The following is an interview conducted with 2012 S.A. Walters Award winner Chris Wood. He has worked on ICC code for decades and is currently Vice President of Hearthstone Homes. We hope you enjoy the interview. Thanks for reading the Reschexpert blog.
Chris Wood: At the state level, it’s a moving target. There will be several more meetings before it goes out to the public for consideration and passing. I just happened to be one of the stakeholders representing the Log Homes Council, and it is kind of “full circle”. I was involved in the energy code drama back in 2008 and 2009, when the Department of Energy was driving the agenda. After the financial collapse in the Fall of 2008, states accepted ARRA money (the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act)—-with strings attached. Tennessee accepted (don’t quote me on this number) approximately $300 million of ARRA money conditionally, that the state would adopt the DOE’s goal of Net Zero new construction by 2030, with 90% of new construction meeting this code. Using the IECC 2006 Energy Code as a base line, IECC 2009 code update was to be 15% better, IECC 2012 another 15% better, and 2015 was to be 50% better than IECC 2006.
I don’t think the DOE logic has really changed that much, but enforcement has always been the issue. The building departments and the building code people are mad and rightly so, because they don’t have the people to keep up with such a moving target.
A part of that original ARRA agreement required the state to be 90% compliant, or give the money back. We all laughed, how would they know? But you can only thumb your nose at the government for so long.
Tennessee has adopted the IECC 2009 code currently. The pressure is on to update the Building AND Energy code at the state level, as a minimum code. Counties can then adopt a tighter or stricter code, at the local level. What I’m hearing is that 2018 IECC (Energy Code) is better than 2015 IECC. IECC 2015 was a train wreck. The Energy Rating Index (ERI) is better with the IECC 2018 version.
Rescheck.info (Reschexpert Blog): Are there any major changes that you see as most important? You talk a little bit about the ERI.
Chris Wood: In Tennessee, we have either climate zone three or four. With either IECC 2015 or 2018 IECC Energy Code, our ceiling or roof minimum R-Value is R-49 in climate zone (4) and R-38 in Climate Zone (3). It used to be R-30 and R-38. In my book, not only does that increase in thickness change your architecture, but diminishing return on investment has always been my concern. The DOE came up with these minimum targets based on a 30-year payback. Some very bright people go through the algorithms and the calculus and say IF you boost it from R-38 to R-49, you will get your payback in 30 years. My problem with that 30 year logic is that they are forcing their agenda on the new home construction and are forcing the homebuyer a 2.4% return on investment. Talk to anyone on the street and they’re not lining up. In my book, let the market dictate. In Tennessee, we have seasonal owners AND we keep the windows open 8 months out of the year….
Another problem I see is the Blower door test. This is a measurement of how “tight” a home is built. 7ACH50 is not difficult. 3ACH50 is latest code requirement and is NOT easy to obtain. (And we keep the windows open 8 months out of the year). With SIPS construction (Structural Insulated Panels), it is far easier to build a tight home (less seams), but forced air exchanges are required for healthy indoor air.
And the enforcement again is an issue. I think at the end of this code adoption process, Tennessee is probably going to adopt the 2018 code, with some exemptions, so we don’t have to go sit in a room three years from now and go over this again.
Rescheck.info (Reschexpert Blog): Yeah. Just get it out of the way and keep it for a decade or so.
Chris Wood: You can’t go to the public and say, yeah we passed a new code, we’re going to go by IECC 2012 energy and building codes now.
Rescheck.info (Reschexpert Blog): So do you think that Tennessee will be one of the first ones to adopt the IECC 2018, or do you see any other states?
Chris Wood: Half of them.
Rescheck.info (Reschexpert Blog): Half of them will do it before Tennessee does.
Chris Wood: The other odd thing about Tennessee is Tennessee can adopt a code at the state level, but then each county does not have to toe the line. Each county currently can do their own thing. That gets really confusing too. Some counties are pushing the 2009 IECC codes, some have 2012 IECC . I don’t know if that’s going to go away. Right now, the state’s minimum is 2009 IECC. If they go to 2018 IECC, then it’s easy for all the counties to toe the same line because the state minimum is IECC 2018. I see it being cleaned up across all the states mostly because there’s not many building inspectors. How many people are going in business saying, “I want to be a building inspector”. And if you look at the average age of the contractors, there’s not a lot of young contractors coming in. And 10 years from now there may not be a whole lot of people available to do building official type of stuff. They’re recognizing this and they’re trying to streamline. So, I see IECC 2018.
Rescheck.info (Reschexpert Blog): So you mentioned that you started out with California’s CALPAS software and that you thought the Department of Energy ResCheck software kind of resembled it. In the future, will they still be using ResCheck to energy audit the houses or is there a new software that you see going forward?
Chris Wood: I wish I knew enough about ResCheck tell you that it’s good, bad or indifferent. I think it’s just a convenient program that’s out there and it’s probably not going to go away.
When I was doing CALPAS, it was very similar in format. It’s square footages, U values, R values, whatever, spitting out the same. And the orientation, was it pointing southwest and so forth. I don’t know enough about it to tell you, but I don’t think it’s going to change. I think it’s probably convenient and I think it’s endorsed by DOE. Whether they update it and flush out some of this other stuff for 2018 IECC, I’m not sure.
Rescheck.info (Reschexpert Blog): And the industry that you’ve been a part of, log and timber frame, what’s the biggest impact of the newer codes on those types of structures?
