEO Dominic Sims. He disputed claims that the home-building industry exerted undue influence on code development.
“While home builders are among those partners, they do not have disproportionate control of the Code Council’s model code development process,” the letter said. “On the contrary, volunteer government officials with experience and expertise exercise by far the most control in the process.”
Ironically, in explaining the code development process, the letter points to the final step in the process—the online government consensus vote that was eliminated in the new standards development procedures for the IECC.
Sims also explains the background for the deal NAHB and the ICC. It was first formalized in 2002, two years after the first set of I-codes were published. The pact (a copy is attached to Sims’ letter) was signed at a time when regional building codes dominated and no national model building code had emerged. The agreement had advantages for both parties.
“NAHB shared the Code Council’s interest in a coordinated set of national model building codes,” Sims wrote. “NAHB recognized the need for a simple, user-friendly, and stand-alone residential building code that included housing affordability as a major determinant in its development.”
Sims disclosed that that the Code Council has agreements with several other organizations whose support and participation are important in developing one or more I-codes. They include the National Association of State Fire Marshals, the Association of Fire Chiefs, the Association of Pool and Spa Professionals, the American Gas Association, and the Residential Energy Services Network, among others.
In defending its move away from direct voting by municipal officials, Sims said that the new procedures would comply with ANSI requirements and contain “specific provisions to prevent dominance by any interest category.”
Scott Gibson is a contributing writer at Green Building Advisor and Fine Homebuilding magazine.