Where Do We Go From Here?

The ICC has allowed the IECC development process to be manipulated by one of its strategic partners, to the detriment of most of its own members (among others). Here’s a breakdown of how we got to this point, what the new process looks like, and what it may foretell for our country’s ability to reduce its residential carbon footprint.  

Do you ever have a line from a song just pop into your head? I get that… a lot. It’s probably due to my lifelong love of music. Anyway, while I was researching this column, the line that cites the title of “Where Do We Go From Here?” by Filter started playing between my ears. You’ll see why in a couple of minutes.

In case you didn’t read about it here or elsewhere, the IECC development process has undergone an overhaul. It is now following a standards process, yet it retains the word “code” in the name. 

The residential committee (which is the scope of this column) is now a consensus committee and has been greatly expanded. Proposals are still submitted, reviewed, and voted on by the committee. On the surface, it doesn’t sound like much has changed. As they say, the devil is always in the details.

Why Was The IECC Development Process Changed? 

The reason for this overhaul was that in the 2021 IECC development process, the residential energy code made a sizable jump in efficiency. Energy efficiency advocates successfully campaigned governmental voting members to vote for efficiency measures… even to the point of approving some proposals that, off the record, they didn’t think would get approved. (That’s the nature of an open voting process; the final outcome is truly uncertain.) 

This “running of the table” understandably angered NAHB and their allies, even though an audit found that no rules were broken. In the fallout, pressure was applied to ICC’s Board from all sides, including NAHB, efficiency advocates and the U.S. House Committee on Energy and Commerce. (The ICC sent a 20-page response to the House Committee, which can be found here.) Public comments on a new code development process were solicited, submitted, and posted to the ICC website

In an attempt to placate all parties, the development process was switched to a standards development process, even though that was counter to the wishes of thousands of ICC’s own members. The residential committee was tripled in size, chairs and co-chairs were chosen, subcommittees were created, promises were made—and some have been kept.

The Upshot of ICC’s Changes

Governmental members now make up no more than one-third of the voting participants, compared to a previous share of 100 percent. They are also one of 9 total interest categories, which means they are in the minority no matter how you slice it. 

One committee member I interviewed expressed concern about the time commitment for each committee member. In their estimation, it had increased three-fold from the previous process, and that made it seem like “the balance of power is now shifted because two-thirds are paid professionals and 1/3 are code officials.” 

The implication being that for code officials, this was in addition to their day jobs, while this was the day job of the paid professionals. So much for it being the governmental members’ code… I mean, standard.

Besides stripping governmental members of most of their voting authority, why does this matter? The consensus committee requires a two-thirds majority to “approve a revision or addendum to part or all of a standard.” In the words of one committee member, “The process has more potential for collaboration, but ICC members no longer have the power they once had”. Another member stated, “The process is designed to make it hard to change” the code/standard.

Just as important as the committee makeup is the scope of the committee. It took the committee a couple of months to agree to a Goals statement, though here is where things get even more interesting.

ICC’s Issue with Rollbacks

As part of the establishment of the new process, the ICC published a fact sheet of sorts to compare the “old” IECC development process to the new standards process. (See inset.) Created just 2 hours before a March 4, 2021 ICC Board meeting, it stated in the very first row that “rollbacks are prohibited.” 

ICC Advancing Energy Efficiency (as of 03-21)

Later that day, during an executive session of the ICC Board (minutes redacted, probably for national security purposes), they held a “lengthy discussion about the future of the IECC.” They revised the intent and scope of the 2024 IECC and claimed that it would contain “commitments for increasing the energy efficiency (in) each edition.”

Somehow, it took seven months, four ICC Board meetings, and one residential consensus committee meeting to finally reflect the new scope and intent in the aforementioned IECC fact sheet. 

In early October 2021, a new fact sheet was created and it no longer contained the words “rollbacks are prohibited.” When asked to explain how and why that phrase was removed, the ICC responded that there was “confusion around whether the term ‘rollback’ applied to code editions or code provisions, (so) the PDF was revised to more closely reflect the language in the new scope and intent”. 

ICC Advancing Energy Efficiency (as of 10-21)

The ICC went on to explain that the scope and intent of the IECC states: “The code is updated on a three-year cycle with each subsequent edition providing increased energy savings over the prior edition.” Put another way, rollback proposals are allowed, as long as the overall code/standard doesn’t go backward. When asked if there was a definition for the word “rollback,” the ICC did not comment.

NAHB Pushes Back on Efficiency Gains

The residential consensus committee first met in September 2021. At that initial meeting, they began to discuss the committee’s Goals statement. That discussion was tabled until their November 2021 meeting. 

