Looking for other ways to lower building costs
By Katherine Nettles
After more than six months of review and meetings, Gunnison County commissioners adopted 2021 international building codes this month. The new codes take effect at the beginning of the new year. Several local contractors attended the public hearing and implored commissioners to halt the drip of continually rising building costs.
The process of adopting the 2021 building codes began in the spring when the county’s staff, specifically targeting reduced greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs), raised the issue of adoption with commissioners. In 2022, a Colorado bill was enacted that requires any municipality, county or state agency that updates any of their building codes to also adopt the equivalent or better energy performance than the 2021 International Energy Conservation Code (IECC) and the Model Electric Ready and Solar Ready code.
The county approved adoption of the International Wildland Urban Interface Code (IWUI) in September 2022, and according to county planners, the building codes were the next step toward compliance ahead of potential state required timelines.
County planning staff and commissioners held an initial work session in April to discuss how the new codes can support their climate related strategic goal of reducing GHG emissions by 50% by 2030 from 2005 levels.
Staff gathered commissioner feedback from that meeting and integrated it into the following concepts in the resolution document:
1. Incentivize use of the Energy Rating Index (ERI) through a reduction in plan review fees and allow applicants that choose this path to be prioritized for application review.
2. Require use of the ERI approach in the 2021 IECC for residences greater than 5,000 square feet.
3. Create an energy budget allowance based on efficiency (ERI) multiplied by a fixed size for structures and require that new construction demonstrate compliance using the ERI performance path. This would prohibit use of energy consumption beyond a certain amount and be used to limit size and many luxury amenities such as pools, heated driveways, outside heating devices or numerous appliances, unless other energy saving features were used to offset the consumption. The energy budget was set based on the median home size and code minimum energy performance compliance to avoid any impact on the median-sized homes but would require that all homes utilize the performance pathway for compliance.
4. Review and adopt the Colorado Model Electric Ready and Solar Ready code.
5. Amend IECC to prohibit outside heated driveways.
6. Amend IECC to allow spas with an R-12 cover. If a spa is heated by a separate appliance the appliance must have high level efficiency.
7. Amend IECC to prohibit gas fired heaters for pools and spas. Pools, if desired, shall have heat pump only.
8. Amend IECC to require that heated gutters have controls that only activate the heater when the temperature is below 40 degrees and when water/ice is detected.
9. Adopt new building and energy codes on a regular three-year cycle, rather than the six-year cycle that the County has been doing.
10. Consider allocating funding to support the development of model home plans (single-family and multi-family) and detailed pre-approved assemblies for walls, roofs and other details, that are IECC, Model code and IWUIC compliant. These plans would then be available at no charge to the public.
11. Consider funding performance path review costs for income qualified homeowners up to an annual limit. For example: budget for up to 10 analyses for residents earning 150% area median income (AMI) or less.
12. Maximize any state funding opportunities available to support training and implementation of the 2021 IECC.
Staff incorporated the first nine concepts into eight amendments, which it reviewed over the course of three work sessions with the county’s planning commission this summer. The planning commission voted to recommend the changes in August, and staff presented their final adoption resolution for a public hearing and commissioner approval on November 7.
Assistant county manager for sustainability and operations John Cattles acknowledged that one barrier to the ERI is lack of certified ERI or Home Energy Rating System (HERS) professionals in the area. “One pathway to compliance is to get an ERI/HERS rating, and we’re hoping to create more of a marketplace for it,” said Cattles. This would be required for homes over 5,000 square feet, but it would reduce fees for any home that opts for it.
Contractors speak out about rising costs
During the public hearing, several contractors spoke out against the amendments as they believe they represent another way that the area is becoming too expensive for locals to build.
Both John Stock from High Mountain Concepts and his construction manager said the problem was getting worse with every code update. They also said these HERS ratings were unrealistic in the Gunnison Valley’s extreme climates.
