Massachusetts Building Energy Codes: A Year in Reflection


A History of Climate Leadership

In 2009, Massachusetts became the first state in the nation to adopt an above-code appendix to its “base” building energy code. This appendix was called 780 CMR Appendix 115.AA, more colloquially known as the “Stretch Code”. The adoption of the Stretch Code came on the heels of Massachusetts also becoming one of the first states to sign the Global Warming Solutions Act (GWSA) into law in August 2008.

With these acts, Massachusetts established itself as a leading state in combating climate change through building reform to address the energy usage of its building stock. For a decade, Massachusetts continued to set an example for the rest country on how to address building energy usage through codes and energy efficiency. During that time, other states have followed and adopted stretch codes of their own.

However, in the last couple of years, jurisdictions like California, New York, and Washington, D.C. have gone further and established ambitious zero energy code targets through the use of zero energy stretch code appendices of their own.

The Massachusetts State Building Code (MSBC) has become more energy efficient by adopting the updated model building energy code called the International Energy Conservation Code (IECC). Most recently, IECC 2018 was adopted by the Board of Building Regulations and Standards (BBRS) in March 2019 with the hope of implementation in early 2020.

Massachusetts continues to be a leader in adopting the most recent IECC within one year of its publication. However, the state’s stretch code has not been updated on that same cycle. Climate conscious municipalities and communities around the state agree that incrementally updating the base building energy code with the possibility of weakening amendments, in addition to having a marginally better stretch code, won’t help the state achieve its goal outlined in the GWSA. Massachusetts must take bold action and continue to be a leader to the rest of the country by adopting a zero energy stretch code.

Where is Massachusetts now?

Massachusetts is at a crossroads for advancing a zero energy building code in the state. Following a successful legislative advocacy campaign for two bills to “establish a net-zero energy stretch code” (H.2865 and S.1935), S.1935 reported favorably out of committee by the Telecommunications, Utilities, and Energy Joint Committee and was referred to the Senate Ways and Means Committee.

However, S.1935 joins a long list of 88 other bills currently in committee and will likely stay there well into 2020 before any action is made. If the legislation reports out of committee and becomes law, the stretch code would still need to be drafted, go through a public comment period, and be approved by the BBRS. Therefore, it is likely that a zero energy stretch code would not go into effect until 2021 when the new edition of the MSBC is set to be promulgated.

After voting to adopt IECC 2018 in March 2019, the BBRS held two of its legally mandated public hearings. The first was on May 10, 2019 and the second was on November 5, 2019. Both meetings were well attended by climate advocates, energy efficiency experts, municipal officials, and building industry professionals. At the May hearing, bill sponsors for H.2865 and S.1935 both testified and received overwhelming support from those in attendance about the need for the BBRS to move forward with updating the current stretch code to a zero-energy stretch code. However, there was also considerable pushback from BBRS members. Among the board, there was a sense that the current stretch code was efficient enough and the state’s leadership on energy efficiency absolved it from trying to achieve a zero-energy code ahead of the natural code update cycle. This conservative approach was shared by other trade and real estate organizations like the National Association of Industrial Office Properties (NAIOP). The second public hearing in November echoed many of the sentiments from the first. There was also added testimony from those in the public health community and research about the cost of zero energy buildings presented by the United States Green Building Council- Massachusetts Chapter (USGBCMA).

With all that has happened, energy efficiency professionals and advocates are at a crossroads. Where does the state go from here?

What Next?

The road to a zero-energy code must continue to include efforts by building industry professionals to advocate the importance and feasibility of a zero-energy stretch code to the BBRS and allow the DOER to draft the code with assistance from building efficiency experts. There are many details about a zero energy stretch code – such as supply and demand of renewables, utility participation, and compliance pathways – that need figuring out before the stretch code can be referred to the BBRS for a vote. Making sure that there is continuity and collaboration throughout the drafting process is crucial; otherwise, the process may be delayed more than it needs to be.

It is also critical that the BBRS implements an update cycle for the stretch code, similar to the base code update cycle. This would create a more streamlined process for both the stretch code and base code that would help Massachusetts more rapidly reach a zero energy base code. Building professionals have been largely left in the dark about when IECC 2018 amendments to the base code will go into effect. They also do not know when to anticipate changes to the stretch code. Matching the stretch code with the base code update cycle will help municipalities and building design professionals plan for the new code ahead of the update so there is a smoother transition once a new stretch code becomes effective. Lastly, it would be a proactive step in helping the state maintain its national leadership on energy efficiency.

NEEP applauds the commonwealth with being the first to adopt the stretch code but there is still more to do to so that all buildings and homes in  Massachusetts are comfortable, resilient and zero energy. . .

 Visit our Energy Codes page to learn more about the reports and resources we’ve created on codes and feel free to reach out to see what kind of technical assistance we can offer.

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