Virginia building code update hits a wall, and no one’s sure why

A proposed update to Virginia’s residential building code has been held up in administrative limbo despite a consensus from homebuilders and energy efficiency advocates.

Virginia homebuilders and energy efficiency advocates reached an agreement late last year on an overdue update to the state’s residential building code.

What happened next has frustrated advocates who had hoped to celebrate the state’s first residential code update this year in almost half a decade.

Weeks after a citizen board forwarded the proposal to Gov. Ralph Northam’s office, the rules remain held up in administrative limbo, and it’s unclear why. The governor’s  office hasn’t published the proposed changes in the Virginia Register, which would start a necessary public comment period.

Meanwhile, state fire safety officials oppose the changes, though it’s unclear whether their position is a factor in the delay at the governor’s office. A spokesman for the governor would only say the rules are “under review.”

The residential building code, which sets minimum efficiency standards for heating, cooling and lighting in newly constructed homes, haven’t been updated in Virginia since 2014, when the state adopted a residential code comparable to a national model code. New homes in the state cost more to heat, cool, and light than similar homes in states with more recent codes.

The recommended changes were compiled by a citizen board empowered by state law to advise the state Department of Housing and Community Development. Governors and state agencies typically adopt citizen boards recommendations verbatim because of their consensus-building processes.

Among the changes would be new requirements to test indoor air quality, conduct mechanical tests of heating and cooling ducts, and use the government ResCheck system as a compliance option for efficiency ratings.

“We were able to get these things through on a compromise,” said Chelsea Harnish, executive director of the Virginia Energy Efficiency Council (VAEEC). “Since then, the regulation has been stalled. We’re very frustrated. New homes won’t reap the benefits of the efficiency gains we were able to achieve.”

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