The sparsely attended first night of Carver’s annual Town Meeting May 17 said yes to a variety of home-grown redevelopment projects and several important zoning changes, but voters turned down a change in the building codes that may prevent the town from earning “Green Community” status, which raises questions as to Carver’s ability to compete regionally for commercial development.
The so-called “Stretch Code” is a series of energy-saving changes to building codes that, while adding to the bottom line cost of home and commercial building construction, offsets those costs with savings in energy usage that begin immediately and last over the lifetime of the building.
The Stretch Code is now an option for towns, not a state requirement, but in proposing adoption, town officials suggested that the level of efficiencies that it sets will become required by state and national edict sometime in the next several years.
It was also noted by proponents of adoption of the new codes that the state would be awarding grants to those communities that, along with adoption of the Stretch Code, earn Green Community status by taking other specific actions to control their energy usage and facilitate the development of alternative energy production or research
But Carver voters -or at least the 1 percent or so who attended the first night Town Meeting- were not impressed. They rejected the article seeking adoption of the Stretch Code, calling it an unwanted intrusion, a disincentive to businesses considering locating in town and casting doubt on practically every one of the new codes’ promised benefits.
Opponents argued the code’s efficiencies would not be made mandatory in the next few years.
The costs savings promised with more energy-efficient buildings might not materialize, opponents insisted.
They also suggested there were too few of the special “HERS raters” that are required to certify new construction meets the new standards, so construction sites would face long delays.
And, most importantly, opponents said the code would frighten away commercial developers because of the additional construction costs required.
Arguing for adoption of the code, Selectman Dick Ward noted he was persuaded by the effect more efficient codes and energy conservation would have on generations to come.
But in the end, on this night, before this particular audience, the voters did not trust the assurances their elected officials offered, and Carver became the only community in the state to officially reject the Stretch Code.
“The only solution,” resident Paul Johnson summed up just prior to the vote, “is to get government out of our business.”
Considering the gap between advocates of adopting the Stretch Code in Carver and its opponents, a cross section of state officials, town building inspectors, public officials and home energy professionals were asked their opinions of the pros and cons of adopting the code.
Opponents had argued the town should not get too far ahead of other communities and risk frightening away commercial development. But others argued the opposite: that the requirements of the Stretch Code, or comparable efficiencies, would be the law of the land in the next few years, and the town would do well to be at the leading edge and not have to play catch-up later.
“Everyone I have spoken with about this issue agrees,” Duxbury Building Inspector Scott Lambiase said. “Stricter, more energy-efficient codes are coming; it’s a fact. And my opinion is that it’s better to stay ahead of the curve than risk falling behind.”
Kingston Building Inspector Paul Armstrong, Falmouth-based Energy Consultant Bruce Torrey and Lexington citizen-activist Mark Sandine (BuildABetterFuture.org) all backed up Lambiase’s statement.
Sandine, who organized a grassroots effort to educate homeowners and business owners in Lexington about the Stretch Code (Lexington recently unanimously approved adoption), said the state official he had spoken with made it very clear that “whatever you call it, in the next few years the mandatory building codes are going to be close, if not identical, to what they are now calling the Stretch Code.”
State Department of Energy Resources Commissioner Phil Guidince noted that Massachusetts law requires the building codes be automatically updated to meet what are called the IECC (International Energy Code Council) standards. Those standards are scheduled to be reviewed and updated this summer and will take effect in 2012.
The response of communities throughout Massachusetts also seems to suggest that the communities that will be isolated may be those who reject the code, not those who adopt it.
December of 2009 was the first opportunity for communities to adopt the Stretch Code, and Newton and Cambridge did so. Shortly thereafter, it was determined that communities that utilize the Town Meeting form of government would require meeting approval to adopt the new code, so the number of “adoptees” was stuck at two through the winter. In the last two months, though, as towns convened their annual meetings, the number of Massachusetts communities that approved the code rapidly increased.
“We’ve been pleasantly surprised by how well these new optional codes are being received,” Giudice said. “In December there were just two communities. And now, in the midst of the Town Meeting season, that number has jumped to 43.
The approval of 43 communities is not, of itself, a convincing argument for following suit, so what are the benefits, if any, of adopting these tougher standards now?
“For the family looking at a new home, the answer is obvious,” Duxbury’s Lambiase said. “If you’re building a home that is going to cost $300,000, and you’re looking at a 30-year mortgage, building to this new standard is going to save you a lot of money over the lifetime of your home. The $5,000 to $10,000 in additional upfront costs is not going to going to drive anybody away, especially when you’re actually going to be saving money from the start.”
Kingston Building Inspector Armstrong agreed. He noted that for established commercial developers, there is going to be even less concern, as many are already building to these stricter standards.
“Yes, it’s a different standard,” he said, “but commercial developers already use architects and energy consultants in their buildings, so they are already trying to maximize efficiencies and, if they need to meet new criteria, they are prepared to do so.”
Another potential benefit to towns considering adopting the Stretch Code -and after being certified as a Green Community by the state- is a chance at a share of up to $10 million in state grants. Opponents derided this at Carver Town Meeting, noting that if every town in the commonwealth got a piece of that pie, it would work out to just under $30,000 in grants.
But other communities are not turning their noses up at this potential source of revenue. In the past year, the number of towns that have adopted the Stretch Code has gone from zero to over 40. And the number of towns designated as Green Communities is up to 35.
