Bill would alter how Pa. adopts building codes

Surveying rooftop plants at the Friends Center, 15th and Cherry, are Delaware Valley Green Building Council's Janet Milkman (left) and Heather Blakeslee. Top right, rooftop solar panels.
Surveying rooftop plants at the Friends Center, 15th and Cherry, are Delaware Valley Green Building Council's Janet Milkman (left) and Heather Blakeslee. Top right, rooftop solar panels.
Posted: April 17, 2011

What do sprinkler systems and energy efficiency have to do with each other?

Not much. Which is why environmental activists and other green advocates weren't paying attention to a bill that had been progressing through the Pennsylvania legislature since March. Its aim: to repeal a mandate, effective Jan. 1, that sprinkler systems be installed in new houses.

Then came an amendment to the sprinkler measure in early April that not only got their attention but that now has enraged energy-conservation groups, which predict a virtually impossible road ahead for enhancements to the state's energy-efficiency building requirements.

"This is definitely a roadblock," a dumbfounded Janet Milkman, executive director of the Delaware Valley Green Building Council, said last week after the House and Senate approved the amended bill. It is headed to Gov. Corbett for his expected signature.

The legislation, House Bill 377, would change the process by which building codes are adopted in Pennsylvania. Specifically, it would require a two-thirds, or supermajority, vote by the 19-member Uniform Construction Code Review and Advisory Council.

Better known as the RAC, the group consists of contractors, engineers, architects, building inspectors, code, and other local officials appointed by the governor. It makes recommendations on changes to the Pennsylvania Construction Code Act or on changes that appear in the International Codes, the primary model for state building standards.

Energy-conservation lobbyists - and some legislators - contend that blocking more stringent green-building requirements was the goal of the 7,000-member Pennsylvania Builders Association in pushing for passage of the building-code change.

"This was clearly a special-interest piece of legislation," State Sen. Charles McIlhinney Jr. (R., Bucks/Montgomery) said in an interview Thursday.

"Why don't we just let the home builders association decide [state building policy]?" he added wryly.

McIlhinney cast one of 17 votes against the measure in the Senate, where it passed with 33 "yes" votes. The bill was approved, 129-68, in the state House.

David Masur, director of PennEnvironment, a nonprofit advocacy group, said the real losers are Pennsylvania's homeowners and tenants.

"With the current economy, people paying more on utility bills in a deregulated world with price caps coming off . . . it's sort of a hard time to be paying out of your pocketbook [for energy-related] stuff," Masur said.

Building codes adopted in Pennsylvania over the last six years are responsible for new buildings being 30 percent more energy-efficient, Masur said, noting that current codes save the typical Pennsylvania homeowner more than $300 a year in energy costs.

Assessing the potential effect of the new building-code changes, Milkman said: "Practically speaking, you're basically not allowing people to save energy and save money."

Spokeswoman Melissa Etshied said the consumer was precisely whom the state builders association had in mind when it encouraged legislators to amend the bill to change the process for construction-code adoption.

"Builders aren't opposed to energy-efficiency standards," Etshied said, adding that the association includes members who specialize in green building. "What they're concerned about is: Is it over and above what people can afford to do?"

That is why the builders also advocated for the sprinkler-mandate repeal, she said. Sprinklers are especially cost-prohibitive in rural, well-water-dependent areas of the state, where electrical systems would be needed to get the water to houses, critics of the requirement have said.

The sprinkler issue "sort of put an exclamation point" on the need to change the process for construction-code adoption, said State Sen. John R. Gordner, a Republican from Bloomsburg who sponsored the amendment.

Pennsylvania was one of the last states to adopt a statewide building code, doing so in 1999. The standards were primarily modeled after those developed and vetted by the International Code Council, a Washington association of 50,000 members that develops residential and commercial building codes. The ICC usually issues changes or additions to those codes every three years.

In 2008, Gov. Ed Rendell signed a law creating the RAC, whose role is to recommend to the governor, the legislature, or the Department of Labor and Industry whether any of the ICC codes should be excluded from adoption in Pennsylvania. (Building-code experts said many states have multistep review processes.)

The most recent ICC standards, issued in 2009, resulted in no objections from the Pennsylvania RAC. That's why the sprinkler requirement for new residential construction went into effect.

But the RAC approved it by only a one-vote margin, so the legislature stepped in, Gordner said. Altering the RAC process to require approval by 13 of 19 members for code changes to take effect ensures "there's a good consensus," he said.

Those pushing for more ambitious energy-efficient building requirements in Pennsylvania do not see it that way. They fear that enough people with ties to the residential-building industry are on the RAC - at least five - to block adoption of higher green-building standards.

Time soon will tell.

Next year, the ICC is expected to issue a comprehensive set of green-construction codes - standards expected to substantially exceed the energy-efficiency requirements that currently are the law of the land in Pennsylvania.

"We're likely to be stuck in 2009 on all ICC standards - not just energy efficiency - if nothing changes," Milkman said.

Gordner rejected that assertion:

"I fully expect that any responsible and necessary energy-efficiency standards will pass muster."

Saving Energy by Building Green

Established by the International Code Council and adopted by Pennsylvania in 2009, the following energy-efficiency requirements govern building in the state:

More insulation in walls, attics, and basements.

More efficient windows.

Better duct sealing.

More efficient lighting.

Programmable thermostats.

More efficient, properly sized heating and cooling systems.

Source: PennEnvironment

Go to to read the Pa. bill that repeals the sprinkler-system requirement in newly built homes and makes other changes that green-building advocates contend will make it harder to adopt energy-efficient building standards in the state.

To read more about the Philadelphia region's commercial real estate, go to

Contact staff writer Diane Mastrull at 215-854-2466 or


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