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Fayetteville requires energy rating on new homes 

Similar plan tabled in Central Arkansas.

click to enlarge ENERGY STAR HOME: Keith Wingfield points to gaps he'll fill to make sure this house in Woodland Heights is energy efficient image
  • Brian Chilson
  • ENERGY STAR HOME: Keith Wingfield points to gaps he'll fill to make sure this house in Woodland Heights is energy efficient.

In this fuel-cost-conscious society, when we buy a car, we look at what it's going to cost to drive it around — its miles per gallon — and factor that into the decision on what model to buy. When we shop for appliances, such as refrigerators, we compare one's Energy Star rating to another, what might be considered that fridge's operating cost.

Houses have operating costs as well, and in Fayetteville, a new ordinance will allow shoppers to see just what these will be on new construction. Just like those fridges at Sears, new houses will have a sticker posted on the front door that gives the house's Home Energy Rating System (HERS) index score, based on such things as airtightness and energy-saving windows and efficient HVAC systems. While one home may look much like another, the sticker will reveal to potential buyers differences in the true cost of owning the home.

The HERS rating is part of an ordinance the Fayetteville City Council passed in July adopting the 2009 International Energy Conservation Code for new homes and multifamily dwellings of three stories or fewer. Local builders, architects, engineers and "energy professionals," Fayetteville Development Services Director Jeremy Pate said, worked with the city for a year to determine how much the new code would raise house prices and whether the energy savings would make up for the higher construction costs. The task force looked at both the 2003 IECC — which the state adopted with amendments in 2004 as the Arkansas Energy Code — and the 2009 IECC, using computer models based on actual construction in Fayetteville. The result: Construction costs more, but according to the models, "energy savings actually outweighed the increase in cost," Pate said.

The HERS inspection cost will be borne by the builder; third-party raters certified by the national not-for-profit RESNET (Residential Energy Services Network) will inspect for code compliance and other energy-saving features and grade the house accordingly. That means cities won't have to hire more code enforcement officers.

Fayetteville builders are getting six months to get up to speed on the new code and HERS ratings; until March 3, certificates of occupancy will be issued for houses that don't meet the 2009 code. They will be rated, however, so builders can see where they're falling short.

"Every radical code we get in Arkansas comes out of Fayetteville," grumped Tommy Wright, a builder in Central Arkansas, in an interview last week.

Wright was commenting on the Metroplan Board of Directors' decision last Wednesday to table action on a draft energy ordinance for Central Arkansas municipalities. Mayor Mark Stodola called the purpose of the ordinance "laudable," but added that the "devil is in the details."

At the urging of North Little Rock's Green Agenda Committee, which had been studying that city's carbon footprint and considering the adoption of the 2009 energy code, Metroplan staff, Pulaski Tech sustainable programs coordinator Ron Hughes and Central Arkansas municipal building code enforcers joined with the green committee to draw up a regional energy ordinance. The decision was made to go for a regional code after builders said they'd move their businesses to neighboring towns with fewer regulations if only one or two cities in Central Arkansas were to put an energy code in force.

The Arkansas Energy Code is toothless, in that the law has no penalty for non-compliance. Nevertheless, Wright says "99 percent of the builders" in Central Arkansas are building to the code, though not everyone agrees with him on that.

One requirement of the 2009 IECC code that Wright says is both costly and pointless is what's called a "blower door test" that measures how tightly a house has been built. "It's a waste of money to the general public," Wright declared. The code also calls for R-8 insulation, which Wright says is unavailable in Arkansas. (Other builders say, however, it will be marketed here if required here.)

The 2009 code does not require that compliance be achieved through a HERS rating system only — there are a couple of other options — but it's one that Metroplan and Fayetteville thought made the most sense.

Wright complained that proponents of the HERS rating system are just trying to create jobs.

To Ron Hughes, who teaches the HERS rating system at Pulaski Tech, that's not a bad thing. LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) builders use HERS raters, as do Energy Star builders. The Arkansas Department of Finance Authority uses the HERS index as a target in HUD's HOME funds for first-time homeowners. He'd like to see jobs created for energy raters and contractors who are specialists in energy improvements for existing homes. (The Fayetteville law on existing homes requires that additions meet code, but no HERS rating will be required.) For the next six months, the school has a stimulus grant to train HERS raters "at little or no charge," and he'd like to see the cities take advantage of that.

There are only four certified HERS raters in Arkansas — a point that Stodola raised when he said consideration of the draft ordinance should be tabled.

Here's the sticking point no matter what side of the fence you're on: Energy savings aren't factored into the worth of the home by lenders. Builders can get stuck with costs they can't pass on to homebuyers.

"I am convinced that that a lot of our mortgage defaults [are caused] by utility bills," Hughes said.

Central Arkansas builder Keith Wingfield is an "Energy Star" builder — which means the houses he builds already meet the 2009 code and then some as part of the Environmental Protection Agency and U.S. Department of Energy's Energy Star program. He agrees that builders should be required to meet an energy code — but that it should be the 2004 code rather than the more restrictive 2009 code.

"They are going too fast with what they are adopting," Wingfield said. "The state law has allowed these cities to opt out of energy code requirements and everyone has. ... Why would you want to run before you learn how to walk?"

Requiring builders to meet the 2009 energy code would, in Wingfield's opinion, increase the cost of a 2,000-square-foot house by $2,000 or $3,000. "Would it pay for itself? You betcha." But that added price might disqualify people from being able to get a mortgage. Wingfield fears for the impact that might have on affordable housing; he said for every $1,000 increase in home price, 539 people are disqualified by lenders.

Starting Jan. 1, 2013, the state will require all municipalities that require permits to adopt the Arkansas Energy Code, based on the 2003 IECC code. The legislature is expected to take steps to implement the 2009 code by 2014.

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