Building Codes to Tighten Across Texas

Douglas McAffe inspecting the insulation of a house in central Austin.
Douglas McAffe inspecting the insulation of a house in central Austin.

The international symbol for Texas’ energy-guzzling habit is a monster pickup truck — pulling another pickup truck. But homes and other buildings are also big offenders, accounting for roughly 40 percent of the state’s overall energy use.

The opportunity for savings — and to draw down some energy-related federal stimulus dollars — has spurred action by state and local officials. In January, Texas will adopt a statewide building code that should cut the energy consumption of new single-family homes by more than 15 percent, according to the Energy Systems Laboratory at the Texas A&M University System. The state tightened codes for commercial, industrial and other residential buildings in April.

Big Texas cities tend to jump out ahead of the statewide building codes, which have often lagged nationally. This month, the Houston City Council passed a measure requiring new homes to be about 5 percent more efficient than the forthcoming statewide code, an effort to cut down on homes’ energy use and burnish Houston’s green credentials. Over the next few years, Houston will consider more requirements that could put the city some 15 percent above the state code in terms of energy savings.

Environmentalists welcome the stronger codes, but builders have concerns. Scott Norman, executive director of the Texas Association of Builders, said his group supports Houston’s recent action. But he said further efficiency increases the need to balance energy savings with economic considerations.

Energy-saving requirements can easily add a few thousand dollars to the upfront cost of a new home, Norman said, and that can price people out of the market.

Luke Metzger, director of Environment Texas, said the code changes are crucial to saving energy in both new and existing structures. “Homes we build today are going to last another 70 years,” he said.

But crafting codes is easier than making them effective. A report this year by the nonprofit Building Codes Assistance Project with input from Texas’ State Energy Conservation Office noted that “many local governments will see the mandatory statewide code as an unfunded mandate set by the state.” Enforcement capabilities are often lacking, especially in small jurisdictions, the report said.

Even big cities struggle. In Austin, where codes have already gone beyond the upcoming statewide requirements, the number of annual building inspections fell from 226,000 three years ago to about 165,000 today — a casualty of budget tightening, according to Dan McNabb, the city’s building inspections division manager. Austin’s inspectors do not just address energy issues; they also spend time looking at safety matters like stairs and glass.

“Every project is different,” McNabb said.

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