The U.S. building industry has a history of resistance to change, with “This is how we’ve always done it” as the motto for most constructions sites. My last contribution to this column focused on growing builder resistance to Energy Star v.3, especially the proper commissioning and testing of HVAC systems—something you’d think the industry would do without regulatory coercion. The backlash, tor those of us wanting progress toward 2030 Challenge goals, comes as depressing, but not surprising news.
Today’s story gives hope, and a powerful example of how one energy champion at one building department successfully turned the local building culture around to embrace best practices, setting a quick and dramatic course for energy code compliance and proof that it can be done.
The place is the town of Parker, Colo., and the energy champion is Gil Rossmiller, chief building official. When Rossmiller came to Parker in 2003, the community was still building under the 1997 Uniform Building Code. Bowing to political pressure, the town council had adopted the 2000 IECC, but the building department didn’t enforce it. “They couldn’t even find the book,” Rossmiller recalled, “And when we did, the cellophane wrapping was still intact.” Amazingly, nobody had bothered to crack open the book to look at the town’s new energy code.
Rossmiller could not have started from a worse position, but like a corporate turnaround specialist, he managed to improve things so dramatically and quickly that he was recently recognized with the Excellence in Energy Code Compliance Award from the Institute for Market Transformation. Parker now enforces the 2009 IECC, along with the full suite of I-Codes, and will adopt the 2012 I-codes in January of 2013, breakneck speed in comparison to most jurisdictions that adopt model codes at least three years in arrears.
When I asked Rossmiller how the town’s builders were adapting to such dramatic change, he said, “It’s working wonderfully, they know they have to do it and we’ve taught them how.” Rossmiller added that builders in Parker are not complaining about the issues dogging Energy Star v.3, because he not only requires basic energy code compliance, he enforces strict quality control standards that resemble Energy Star. “It’s not just me; equipment manufacturers have been trying to get the industry to do things right for a long time,” said Rossmiller. And it’s actually this approach that has persuaded local builders to get on board.
The backlash to Energy Star v.3 and by implication to similar requirements in the proposed 2012 and 2015 IECC comes by and large with the stricter design requirements, and proper commissioning and testing for HVAC installations. Since it makes basic sense to design and size systems correctly, and then verify they actually perform, Rossmiller instituted these requirements years before they were required by code. Despite some initial resistance to testing, seeing the results builders quickly discovered how badly their existing methods performed, and then quickly adapted to the changes. “They all told me, ‘Gil, we know how to run ducts and set up the equipment,’ so I said, ‘OK, prove it,’” recalls Rossmiller. But after testing, they asked for help and they got it. Rossmiller began running monthly training on site and in the classroom for contractors and inspectors. Today Parker boasts one the most highly trained and knowledgeable building communities in the U.S.
THE PARKER MODEL
The process in Parker gives hope, not only because it has succeeded, but how quickly is has done so. Our concern from the Vision 2020 perspective is not whether the building industry will adopt and improve, there’s ample evidence this is occurring, the concern comes with when it will occur. We face a climate clock that may not allow us to evolve building practices slowly.
In August 2003, Rossmiller began holding monthly meetings to educate builders on 2003 International Energy Conservation Code. As a first step, the town had decided to concentrate on residential energy compliance because this would have the biggest impact in the community. Rossmiller took an incremental approach, starting with a focus on exterior flashing and water resistive barriers. Parker sponsored classes for builders and building department personnel taught by local suppliers of housewrap materials, which didn’t cost the town extra money. The department gave builders a timeline for compliance and provided many jobsite trainings to help them learn. This went on for five months, and then the theme changed from pure education, to education plus expectations. “If builders didn’t detail the flashing properly, or install the weather barrier correctly, we failed them. Soon, they began to take us seriously,” said Rossmiller.
Once the building community began to get a handle on the envelope details, the focus shifted to insulation. As before, Parker sponsored classes, inviting insulation suppliers to teach builders to follow manufacturer’s installation requirements. “The builders and trade contractors were amazed how well they could relate to all of the pictures of the unacceptable installation methods. Why? Because that is exactly what they had been accepting as ‘normal’ installation for years and years,” said Rossmiller.
Once satisfied his builders understood the need for a well constructed and insulated building envelope, Rossmiller took the next step, but this one went one step beyond minimum code requirements. He gave builders one full year to learn how to properly design HVAC installations and prove they worked as designed through testing. Parker required builders to submit ACCA Manual J, S, and D calculations, with duct designs shown on the building plans before granting a permit. Parker also required duct tightness testing along with system commissioning that complied with manufacturer’s requirements—in other words, exactly what Energy Star v.3 requires today. “We were only asking them to prove the system was performing as designed,” said Rossmiller.
This was by far was the most difficult and time-consuming process in improving construction standards, said Rossmiller. “Because we required duct tightness testing at rough-in [before the drywall goes up], the practice of using building cavities for return air ducts was not possible.” This resulted in ducted returns and the redesign of each home to accommodate the new ductwork, which was welcome news to the HVAC trade contractors, but not the builders. Rossmiller says that all the builders had to redesign their homes, some more than once, to achieve the standard. It caused friction at the beginning, but in hindsight, “Many builders and HVAC folks have told me it was a necessary step, and they would never go back the old HVAC systems,” said Rossmiller.
Meanwhile, even as the HVAC trade contractors were grateful for the space, “They were not particularly excited when they realized that the Manual J calculations showed that they had been installing equipment that was twice the size required to satisfy the loads. How could equipment half the size still condition the space? The next year was filled with training sessions,” explains Rossmiller. He made hundreds of field visits to verify testing procedures and installations.
In the end, to help builders learn the process, Parker provided performance testing and free Home Energy Ratings. The building department worked closely with builders, creating an atmosphere of mutual respect and support. Over successive years, residential techniques were perfected and then the town turned its attention to the commercial building sector with the same type of strategy.
Today, the building department in Parker continues to offer training, currently preparing builders for their January 1 update to the 2012 IECC and full suite of I-Codes. Parker expects to continue adopting model codes every three years, one year following publication. Although Rossmiller admits that getting from the 1997 UBC to the 2012 IRC in less than a decade was arduous, the road ahead is not, “Most are building at 2012 standards or better already, and I expect the same in 2015.”