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Construction costs enter the discussion during the development of all building codes. In recent years, the energy code has received particular scrutiny and criticism due to a series of substantial energy-efficient improvements from the 2006 to 2012 versions.

The International Energy Conservation Code (IECC) serves as the U.S. national model energy code and is adopted in nearly every state, except California. The IECC saw about a 30% improvement in energy savings in the 2012 version, compared to 2006.

A recent survey conducted by the Home Innovation Research Labs (HIRL) shows that cost is still top of mind for many builders when it comes to complying with the energy code. The survey, conducted in December 2018, found that 31% of the 300 builders that participated, cited cost as their top challenge in meeting the energy code.

The second most mentioned challenge was the skilled labor shortage, with 15%; followed by 14% of builders that said they had no challenges in meeting the energy code. The first response specifically addressing construction practices was “air tightness,” which was the fourth most-mentioned challenge with 10% of builders noting it.

With 14% of builders saying they have no challenges in meeting the energy code and 31% saying cost is their top challenge, this survey begs the question of why? In a LinkedIn post about the survey findings, Ed Hudson, the director of market research at HIRL, notes that many of the builders that answered “no issues” stated that they were already building beyond code minimums.

I believe there are two key factors that come into play in making cost a significant challenge when it comes to meeting energy code requirements:

  1. Size of the builder
  2. Education about energy-efficient construction practices

Larger builders, especially those included within the Builder 100, nationally, have the advantage of staff that can find the most cost effective way to comply with the energy codes where they build. These larger builders also have the benefit of being able to negotiate volume discounts with product suppliers. In addition, larger builders often have marketing staff that can help assemble a strategy for marketing the energy-efficient features of their home to prospective buyers.

One may assume that since smaller local and regional builders don’t necessarily have a staff to devote to finding the most cost effective ways that they aren’t building energy-efficient homes. That assumption would be far from the truth. In fact, many small builders are building the most innovative, energy-efficient and even net-zero homes. I would suggest that a deeper analysis of this issue will find that a lack of training and education about energy-efficient building practices as the primary reason that cost is a challenge for builders in meeting the energy code.

Although large production builders may have the benefit of staff that are trained and educated on building science, they also use trusted consultants and advisers to help them make decisions. That includes professionals that have been certified as Home Energy Raters (also known as HERS Raters) by the Residential Energy Services Network (RESNET). In fact, 81 of the top 100 builders in the U.S. used HERS Raters in 2017. With nearly 2,000 RESNET Certified HERS Raters across the U.S., builders of all sizes have access to a network of well trained and knowledgeable professionals that can help them cost effectively meet their local energy codes.

HERS Raters have the benefit of using the performance path or the Energy Rating Index path to demonstrate compliance with the energy code. This allows them the maximum flexibility in evaluating how to cost effectively comply with the code. The prescriptive path, which is the go-to compliance path for those that least understand the energy code, is typically the most expensive way for builders to demonstrate compliance because it allows little design flexibility.

A survey done by the National Association of Home Builders on housing preferences asked what features are considered essential/desirable in a new home. The findings showed that energy-efficient strategies, including Energy Star appliances and windows and above-code insulation, made the most-wanted list and would positively influence the purchase decision of 80% or more of all home buyers. The Zillow Group’s Consumer Housing Trends Report found that energy efficiency was tied with preferred kitchen style, with nearly 50% of consumers desiring it in a home purchase.

These two surveys show that energy-efficient construction is quickly becoming an expectation of home buyers. Builders that are struggling to comply with energy codes need to work with energy efficiency professionals, like HERS Raters, to quickly understand the most cost effective means to meet energy codes and build an efficient home.