Programs like Energy Star and Building America from the Department of Energy, Houses That Work from the Energy & Environmental Building Alliance, and USGBC’s LEED for Homes encourage building better than code requirements for good reason, according to Chris Mathis, founder of Mathis Consulting Co. in Asheville, N.C. “People forget that the code is the minimum. It’s really just the starting point,” he says.

Recognizing this, several states have adopted “stretch” or “reach” codes that require higher levels of energy efficiency. Massachusetts gives jurisdictions the power to adopt stretch codes using the 2008 Green Communities Act, which encourages higher efficiency levels and the use of renewables. Once a jurisdiction adopts the stretch code, builders and developers in that municipality must adhere to it. The reward is state incentive funds allocated to stretch code jurisdictions.

In many states, however, municipalities cannot legally adopt mandatory standards that differ from the state code. Oregon is such a state, so in 2011, it adopted a voluntary reach code. There is no obligation to build to this code, but if a builder chooses to do so, the municipality cannot deny the application and the builder must meet all requirements as if it were a mandatory code.

“Developing the reach code had a heavy learning curve. It was an incredibly well-intentioned effort but it hasn’t gained traction yet,” says David Cohan, a senior manager for codes and standards at Portland, Ore.-based Northwest Energy Efficiency Alliance, which works with local utilities to advocate for more stringent codes and provides education and training to support compliance. “During the next code cycle, Oregon could redefine the reach code and add measures to make it more appealing and effective through marketing and alignment with utility incentives,” he says.

The connection between stretch codes and utility incentives is an important one to motivate builders to support adoption of reach codes and then use them once they are in place. Utilities can have a motivation to provide incentives.

“Some utilities believe it’s more cost effective to invest in energy-efficiency measures than to build new power plants to meet increasing energy needs,” says Mathis. “For example, if code specifies attic insulation at R-30 but utilities are willing to fund the difference to get to R-38, it offers proof that R-38 is cost-effective.”

Both Mathis and Cohan aspire to the day when stretch and reach codes spur national model-code development and adoption.

“There are states that haven’t adopted a new energy code in 10 years,” Cohan says. “Now, reach codes exist to go beyond the best standard codes in the country. If everyone adopted the national model code and actually made people comply with it that would be ideal. Then, the leading states could use reach codes to move beyond that.”

Building on its successful launch in 2012, ECOHOME’s Vision 2020 program continues in 2013, focusing on eight critical areas in sustainability. Track our progress all year as our panel of visionary focus-area chairs, our editors, and leading researchers, practitioners, and advocates share their perspectives on initiating, tracking, and ensuring progress toward sustainable priorities and goals in residential construction between now and 2020. The program will culminate in an exclusive Vision 2020 Forum in Washington, D.C., in September 2013, and with a special edition of ECOHOME in Winter 2013. Click here to see the 2012 Wrap-Up.