“It’s not just the grants,” Lexington’s Mark Sandine said. “It’s the savings that towns hope to realize from making their municipal buildings more energy efficient and from transitioning to more fuel-efficient vehicles. The kinds of changes that Green Communities are making can save tens, even hundreds, of thousands of dollars.”
Commissioner Giudice agreed, saying that while the state is committed to providing incentives for Green Communities for the next few years, the focus should not be on the possibility of grants so much as on the reality of energy savings for all.
“We’re going to announce out first grants to Green Communities very soon, but I’d encourage towns to focus on what the Stretch Code can do for everyone today,” he said. “Home energy conservation is a gigantic opportunity for us all.”
Giudice cited a new multi-use building for the North Shore Community College, which just broke ground in Danvers. The 58,000-square-foot facility will be the state’s first “zero net” building, meaning it will produce as much as energy on site as it needs to operate.
“There’s no reason that our homes and commercial buildings can’t be just as efficient, just as comfortable to live in and just as inexpensive to operate as the new NSCC building,” Giudice said, “and the Stretch Code is a big step in that direction.”
Opponents had also argued that the lack of available HERS raters (specially trained auditors that the new code requires certify new homes levels of energy efficiency) would result in unnecessary costs and delays in construction that could hurt builder and buyer alike. But a search of the Internet turned up three dozen of these specially-trained workers, as well as companies that are already gearing up to train more. There will, in fact, be a HERS rating training course offered in Plymouth this August.
Caitriona Cooke, a senior project manager at Conservation Services Group of Westborough -and a member of the State’s Green Community Technical Assistance Team- noted that CSG alone had over two dozen certified HERS raters, 13 of which were active.
Cooke pointed out that worries about HERS raters was a kind of red herring, in that new construction accounted for only a tiny fraction of the building permits in Massachusetts communities.
“The vast majority of people doing renovations, such as remodeling their kitchen or bath areas, will hardly be touched at all by the provisions of the Stretch Code”, Cooke said. “They won’t have to replace studs or get a HERS rater in to certify. If they have to replace windows, it will have to be Energy Star certified windows, but that’s all about all you can find in the big home improvement stores now, and the prices of those windows are quickly coming down “.
Cooke and others took on the assertion that the Stretch Code would drive away business, making the case that instead, homes and businesses built to these new standards would attract business people to town.
“I do believe that adoption of the Stretch Code will attract developers and others to the community’s that say yes,” Cooke said, “The statistics seem to suggest that space in so-called “green buildings” sell faster and for higher rates -and to an older and more stable clientele.
“It’s not a black mark; it’s a green sign that means ‘go,’” Duxbury’s Lambiase said: “I fully expect that towns will be marketing themselves on the basis of their Green Community designation.”
Bruce Torrey, owner of Falmouth-based Building Diagnostics, put it in very basic terms.
“If you’re building to the bare minimum standards, you’re building the least energy efficient home possible, and I’d give those homes a “D-,” he said. “ In the past, builders could get away with that. But those days are gone.”
My Carver ‘Tis of Thee
Is there a patriotic reason for adopting the Stretch Code?
Whenever fuel efficiency hits the news, the focus is on the automobile. Many Americans now believe that better gas mileage is a patriotic goal, in that it reduces our dependency on foreign oil and makes it less likely that we will have to fight overseas to protect access to sufficient supplies.
But in a community like Carver, at least 50 percent of the town’s energy dollars are spent to heat or cool homes. Adoption of the Stretch code in Massachusetts and similar efforts across the country could, over time, dramatically impact energy usage.
That was the message inherent in Selectman Dick Ward’s statement at Town Meeting May 17. Ward said he was thinking of his family, including his 12 grandchildren, and what we are leaving for them.
“Remember,” Ward said, “that heating and cooling our housing is a very important part of the national effort to help the environment and reduce energy usage.”
“What would you rather do,” Building Diagnostics’ Bruce Torrey said, “write a check to the local HERS rater or insulation guy, or write one to OPEC?”
And citizen activist Mark Sandine says that the Stretch Code could mean more and bigger checks for local companies.
“Right now we’re not building much of anything, anywhere,” Sandine said. “But as the economy heats up, the Stretch Code’s requirements should mean more work for local trades: caulking and insulating new homes and commercial buildings to meet the new standards, more work for HERS raters to certify those standards are met and, at the same time, it’s going to save the owners money”
What does Carver’s label say?
“A car, a refrigerator, a dishwater – these are items that when we purchase them today, we expect to see a label telling us how much energy they’re going to use and what they will cost us every year,” Cooke said. “In the past, our homes didn’t come with that label.”
But the Stretch Code, which mandates certain consumer protections, and Green Community designation are a kind of label that prospective developers and homebuyers can look to for assurance, Cooke said.
“We have the technology to build small homes and office buildings that could be heated and cooled with the energy equivalent to that used by two hair dryers, zero energy homes, and to do so without any fancy equipment, nothing weird or out of the ordinary,” Torrey said.
“It just seems to make makes sense to look at the long term impact of decisions,” he continued. “Sure, we can always go back and, using infrared cameras and other techniques, tell you where your problems are, where the heat is escaping, where your money is going up into the air. But then it’s too late; any changes you want to make will cost you big time.”
By Frank Mand,
GateHouse News Service,
3 June 2010
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