According to all three committee members I interviewed, the chair and co-chairs wanted to establish a goal of a 7 percent efficiency gain. That number was not going to appear in the code, but rather become a goal for the committee to achieve via approved proposals. 

This was met with a lot of resistance from a couple of NAHB representatives on the committee. The committee voted to approve the following Goals statement by a vote of 24-11, or nearly the slimmest 2/3 majority possible:

“Facilitate consensus to achieve lifecycle-cost-effective energy efficiency improvements in the next edition of the IECC-R as compared to the 2021 IECC-R. Concise, analytical arguments shall respect various stakeholder priorities and time commitments. The goals of the consensus are to provide increased efficiency and energy performance in comparison to 2021 IECC to maintain the glidepath to net zero energy buildings by 2030. Additional savings and optional measures will be pursued including non-mandatory appendices incorporating additional energy efficiency and greenhouse gas reduction resources.”

ICC was asked to confirm discussion of the 7 percent goal and to provide context on why that goal did not make it into the Goals statement, given the lack of detail in the meeting minutes. ICC dodged the question, instead stating that the “final goals statement developed and approved by the full committee is published and available on the Code Council website.”

Net-Zero Used As a Crutch?

The final sentence in that Goals statement brings us to another point of concern among the committee members I interviewed. There was a fear that the ICC would view the appendices as a path to meet their stated efficiency goals. 

If that held true, then there would be no incentive to see the efficiency of the code increase, since a net-zero appendix was already adopted in the 2021 IECC. In essence, the net-zero appendix could be used as a crutch, though as one committee member pointed out, it would be wise if HBAs used it (and/or local stretch codes) as market signals on how to get to net-zero construction.

I asked the ICC if a code or standard that only has a net-zero pathway in a non-mandatory/optional appendix or stretch code suffices as a net-zero code or standard in their eyes. Here is what they had to say:

“The Code Council develops model codes that serve as the basis for building regulations adopted by governments. Through the content of the model codes (including appendices), jurisdictions can select provisions that meet their specific policy goals and community needs. … The 2021 IECC includes, and future editions will include, provisions for the achievement of zero energy buildings.”

The ICC signaled their intention to establish an Energy Efficiency and Carbon Advisory Council as part of their “Leading the Way to Energy Efficiency” campaign. According to the ICC’s own website, this Council is supposed to allow “governmental and built environment leaders to advise on which additional greenhouse gas reduction policies the IECC should integrate, the pace that the IECC’s baseline efficiency requirements should advance, and needs and gaps that the Code Council should work to address”. 

However, this new Council was never mentioned in the 20-page response to the US House Committee. Furthermore, we are (as of press time) nearly one year past the ICC Board’s decision to revamp the IECC development process, and the Energy Efficiency and Carbon Advisory Council has yet to be established. This group is supposed to be advising the IECC process, but that process is already well under way. Maybe this new council is meant to advise on the 2027 IECC?

Finally, I asked each committee member if they had any other concerns about the new process. One committee member stated that, in their opinion, there were “a lot of cracks in the door to let things through.” This comment was in regards to the entire public draft #1 being open for public comment, thus rendering the first proposal submittal deadline kind of unimportant. They also felt it would be better if “the ICC didn’t give so much power to the committees, and instead acted like the SDO (standards development organization).”

Author’s Perspective

The way I interpret the above is that if the 2021 IECC already meets the ICC’s stated goals that they shared with the US House Committee on Energy and Commerce, then any additional efficiency gains will have to come at the state and local level. That will prove to be a challenge.

For example, the state of Illinois has a history of being near the front of the pack when it comes to keeping its energy code up-to-date. They are nearing the end of their state adoption process right now, and through two (of three) rounds of votes (as of press time), they have decided to keep some 2018 prescriptive values (Table R402) and rejected EV-ready and electrification proposals because … they weren’t found in the 2021 model code. (Well, they were in there, but thanks to the ICC Board, who overruled the overwhelming majority of their own voting members, those provisions were removed.)

Technical and energy efficiency advancements can get relegated to the appendix, but here’s the thing: Appendices aren’t even required reading, let alone required to adopt. Can you really take credit for something that can so easily be ignored?

The ICC said it themselves: “The Code Council develops model codes that serve as the basis for building regulations adopted by governments.” They’re right; the model code can be tailored to suit local circumstances and situations. Yet, the ICC has often preferred to stay out of the state and local code adoption process. 

If they have a model code that, by and large, remains in stasis, and they won’t defend it against weakening amendments at the lower levels, then how can they hope to accomplish the goals they lead us all to believe they wanted?

I’m hearing the line from that song again.