Hurricane Sandy has the Garden State Weighing its Future Code
In the second half of 2012, the State was considering an update of its energy code. The Code Advisory Board (CAB) was recommending a minor step up from the 2009 IECC, while the codes and standards division was contemplating an endorsement of the 2012 IECC. Then everything changed, when Superstorm Sandy struck the Northeast, and the focus shifted to recovery. But even Sandy wasn’t strong enough to wash this decision away, and in some regards, it may have brought an even bigger problem ashore.
The State Energy Code
CAB and the DCA
The New Jersey Code Advisory Board (CAB) is made up of a variety of subcommittee chairs. Back in mid-2012, in direct response to the input of the subcommittee chair affiliated with the state HBA, the CAB recommended adoption of the 2012 IECC, but using 2009 tables for insulation and fenestration. The recommendation included keeping the 2009 air change amount (7), as well as removing the requirement for blower door tests or duct blaster tests—so, essentially pass the 2012 IECC in name only, but in reality not go much past the 2009 IECC. It appeared the only thing that wasn’t modified was the high-efficacy lighting requirement.
Cost was the #1 reason to delay the code improvements. There were other reasons voiced, such as insufficient qualified/trained professionals to conduct blower door tests. However, many professionals in New Jersey received training over the past two years, so that assertion isn’t entirely accurate.
The DCA commissioner does retain the right to override the CAB’s recommendation, and the division of codes and standards staff can also make recommendations contrary to the CAB. Since New Jersey already adheres to the 2009 IECC, it could decide to upgrade its energy code to the most current version. Once the codes and standards division completes its review of the CAB’s recommendation, then the staff recommendation is forwarded to the DCA commissioner. Ultimately, the staff’s recommendation is published in the State register. If any part of the State’s recommendation was deemed a controversial code change, public comments would be accepted for 60 days from the publishing date of the notice.
On October 29, 2012, Superstorm Sandy made landfall in the Northeast near Atlantic City, NJ. The state had started preparing for the storm three days prior, advising residents of the barrier islands and other vulnerable areas to evacuate to a safer location. Casinos were shut down, most schools were closed, tolls were suspended on major tollways, and President Obama signed an emergency measure which enabled federal funds to assist in preparatory actions.
After the storm left the area, officials and residents surveyed the extensive damage. Many towns were flooded, some with as much as five feet of water. Rescue operations were conducted, while power was lost to over 2.5 million residents. The death toll in the state was 37 people. A 50-foot piece of the Atlantic City Boardwalk washed away. Beaches were reshaped, and tens of thousands of trees were lost. There were also hundreds of thousands of gallons of chemicals (oil and gas) spilled. The cleanup was estimated by Governor Christie to cost in the range of $30-40 billion.
Disaster Recovery Action Plan
According to a press release from the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs (DCA), President Obama signed the Disaster Relief Appropriations Act, 2013 on January 29th. It allocated “$5.4 billion in additional funding to the Community Development Block Grant Disaster Recovery (CDBG-DR) program of the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) in order to help affected States respond to and recover from the severe damage caused by Superstorm Sandy. On Tuesday, March 5th, a Notice was published in the Federal Register (Docket FR-5696-N-01) allocating $1.829 billion of those funds to the State of New Jersey. In order for the State to obtain those funds, it must submit an Action Plan to HUD ‘detailing the proposed use of funds, including criteria for eligibility and how the use of these funds will address disaster relief, long-term recovery, restoration of infrastructure and housing and economic revitalization in the most impacted and distressed areas.’”
Prior to submittal, the State had to open the plan to a public comment period, which it did on March 13th. Forty-four comments were received during the one-week period. On March 27th, the State submitted the plan to HUD for review and approval. HUD has a 45-day window to respond, and can either approve or reject the plan. At a Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee hearing on April 15th (or Day 19), the DCA commissioner Richard E. Constable, III was still waiting for HUD feedback. According to a source within DCA, HUD approval of the draft plan was not anticipated.
Where’s the Green?
