Melting ice on Pa. Capitol steps builds case for green building codes




HARRISBURG — If an ice chunk can pass judgment on human behavior, the 1,080-pound cube in the shed on the steps of the state Capitol is meant to become a puddle tinged with shame.

The 8-foot-by-8-foot tan shed and its twin were parked by green building advocates in the path of lawmakers last week to demonstrate the performance benefits of energy-efficient buildings compared to the state’s current baseline for new construction.

The icehouse on the left meets Pennsylvania’s energy code requirements, which have not been updated since 2009. The one on the right is super-insulated and tightly sealed to meet passive house standards, an energy efficiency benchmark that surpasses even the most modern building codes.

In about three weeks, the project’s designers expect that the half-ton of ice in the less efficient shed will have dripped away out its drain line, while the block in the high-performance building will still be about half the size it was when crews delivered it Monday morning.

The idea is to inspire lawmakers to update the state’s energy conservation building codes and reform the process for adopting new code. Model international standards are developed every three years.

The Senate and House have each passed bills this spring designed to revise the state’s building code adoption process, which has largely stalled since a 2011 law required an advisory board to approve each code change with a two-thirds vote and made it cumbersome to catch up with past standards.

The two bills contain “important distinctions, but not big picture differences,” Rep. Eli Evankovich, R-Murrysville, the sponsor of the House bill, said, but the window for reaching an agreement between the versions is closing.

Mr. Evankovich said the bills are meant to preserve the code advisory board’s ability to screen out unnecessary features that raise the price of new buildings while still making the adoption process more efficient.

“I think energy efficient buildings are awesome, but not having codes doesn’t prevent people from making that decision,” he said. “Anyone is free to exceed the standards however they want.”

Green building advocates say keeping up with recommended energy codes ensures steady improvement in the baseline of energy efficiency for all new buildings. Those that meet the 2015 energy codes are at least 30 percent more efficient than those built to the 2009 version, which in Pennsylvania means saving an average of $555 on annual residential energy costs, said Heidi Kunka, director of the Central Pennsylvania chapter of the U.S. Green Building Council.

The high-performance shed — with its triple-pane windows and thicker insulated walls — cost about $1,000 more than its standard neighbor, but the higher costs of efficient buildings are quickly offset by energy savings, Ms. Kunka said. A day after the ice blocks were nestled in their homes, grooves in the left shed’s block had melted into gullies and the temperature inside was about 5 degrees warmer than in the high-performance shed.

Green building groups want the bills to be amended to allow new codes to be adopted with a simple majority vote — not a two-thirds majority — and to make it easier for municipalities to establish more stringent base codes.

Mr. Evankovich said a proposed amendment would ease the way for Philadelphia to have individualized building codes, but it would not apply to Pittsburgh and smaller municipalities.

Laura Legere: llegere@post-gazette.com.

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