The State of Building Energy Code Enforcement
Is the level of code enforcement waning even as model energy codes tighten?
Home energy efficiency is a priority to both builders and buyers. Model building energy codes play a significant role in promoting efficiency which has myriad benefits. But as building energy code requirements have become more stringent, is code enforcement, verified by on-site inspections at key periods during construction, becoming more lenient? The answer is…it depends.
Most state and local jurisdictions dramatically reduced the number of building code inspectors during the housing crash in 2007 and it’s been a slow recovery since then, even amidst the growth in new home construction, according to Bill Fay, executive director of the Energy Efficient Codes Coalition. A number of factors have contributed to the slow ramp up of inspectors, including constrained state and municipal budgets, the loss of these professionals to other career fields and the retirement exodus of many in the field.
A New Normal for Building Code Inspections
With the surge in new construction in the housing recovery, many locales hired additional inspectors to keep up with the pace of construction. From 2014-2015, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported a 3.5 percent increase in the number of building inspectors – estimating roughly 42,000 state and local building code officials. Yet, the increase has not kept pace with construction and some locales have simply relied on existing building inspectors to do more with less manpower. To keep pace with the sheer volume of assessments, it’s not uncommon for building inspectors, especially in areas where big builders are constructing a large number of homes (frequently multiple units of the same small number of models), to select a “reference home” to inspect and assign the same pass/fail result to similar homes in the development. While not legal everywhere, this allows inspectors to save time, but it also means that not every home gets inspected. When so much of code compliance is about proper installation, the use of reference homes can be a problem.
Case in point: proper air sealing and installation of insulation is mandatory for states that have adopted IECC 2012 or 2015, which each require RESNET Grade 1 installation of insulation for residential homes, or Grade 2 for cavity insulation with exterior walls that include continuous insulating sheathing and/or insulated siding with a minimum R-value of 5, and rim joists. Grade 1 installation requires a visual inspection to check for things such as gaps, voids or compressions in the insulation. But if the wall cavity isn’t being visually inspected each time, how do you assure it’s a Grade 1 job?
Many building industry professionals acknowledge that the quality of workmanship on the site is largely a result of the quality of the subcontractors assigned to the crew. In large developments, this could mean multiple crews, increasing the likelihood of varying quality, making the reference home example a particular concern.
Other jurisdictions allow third-party inspectors versus state or local inspectors, a practice that will likely continue to grow in prevalence as governments look for ways to control their costs for these services by increasingly outsourcing them to private firms, especially those who can provide layered services. The most prominent example of this approach is the use of HERS Raters. While this outsourced approach can certainly benefit governments and builders, it is important for consumers that all home inspectors operate on a level playing field.
Benefits to Builders and Homeowners
“Codes provide a very real benefits to builders in every jurisdiction in the form of protection from certain kinds of liability, guidance and technical expertise, regulatory predictability and a level playing field on which to operate one’s business,” said Ron Jones, co-founder and president of GreenBuilder Media. “They help assure that the legitimate, responsible builders do not have to compete against legions of unscrupulous con artists who would cut every corner imaginable and fleece the public in the process.”
Home builders who stake their reputation on quality are well aware that shoddy subcontractor’s work can result in construction delays, cost overruns and irate homeowners. Building code enforcement helps assure the quality construction builders rely on, but they exist primarily to protect the public by ensuring the safety and quality of most people’s most valuable personal asset: their home. The home buying public has largely taken code compliance for granted because historically they could. While code compliance can certainly be a headache for builders its important because for it to remain robust. If public trust in the state of code compliance were ever to significantly erode it could result in an overall weakening in the new home market, encouraging prospective buyers to opt for older homes, believing them to be safer or better quality. For this reason, everyone in the building industry should want robust code compliance, and the resulting public trust, to remain the norm.