“We’re dealing with this up valley right now,” said Stock. “The [cost] you came up with is not even close to the expense that we’re running into up there.” He said achieving the optimal numbers was also being falsified due to the climate zone.
“I understand the good intentions that everybody has and what you’re trying to achieve, but there’s a bigger thing going on here,” said Stock. “The burden this puts on people working in this community that ever want to live or own a house in this community—you’re pushing it way down the line. It’s not going to happen without assistance from the government, and there’s plenty of people who live and work here who don’t want to depend on the government to make sure they can stay here.”
Stock said many of his clients don’t mind an extra $50,000 in added energy savings and tests, or even more. But he said for those who live and work locally it makes a difference.
“Somewhere along the line the good intentions need to get checked for the livability of our community,” concluded Stock. “I’m not saying I know what the answer is, I’m just saying there’s more impacts to this than you guys are getting in your information.”
Newly certified HERS rater Andy Tocke spoke as well. “They have a lot more requirements than just the HERS ratings,” he said of Crested Butte’s requirements for new construction. “The HERS rating does require many visits to a house,” he said, which costs anywhere from about $2,500 to $5,000 depending on the size and complexity of a house. He said it is important for people to understand how to achieve the proper rating, which can be much more challenging and expensive than just having the tests done and often involves architects, engineers and other professionals consulting on the project.
President of Professional Contractors Inc. Brett Adkins agreed that the amendments, however understandable, increase the cost barrier for locals to build in the valley. “I’ve been building to 2021 codes for several years now; this doesn’t change a whole lot for me in terms of what I’m doing on my projects. My concern here is that as a county we’re consistently adding new codes and new requirements…everything adds to costs, he said. “We are eliminating the middle class from being able to live here.”
Adkins said he didn’t think he could afford to build in the county, despite having access to resources, deals and connections. “To me it’s unaffordable. I make decent money. My wife works in this building for the courts. She makes decent money. We have two kids in school. We’re very hard workers, and we’ve been here for a long time. It is becoming unaffordable,” he concluded. He implored commissioners, as they prepared to adopt the required codes, to find ways to help locals with upfront costs in other ways.
County commissioner chair Jonathan Houck also read an email sent in for public comment requesting that commissioners consider eliminating sprinkler system requirements to avoid the cost barriers for locals building modest homes.
As the county staff and commissioners took the public comments into consideration, they discussed several points.
Cattles said the 2021 codes and additional amendments were not as restrictive as what Crested Butte has chosen to require. He said the additions to the 2021 code are only applicable to those building high-end luxury homes over 5,000 square feet. “We’ve gone through it, Crystal [Lambert, county building/environmental health official] has gone through it in a lot of detail. We took our time with this. I think there’s some things being implemented in other places that we’re not asking,” he said. “That’s not what’s in this proposal.”
Finding solutions elsewhere
“We’re trying to take this law and create a condition where the larger homes, the people that do have the resources start to break the path and then we can hopefully lower that barrier and be more efficient by the time the requirements for everyone else take effect,” concluded Cattles.
Lambert added that she did see some areas for improvement in the administration side of things and said she would like to address those areas with the planning office.
Commissioner Liz Smith said they would continue to look for ways to streamline the process for people on smaller budgets. “It’s very much on our minds and important to us,” she said.
“It is really hard with some of these things, to balance our goals around the environment, our mandate from the state, consumer protection,” said commissioner Laura Puckett Daniels. She highlighted the idea from the spring work session that commissioners can advocate for state regulations that help alleviate some financial burdens. She noted that the board has also expressed interest in covering the optional energy efficiency costs for those making up to 150% AMI in the future and set aside funds for it.
She also reiterated Smith’s advocacy for developing model home plans.
“How do we build a rung? How do we get from government funded housing to something on the private market,” Puckett Daniels said of the board’s next steps.
After closing the public hearing, commissioners approved the code adoption unanimously, and the code takes effect on January 1, 2024.