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Energy code changes could boost home prices

by CHARLES H. FEATHERSTONE
Staff Writer | April 18, 2021 1:00 AM

SPOKANE — It will likely soon get more expensive to build a house in the state of Washington.

In fact, elements of the state’s new energy code could boost the price of a median home in Washington — nearly $400,000 statewide and around $250,000 in Grant County, according to real estate website Zillow — by between $20,000 and $30,000 dollars, according to Jim Breidenbach, a construction insurance specialist with the Building Industry Association of Washington.

At the heart of the changes is the state’s energy code, maintained by the Washington State Building Code Council, Breidenbach said. In 2009, the state legislature approved the goal of reducing energy use in new homes by 70% by 2031, with that reduction achieved in small increments every three years as the code is revised.

The most recent revision to the code, originally slated to come into effect last July but delayed until Feb. 1, 2021, because of the COVID-19 pandemic, requires homebuilders to choose from a series of items that will give the house enough energy credits to qualify for a building permit, Breidenbach said.

Items include making a house “tighter” so that air — and heat in the winter, or cool in the summer — doesn’t leak out so easily, all-electric appliances (not so much of an issue in the Columbia Basin, where domestic natural gas service is not common), and ensuring all new homes are ready for domestic solar or wind power connections.

That may sound good, Breidenbach said, but builders are concerned the new code lacks flexibility for both builders and buyers alike and doesn’t even adequately measure a home design’s ability to save energy.

One example Breidenbach gave involves the elimination of ducts for clothes dryers as part of making a house “tighter.” However, he said, newer, Energy Star-compliant dryers rely on much slower evaporation and are not nearly as effective at drying, he said.

“This is a highly technical process requiring very technical changes to what we are building,” explained Breidenbach, who is also a retired general contractor specializing in renovations.

Breidenbach compared the new building rules to the change over the decades in how cars are built. They used to be machines designed so that just about anyone with a little skill and the right tools could work on them, but now a typical automobile is as much complex computer system as it is internal combustion engine, gears and a drivetrain.

In addition, Breidenbach said the new standards do nothing to create incentives to improve the energy efficiency of existing homes.

“New construction is such a small portion of the market,” he said, noting houses can last for decades with good maintenance.

The state has also decided to ban the use of natural gas appliances and heating in new homes, and eventually phase it out in older homes, Breidenbach said. While that’s not a big issue for homes in the Columbia Basin, where there is very little domestic natural gas use, any increase in electric demand elsewhere in the state will eventually drive everyone’s prices up, Breidenbach said.

It doesn’t help the legislature’s recent commitment to renewable power generation doesn’t include hydropower, he added.

“The legislature is not getting it,” Breidenbach said. “It is force-feeding builders and buyers into a system that is going the wrong direction and is completely ignoring improvements that could be done.”

As the code changes raise the price of new home, it will drive more people out of the market. According to the Building Industry Association of Washington, every $1,000 increase in the price of a new house leaves 2,500 more people unable to buy a home, put down roots and build family wealth.

“One size does not fit all,” Breidenbach said.

Charles H. Featherstone can be reached at cfeatherstone@columbiabasinherald.com.