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St. Louis County officials approve disputed residential building code

The St. Louis County Building Commission members (Jeff Aboussie, Barry Glantz and John Finder, right) listen to Sierra Club supporters on August 2015. The model house is covered with the names of 529 area residents who want stricter energy efficiency stan
Veronique LaCapra

The St. Louis County Building Commission unanimously approved a set of requirements for constructing homes.

But builders, environmental activists, policy experts and residents disagree on whether the new standards best serve the public interest. 

Those who favor conservation say the new rules will cause homes to consume more energy, raise utility bills and potentially create public health hazards. Builders say the rules will make homes more affordable.

Many states and local governments adopt some version of the International Energy Conservation Code, a residential and commercial building code developed every three years by the International Code Council, a nonprofit organization that promotes the construction of safe buildings. Some states adopt their own codes.

Local governments often revise the code, as the St. Louis County Building Code Review Committee did with the 2015 IECC. The amendments to that code were proposed by the Home Builders Association of St. Louis and Eastern Missouri.

When the details of the amended 2015 code were made public, area activists expressed dismay at the number of energy efficiency measures that were eliminated from the original standards.

At Wednesday's vote on the new standards, environmentalists and residents who opposed the new code testified that energy efficiency not only reduces the energy consumed by a household, it lowers energy bills and improves indoor air quality. Builders, however, stressed that making more energy efficiency measures mandatory will make it hard for people to afford homes.

The 2015 code recommends that builders install more insulation for walls and ceilings, and more energy efficient lights.

The code also calls for duct leakage and blower door tests, which are not required by St.Louis County’s newly approved standards.

Gary Steps, a builder who owns Butterfly Energy Works, said that such tests are important to determine the tightness of airflow in the house. If the duct system is poor, he said, the heating and cooling systems will have to “work much harder,” leading to increased energy bills for the homeowner.

The Midwest Energy Efficiency Alliance, a group that advocates for policies that promote energy efficiency, calculated that the unchanged 2015 code would save homeowners an average of $436 a year on utility bills, but the amended version would cost new homeowners an extra $152 on average per year.

“This is by far the weakest 2015 IECC that I’ve ever seen in the Midwest,” said Ian Blanding, senior building policy associate at the Midwest Energy Efficiency Alliance.

Policy experts like Blanding also emphasize that the new code is less energy efficient than its predecessor, a version of the 2009 IECC that the Home Builders Association also amended to contain fewer energy efficiency requirements.

However, the Home Builders Association of St. Louis and Eastern Missouri estimated that under the unchanged 2015 code, prospective homeowners could pay as much as $42,345 more to purchase a home than what they would have paid under the amended 2009 code.

Sierra Club member Michael Berg testifes in February 2017 against St. Louis County's new residential building code to the St. Louis County Building Commission.
Credit Eli Chen | St. Louis Public Radio
Sierra Club member Michael Berg testifies Wednesday afternoon against St. Louis County's new residential building code before the St. Louis County Building Commission.

If the government dictates higher standards for energy efficiency, there is a cost to that,” said Jim Brennan, president of McKelvey Homes. “And that cost has to be passed on to consumers and all that will do is make it even more difficult for young people, first-time buyers, people to afford brand new homes.”

Prior to the vote, the Sierra Club’s Missouri chapter released a report that detailed some of the financial ties between the regional HBA and members of the Building Code Review Committee. When committee chair Arthur Merdinian ran for mayor of Olivette in 2010, for example, the second largest contribution to his campaign came from the HBA.

John Hickey, who directs the Sierra Club’s Missouri Chapter, said he believes that the financial connections explained why St. Louis County has opted for standards that are less efficient than the ones adopted in Illinois and other parts of Missouri. The group released the findings to show that HBA’s influence has steered code officials away from serving the needs of the public.

“If you look on that Building Code Review Committee, you don’t see anybody that is an expert on indoor health, you don’t see anybody who is an expert on energy efficiency, you don’t see anybody who is an expert on affordability,” Hickey said.

The city of St. Louis generally adopts the same building codes as the county. 

Follow Eli on Twitter: @StoriesByEli

Eli is the science and environment reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.

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