Chris Wood: Timber frame is always had a free ride in some respect because the perimeter walls are whatever they are (stud framed, SIPS, ICF, etc). SIPS get a free ride in the energy codes right now (no blower test requirement). This is because everyone, DOE, building officials and the general public realize it’s easy to build a tight SIPS house. Wiring requires special planning and large walls of glass have issues. Some builders want to use spray foam insulation, some builders want to put an exterior half inch layer of rigid foam and then fiberglass in between.
One of the other code problems is the R-13 +5 on exterior walls is a threat to 2×4 framing. You can achieve the R-20 minimum with a 2×4 by putting rigid insulation on the outside, and spray foaming the core. But in a way it’s cheaper to go with a 2×6 frame and fiberglass between the studs. Again, this is part of the new energy codes, IECC 2015 or IECC 2018 requires us to go from a R-13 wall in a climate zone (3) to R-19.
My biggest concern with the new codes is IF people get fed up with the new home construction rules or cost premiums, they can always buy an existing home. Then, they can knock down a wall, put on an addition, and circumvent the hassle. However in theory, the way the code is written for additions greater than 30 square feet, the new part has to meet the new code. Yeah, right. Who’s going to pass a blower door test on an addition?
Rescheck.info (Reschexpert Blog): So we’ve talked about some of the issues with the code and with the implementation and the various departments, who’s the biggest beneficiary from adopting these new codes?
1: The consumer needs to know if their home is energy efficient before they buy it. I think these rating indexes (ERI) are a good idea for existing real estate….IF they can ever get accurately done. It wouldn’t be a bad thing for utility information be made public before people bought an existing home. And then you’ve got that monthly cost to compare it with new home construction. So, they can make an informed decision.
I think the code is ultimately good for a consumer who doesn’t know any different. If there is a blower door test at the end of the construction that catches gaps in insulation, or leaks that can be sealed, that’s a good thing. I like the 5ACH-50 (that’s 5 air changes an hour under 50 Pascal pressure) which is a little more relaxed than 3ACH-50 but better than 7ACH-50 which is what 2009 code was.
If the consumer had that data, they know they’re getting a tight house. If they decided to leave the window open at night or whatever, that’s up to them. Contrary, if somebody gets into a home and they’re paying a monthly mortgage of $700 and they have utility bills that are another $400, that’s a big hit. I could see taking that 300 bucks and putting it towards a tighter home and it’d be a better buy for them.
There’s also consequences too in what has happened with homes that are or too tight; it’s vapor drive. And that’s a whole other subject. It’s a problem when it’s really cold outside. People in general don’t like turning on their fans in the bathroom when it’s 20 degrees out and they’re taking a hot shower for three hours. Well, all that vapor has got to go somewhere. And what happens is it gets trapped in the wall or up into the ceiling and you get mold and mildew and eventual rot. So, I do believe in the new HVAC requirements, meaning that you don’t have just one big return in the living room with multiple supply ducts everywhere else. These new systems are engineered to move stale moist air with multiple supply and smaller returns. Multiple zones, including the crawl space, which should be conditioned, sealed, and treated like a mini basement….is a great idea. It will not be accepted well in the South because many tradespeople just don’t know how to build waterproof type basement. It can be done. It’s practice, it’s training and it costs more money. However, the conditioned and sealed crawlspace is a better system than one that has ventilation, that never quite works, that has critters living in the crawlspace and pulling down the installation ducts, etc.. The consumers ultimately benefit.
Rescheck.info (Reschexpert Blog): So when do you think they sit down and start talking about the IECC 2021 code?
Chris Wood: If DOE is still determined by law to have a net zero house by 2030, it will be interesting. I think what’s coming with these solar panels has potential. They’ve got glass right now that is translucent, you can see through it that has a solar collection product in it to help generate electricity. I think solar built into the metal roofs is a great idea, too. If we as an industry can create a product that acts as a solar panel, is invisible, and actually lasts (30) years, people will buy it. There’s a lot of the technology coming.
California just passed a law recently that requires new home construction to invest in solar panels. Now they’re mandated there. We’ll see how the market reacts. Maybe Elon Musk helped write the agenda… My brother’s got solar panels on his house in Colorado and he’s proud of it. He could afford the $20,000 upfront cost of the solar panels and watch his meter go backwards. I’m not sure of the payback, though.
on it, make that meter go backwards and payback. Now, if the payback is there and the panels last 30 years, I don’t know. Initially solar panels didn’t last long because we’re getting them out of China and it’s not like you can run down to the dump and Jefferson County and throw your solar panels in the trashcan. They are nasty stuff to get rid of. But I do think that the technology is heading that way where the solar will be not as ugly and probably last longer and hopefully made in America so it doesn’t go away. And maybe for every log home that gets out there will have a solar panel on the roof and everyone will be happy. Who knows.
Right now, log homes need a ICC 400, which is the building code in itself that has energy that written into the code. And that is part of the energy codes right now that you can go by ICC 400 and still build a five-inch log wall in Minnesota. Time will tell whether that gets changed by current codes or they override it or they built an exemption into the codes up north. Down here it makes a lot of sense. I don’t know if I answered that question.
Rescheck.info (Reschexpert Blog): That’s good. Do you have anything else to add?
Chris Wood: Not yet, and I’ll keep you posted. It’s a moving target.