Stretch Code Within Reach for Town Residents

The presenters at the September 24 program hosted by the Marion Energy Management Committee assured the audience that the stretch code wasn’t much of a stretch for the Town of Marion. The committee has an article on the Fall Town Meeting warrant to approve the Stretch Building Code.

Green Communities Division Southeast Regional Coordinator Seth Pickering enumerated for the group the five criteria a community must fulfill to become a Green Community. Marion has completed two of the criteria: pass zoning for by-right renewable energy development, and the attendant expedited permitting. The third and fourth criteria are underway – developing a municipal energy reduction plan with the goal of reducing the town’s energy use by 20 percent in five years, and a plan to purchase energy-efficient vehicles to replace municipal vehicles as they are retired.

The adoption of the stretch code is the fifth and final criteria.

Once a town is designated a Green Community, it receives a designation grant, the amount of which is determined by the population and per capita income of the town. Pickering surmised that Marion would receive approximately $140,000. Subsequent to this grant, the town would be able to compete through the annual competitive grant program for grants up to $250,000.

Pickering stated the program awards $20 million annually, totaling almost $100 million since 2010.

There are 210 participating communities currently with another 25 expected to receive their designation this year.

Michael Berry, Subject Matter Expert, went over the finer details of the Stretch Code. The code applies only to new residential construction, as well as certain commercial construction over 100,000 square feet.

It does not apply to renovations or additions on existing residential buildings.

The code would replace what is the current prescriptive building code, which merely checks off boxes for how a structure is built. The stretch code is performance based, requiring a building to meet certain energy efficiency standards. Berry described the difference between prescriptive versus performance as being “like taking an engine out of a crate and dropping it in the car and assuming it will work without testing or running any diagnostics.”

The performance code makes sure a home is built properly, he said.

To ensure the new construction meets the energy efficiency standards, a builder must have the home HERS (Home Energy Rating System) tested by a licensed and certified HERS rater. The rater determines if the home has achieved the rating goal of 55, which is the score relative to a reference home of similar size and design. A score of 55 means the home is 45% more efficient than the reference home.

Variables within a home that can affect the HERS rating are the efficiency of windows, water heater, the tightness of the exterior of the home, and insulation. If a home does not meet the required rating, these variables can be adjusted to improve the home’s efficiency.

One resident asked Berry about the cost to the homeowner of the HERS rating. Ordinarily, Berry replied, the cost is borne by the builder and they will incorporate it into the overall cost of building the house. Berry used an example of a home in Worcester in which the cost of achieving the required HERS rating was offset by utility rebates and energy cost savings. By year one of the completion of the home, there was a net positive result for the homeowner, with the remaining cost, after rebates, spread over a 30-year mortgage.

Residents expressed concern about the likelihood of utility rebates continuing to be available since they were a significant part of the savings equation. Pickering suggested that he is seeing an increase in utility rebates because utility companies are finding that energy efficiency can offset the cost of building new power plants and infrastructure.

Committee member Jennifer Francis underscored that the big savings is in energy efficiency and lower energy costs, what Pickering referred to as “avoided cost.”

Responding to the question of an increased work load for the building commissioner, Berry remarked that their job is actually easier, because the HERS rater provides the certification of the energy efficiency of the home, similar to an architect’s stamped plans, so the commissioner can focus on other important aspects of the code.

Resident Ted North expressed a concern that the committee had not satisfactorily informed the public about the true cost of the entire Green Communities program. It was apparent that he had expressed these concerns before, and Pickering was forthcoming with his willingness to provide contact information for North to acquire the information he was seeking about the financial stresses the program may have caused for other communities.

Pickering noted that no community has withdrawn from the program.

Town Planner Gil Hilario said the grants from the Green Communities program would be used to reduce the energy use in the town, which will save the town money. Hilario commented further, saying, “[The grants] will help us modernize and save money and help everyone in town.”

Pickering supported Hilario’s statement, saying this was a voluntary program and a town is not guaranteed a grant every year. However, after the first designation grant, Pickering said, “Each community must work to get competitive grants to do things that come out of your capital plan or don’t get done at all.”

Voters must approve the new stretch code during the Fall Special Town Meeting on Monday, October 22, at 6:30 pm at Sippican School.

By Sarah French Storer


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