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Greening Of Massachusetts Building Codes Faces Uncertain Future

There's a shift for Massachusetts building codes in the works, and a real lack of clarity on the contentious issue. 

This is a big push-and-pull between green building and affordable housing.

CommonWealth magazine reporter Andy Metzger recently wrote about this move towards a net-zero building code.

Andy Metzger, CommonWealth: The Board of Building Regulation and Standards — I wouldn't presume to suggest that they're not equipped to take on global climate change, but it seems like a bit of an expansion of their original remit.

But now it is before them, because buildings do produce a lot of greenhouse gases. If you just tally up what residential and commercial — that's not including industrial buildings — what they are responsible for is about equal to what the whole transportation sector is responsible for in Massachusetts.

So it is a big problem globally, at least our little slice of it. And this board is responsible for putting out, essentially, the building code and the building energy code for the whole state. So they have their hands on the controls, but they haven't traditionally been super attuned to global warming concerns.

Carrie Healy, NEPR: So why is there such a big concern right now?

Well, the U.N. has continually reminded people that the world collectively is actually continuing to move in the wrong direction, as far as greenhouse gases go.

Massachusetts is only so big, and can only do so much. But I think from the perspective of people who are concerned about this, it is well past time to start making big changes. 

The net-zero proponents say that building a structure under a net-zero standard adds a very minimal cost — around 1% to the overall construction cost. 

If you go back more than 10 years to the Deval Patrick administration, Massachusetts adopted the Green Communities Act. It mandated a strict energy conservation code in building in the Commonwealth to meet or exceed specific international codes. But those international codes are going to be rewritten for 2021. So change is going to be inevitable?

Yes. The statewide building code is updated every few years — about once every three years — because of the Green Communities Act. The idea is that Massachusetts will need to meet or exceed the energy standards in that international code set.

Even if the activists pushing for net-zero are unsuccessful in convincing the Board of Building Regulation and Standards to go down that route, the building energy code should become more and more efficient, sort of in coordination with those international standards.

What we're talking about is a building code, and buildings are designed far in advance of actual construction. Understandably, knowing how efficient a building is going to have to be built in a matter of months or years would be concerning to folks in the business. You write that there are "hidden forces at play" preventing the latest update to the state energy code from becoming operational in January. What do you mean?

Well, I called them "hidden" because I don't know what they are. I've asked the executive office that's in charge of putting their stamp of approval on that code, and they have declined to tell me. But there is a delay.

People expected the code would be promulgated over the summer, and the board of building regulation had already approved it back in the springtime. And yet, the Baker administration has not finalized the promulgation of the building code, so it's still in a sort of limbo period, and it had been due to go into effect January 1.

I would hazard to guess that that's not going to happen — because as you mentioned, people, architects, engineers, builders, developers, do like to know with more than a couple of weeks' notice what the standards are going to be for what they're constructing.

Carrie Healy hosts the local broadcast of "Morning Edition" at NEPM. She also hosts the station’s weekly government and politics segment “Beacon Hill In 5” for broadcast radio and podcast syndication.
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