US moves forward with raising the bar for energy efficiency in affordable housing

 by Elizabeth Beardsley

The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and the Department of Agriculture (USDA) took an important step this week—one that will make a difference in the lives of thousands of families. HUD and USDA issued a final determination essentially adopting the next set of building energy codes for a suite of programs and recognizing LEED certification as an alternative compliance path, which will help streamline documentation for project teams. USGBC filed comments on the proposed rule last summer, and also joined a diverse set of organizations in supporting the proposal. We are pleased that the final rule follows through with the intent to use these codes in the affected programs.

For a refresher on the role of codes, check out three building code questions you should be asking.

Under federal law, HUD and USDA have a responsibility to adopt minimum energy standards for new construction of certain assisted housing, based on periodic revisions of the International Energy Conservation Code (IECC) for single family homes and the ASHRAE 90.1 for multifamily buildings. Specifically, once the Department of Energy (DOE) has studied and found that the revised codes would improve energy efficiency, then HUD and USDA must adopt the revised codes after first determining that they will not negatively affect the affordability and availability of certain HUD- and USDA-assisted housing.

In this action, the agencies determined that adoption of the 2009-IECC and ASHRAE 90.1-2007 will not negatively affect the affordability and availability of covered housing, so, these codes now become requirements for those programs, which include both rental and owned housing.

In addition, LEED project teams will be able to use certification as a recognized alternative path to show compliance with the agency requirements. This means streamlined documentation and less work for projects being LEED certified. The complete list of alternative compliance paths include ENERGY STAR Certified New Homes, ENERGY STAR Multifamily High Rise, LEED–NC, LEED–H, or LEED–H Midrise, and other green building programs, all of which require energy efficiency levels that meet or exceed the 2009-IECC and ASHRAE 90.1–2007. Likewise, HUD and USDA will accept certifications of compliance with state codes that exceed 2009-IECC and ASHRAE 90.1–2007.

The agencies will now take steps to implement the new baseline codes, such as HUD updating its Builder’s Certification Form and handbooks. In order to realize the benefits of the new baselines as soon as possible, HUD and USDA need to expedite these actions. And, the agencies should begin their affordability and availability determination for the next revisions, the 2012-IECC and ASHRAE 90.1–2013, which DOE has already found to save energy.

The impacts of HUD and USDA’s action are positive and significant. Their analysis show that houses will save about 10% in energy over the currently used code versions. Among the benefits of energy savings are potential health impacts with improved indoor environmental quality; reduced mortgage default risks; and many others. Importantly, the families who will rent or own these housing units will see a real and sustained benefit, as well. The reduced utility costs can be a significant boost to low income families, for whom utilities may represent 10 percent of income. For example, a recent study of green affordable rental housing in Virginia found that energy usage was approximately 30% less than new standard construction, saving families $54 per month on average—representing 1% to nearly 3% of gross income. That’s a big deal for any family struggling to put food on the table.

We applaud HUD and USDA for helping strengthen communities across the country, while directly supporting the President’s goal of cutting energy waste in half by 2030, and HUD’s priority goal for energy efficient and healthy homes. We’re excited to see progress towards energy efficient housing for all.

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