In the 109-page draft plan, there is a two-paragraph section (6.3) on green building. It states that replacement and new construction will be required to comply with Energy Star. It goes on to cite existing resources available through Rutgers University, and mentions meetings held with different non-profits in the general and sustainable construction industries. In responses to public comments, the plan goes on to claim, “The State conducted significant outreach to affected citizens, communities, businesses and other stakeholders, which informed the draft Action Plan” and “The draft Action Plan also emphasizes the use of green building and energy efficiency designs in repairs and reconstruction.” Finally, in section 4.1 (Homeowner Assistance Programs), it states that Energy Star will be required, the 2009 IRC will be met, and programs will adhere to (among others) the HUD CPD Green Building Retrofit checklist “when applicable.” We could not find a definition for that last phrase.
Consultants have been retained to assist DCA with the implementation of this action plan. But according to DCA staff, the consultants and the DCA commissioner have developed the plan with no input from DCA staff, even though they are often mentioned in the plan. To date, green building has been incorporated into the action plan, but upon inquiries to the DCA, no information was available. It is also our understanding that discussions regarding energy efficiency and green building have not occurred yet.
The commitment to green building is further questioned when examining the proposed budget. The plan often touts the $600 million allocated for rebuilding damaged homes. However, section 6.3 receives no explicit funding. If incentives are needed for homeowners to meet Energy Star requirements, will that money definitively come out of the $600 million, or only “when applicable?”
Staffing should not be a problem, as the consultants’ plan calls for a new division within the office of the DCA to oversee Sandy disaster recovery programs. According to DCA staff, there would be approximately 100 new employees to oversee the implementation of the $1.8-billion plan. This will create a scenario where some DCA programs may have two oversight employees per one existing staff member. Seven of these new employees would hold management-level positions and command annual salaries at a minimum of $72,000 up to a maximum of $115,000.
While all this gets sorted out, DCA staff continues to field questions from disaster victims and non-profits, both in and out of the State, looking for information on recovery assistance. So far, the DCA’s hands are tied.
The State Energy Code (Revisited)
Discussions on the 2012 IECC have been resurrected. Rick Hoffmann (project manager, LEED AP, home improvement contractor and member of the Green Builder® Coalition) has been actively involved in the process. In his opinion, New Jersey should adopt the 2012 IECC as soon as possible to allow for the acceptance of new technology in building science, materials, and energy-efficient HVAC equipment. The State should approve the 2012 IECC without any amendments referring to the 2009 IECC or its tables. The New Jersey Uniform Construction Code Act provides that model codes and standards publications shall not be adopted more frequently than once every three years. Therefore, if the State lets this opportunity pass by, the 2009 requirement level wouldn’t be updated for another three to four years at the earliest. With the current pace of innovation, that’s a very long time. And if an update were to occur in 2017, it would be an even bigger adjustment for builders and contractors than the modest one currently under consideration.
Hoffmann sees the 2012 IECC as a way to upgrade building techniques and/or products, including: the thermal building envelope (through better windows and insulation), air leakage testing, hot water system efficiency, lighting efficiency and duct leakage in HVAC distribution systems. Most, if not all, of these practices can be incorporated into a homebuilder’s process with little to no angst.
Hoffmann is very familiar with building to a higher standard, as he earned his LEED accreditation in 2008. He put that knowledge to use three years ago when serving as the primary project manager for documenting, collecting and preparing for the LEED certification of a residential retrofit. With the help of an outside firm, they achieved the first LEED Platinum certification for a New Jersey residential retrofit.
Even though Hoffmann has been vocal in his recommendations, the code change proposal still sits on the DCA commissioner’s desk nearly a half a year later. Even if it does get elevated to the Governor’s office, which is the next step in the process, it’s unlikely Governor Christie will authorize it. The New Jersey gubernatorial election is in November 2013. With Sandy recovery a top-of-mind issue, anything even remotely viewed as inhibiting that will be considered politically toxic.
What started out as a simple discussion about code adoption has morphed into a major fork in the road for a state with a considerable amount of construction in its future. An enormous opportunity awaits New Jersey if it is willing to embrace it. Will the State figure out a way to effectively require a higher standard of residential construction, both in terms of energy efficiency and resiliency? Or will it sacrifice environmental concerns for speed and the status quo?