St. Louis Backslides on Energy Efficiency

Is the HBA of St. Louis and Eastern Missouri rolling back energy efficiency for homeowners?

For the past two years, the St. Louis County Building Code Review Committee (BCRC) has been reviewing the 2015 IRC and IBC for potential adoption. Unfortunately, their contemplation of the 2015 IECC became a contentious issue. The BCRC received numerous amendments from the Home Builders of St. Louis and Eastern Missouri to weaken the level of efficiency in the code. The proposed amendments included the continued removal of blower door and duct blaster testing from the code, and reducing the high-efficacy lighting requirement from 50% to 0%.

After the amendments were proposed, the BCRC held public meetings to discuss their merits. At each public meeting, a group (comprised of the Missouri Sierra Club Chapter, the Midwest Energy Efficiency Alliance, energy raters, healthy home advocates, and community members) called the St. Louis Energy Coalition expressed opposition to the proposed amendments, citing their negative impact on homeowners, the community and the environment.

The Home Builders of St. Louis and Eastern Missouri argued that the improvements in the 2015 IECC were not cost effective. According to a document obtained by KWMU, a St. Louis public radio station, the HBA argued the efficiency upgrades would cost a homeowner between $32,000 and $42,000. Those figures vary greatly from cost estimates produced by both the Department of Energy (DOE) and the National Association of Homebuilders (NAHB) for the St. Louis climate. The DOE and NAHB estimate the total cost increase to be around $2,000 and $7,000, respectively.

Once the BCRC decided to recommend the proposed weakening amendments, the St. Louis Energy Coalition and nineteen residents delivered a petition (in the shape of a home) in support of adopting an unamended 2015 IECC at the August 12, 2015 Building Commission Hearing. Their petition garnered the attention of local media outlets, as the St. Louis Public Radio, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, and St. Louis Construction News and Review covered the story.

After a year reviewing the other portions of the 2015 suite of codes, the BCRC recommended a severely misnamed 2015 IECC to the St. Louis County Building Commission at their public meeting on October 6, 2016. The proposed energy code rules (found on pages 72-80) include amendments and/or deletions that create a less efficient building envelope, including the removal of home testing (blower door and duct blaster) and efficient lighting requirements, and the allowance of equipment, lighting and glazing area trade-offs in the performance compliance path.

Related Story: 2018 IECC: A Lost Year for Energy Efficiency

Energy Impact

An energy analysis conducted by MEEA determined the proposed 2015 IECC is incredibly less energy efficient than the current St. Louis County energy code (a weakened 2009 IECC). According to MEEA’s analysis, if the County was to adopt the unamended 2015 IECC instead of the proposed code, homeowners could expect to save approximately $436 annually. (This differs slightly from the $412 in annual energy savings the HBA estimated.) However, if the County adopts the diminished energy code, instead of saving money, homeowners could see an increase of $152 annually, compared to the current St. Louis County Code. When considering the 10-year annual average for new homes built in St. Louis County (830), the added energy cost could collectively amount to over $125,000 per year. Sadly, from the homeowner’s perspective, it would be better if the County adopted the actual 2009 IECC than what has been recommended by the BCRC.

The BCRC must not have taken into consideration a cost-effectiveness analysis conducted by DOE. They found that moving to the 2015 IECC in the State of Missouri would provide homeowners with a positive cash flow in less than a year, when accounting for total energy savings minus total costs over a 30-year mortgage.

The St. Louis County Building Commission was scheduled to hear input from the public on the recommended rules for the 2015 IRC and IBC at their December 14 meeting. However, the Commission could not reach a quorum and canceled the meeting. The topic may be discussed at their January meeting, though at press time that was undecided. Whenever the Building Commission does vote on the proposed codes, the results will be sent to the St. Louis County Council for final approval.

Something Smells

According to an HBA member we spoke with who is familiar with the situation, the local HBA wields incredible political power amongst both its own members and County politicians. This person told us that members rarely if ever speak out against the HBA, for fear of professional retribution by other members. While it is hard to verify those claims, anyone can research the political contributions to members of the St. Louis County Council.

In reviewing the donations to the seven-member, 2017 St. Louis County Council from November 2012 to October 2016, we found that the HBA and construction-related entities gave at least $69,655. This certainly speaks to the political influence mentioned by our source. If you include contributions from real estate companies, which commonly align (politically) with the homebuilding industry, the total goes up to $105,780.

We should also add County Executive Steve Stenger, who has veto power (not to mention influence) over the Council. Money given to his campaign by the construction industry (including, but not limited to the HBA and real estate interests) exceeded an eye-opening $750,000. For comparison’s sake, the Sierra Club did not contribute to any St. Louis County Council political campaigns, nor Stenger’s. They did, however, endorse Stenger in 2014 and spent $1,056 to notify their members of that endorsement.

Finally, we called a St. Louis County employee to inquire about the BCRC roster and their meeting minutes, but she said the committee had been disbanded (since their work was complete) and she did not know who served on it. She also said they didn’t appear to post any minutes of their meetings.