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Overview of the New Massachusetts 'Stretch' Energy Code

Written by: David K. Moynihan

(Article originally published in Banker & Tradesman, September 2009)

In response to calls for improved building efficiency, the Massachusetts Board of Building Regulations and Standards (BBRS) adopted Appendix 120 AA to the Massachusetts State Building Code on May 12, 2009.  Referred to as the “Stretch Energy Code,” this provision is intended to provide a more energy efficient alternative to the base energy code for both new construction and existing buildings and permits the use of innovative approaches and techniques to achieve the effective use of energy. 

Unlike other sections of the State Building Code, the Stretch Energy Code is optional.  Any town or city by decision of its governing body may adopt the Stretch Energy Code or do nothing and remain subject to the “base” energy code.  If adopted, new construction of residential and commercial buildings, and alterations or renovations to existing buildings, will be required to meet the Stretch Energy Code standards.

Massachusetts has long been subject to a “base” energy code, which already mandates certain energy efficiencies.  The “base” energy code, which is being updated for 2010, applies a Home Energy Rating Services or “HERS” index to determine minimum energy efficiencies.  Under HERS, a home’s specifications are compared against the HERS Reference Home, which is the same house built to the specifications of the International Energy Conservation Code (IECC) 2006 standards.  The HERS Reference Home, which has a HERS index of 100, is then used as a baseline for comparison purposes.  Thus, a HERS index of 65 means that the home is estimated to use 65% as much energy as the HERS Reference Home. 

The Massachusetts “base” energy code currently requires a HERS rating of 100 for new construction.  Under the Stretch Energy Code, new homes of 3,000 square feet or above require a HERS index of 65 or less, and new homes below 3,000 square feet require a HERS index of 70 or less.  So, if adopted, the Stretch Energy Code will reduce the current HERS 100 index by about one-third.

With respect to additions or renovations to existing residential buildings, the Stretch Energy Code provides two compliance options (for consideration by the town?  Or builder?).  A “prescriptive” option combining the Energy Star for Homes Prescriptive Builders Options Package with the building envelope insulation requirements of the IECC 2009 requirement for climate zone 5.  The other option is “performance” based and uses a HERS rating that varies depending on the size of the addition, renovation or repair.  The “performance” option thus I would rewrite this in more plain English.

Commercial buildings also face more rigorous requirements under the Stretch Energy Code.  For example, newly constructed commercial buildings over 100,000 square feet are subject to a performance-based code, and “shall be designed to achieve energy use per square foot equal to at least 20% below the energy requirements of ASHRAE `American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-conditioning Engineers`, measured by industry-accepted energy modeling.”  For new buildings between 5,001 and 99,999 square feet there is the option to follow a prescriptive-based code (option available to the builder or the town?).  Buildings up to 5,000 square feet are exempt, as are commercial buildings up to 40,000 square feet if used as a supermarket, warehouse, laboratory or any specialized use operating under a variance to the Stretch Energy Code.

Not surprisingly, the Stretch Energy Code has sparked both praise and criticism.  Opponents cite increased construction costs and concerns that communities may adopt the Stretch Energy Code as a way to thwart development.  Homebuilders also argue that the compliance costs may not be easily passed on to buyers.  Similarly, homeowners undertaking repairs may question the recapture rate on the initial costs, thus delaying renovations or repairs.  Meanwhile, proponents praise energy efficiency and counter that long-term savings in energy costs will more than offset initial compliance costs.  Proponents also point to studies that suggest that new industries and jobs are created through the adoption of energy-savings measures, such as the Stretch Energy Code.

Apart from the pros and cons of the Stretch Energy Code, a particularly controversial provision is allowing towns or cities the option of continuing under the “base” energy code or adopting the new standards.  Allowing “home rule” on a provision of the State Building Code, however, marks a change in long-standing state policy.  Since adoption of the State Building Code decades ago, a single building code has applied state wide.  This has assured uniformity of construction methods.  Allowing municipalities the option of adopting the Stretch Energy Code increases inconsistent application of standards by builders not familiar with the standards, increases errors due to inspectors or officials who sometimes serve more than one community, and places an additional financial strain on public resources that must be expended to train those who must enforce the Stretch Energy Code.

While energy conservation is critically important to our economy, adding more costs to home or commercial construction will be a hard sell in this economy.

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