The enforcement of tougher energy codes that would make new houses more expensive is fast becoming a battlefield for builders in several states that are still reeling from a housing recession in which home values continue to fall.

Builders in North Carolina were instrumental in getting that state’s Building Code Council last month to adopt new codes. The new codes that go into effect in January 2012 raise the standards for residential energy efficiency by 15 percent above the existing code, instead of the 30 percent bump that energy advocates were hoping for. Builders and North Carolina's Gov. Bev Perdue also negotiated a broad menu of cost offsets about which there will be legislative hearings over the course of this year.

The spirit of private- and public-sector cooperation is less evident in Ohio, where builders are balking at several residential code revisions that have been proposed, based on the International Code Council’s 2009 model code, which went into effect January 1, 2011. What’s in particular dispute, according to a report in the Columbus Dispatch on Monday, is the ICC’s new energy conservation code, which recommends raising the insulation in exterior walls to R-20 from R-13, and in basement walls to R-10 from R-5. The new codes also call for tougher air-tightness standards for construction.

The Ohio Home Builders Association estimates that the revised energy code alone, if applied to new construction in the state, could raise the price of a house by up to $2,500. (The code’s advocates believe the cost increase would be more like $800.) Vince Squillace, the HBA’s executive director, thinks it’s foolish to place more burdens on home buyers at a time when the economy is still weak. But he still believes there’s room, and time, for compromise to arrive at a new construction code that all parties can live with.

In a telephone interview with BUILDER on Monday, Squillace said that, contrary to what some advocates might think, the new codes “are not a fait accompli” because the approval process “has only gotten started. There’s no rush, no target date” set for the state’s acceptance of ICC’s 2009 model, either.

Like most states, Ohio promised to adopt stronger energy efficiency codes in order to receive $96 million in federal stimulus money. But Squillace contends that the language of those agreements is “vague and ambiguous,” especially about which energy code the state must comply with. “Congress ought to be ashamed of itself for referencing codes [as a prerequisite for stimulus funds] that were barely passed without doing any cost analysis,” he said.

As in North Carolina, the builder group in Ohio has proposed a series of cost offsets for mechanical installations such as solar panels, geothermal and high-efficiency furnaces. Squillace notes that one of the “flaws” in the ICC model is that it does not provide for offsets, leaving such horse trading to the states and their various constituencies.

UPDATE - BUILDER magazine will be publishing a more extensive feature on the topic of building and energy code changes and costs in an upcoming issue. Senior editor John Caulfield welcomes the opportunity to speak with builders, architects, manufacturers, homeowners and other interested parties with opinions or experiences they’d like to share. (This offer extends to readers who have already posted letters to the article about Ohio’s energy code debate online.) John can be reached at jcaulfield@hanleywood.com or at 732-257-6319.

John Caulfield is senior editor for BUILDER magazine

Learn more about markets featured in this article: Columbus, OH.