SB166 Puts North Carolinians’ Safety and Energy Savings on the Chopping Block 

Person installing insulation.

Some of North Carolina’s largest housing developers are once again pushing the General Assembly to weaken building codes and roll back fire safety measures, all while trying to boost the building industry’s influence on the state’s appointed Building Code Council. 

State legislators created the NC Building Code Council (NCBCC) in 1933 and authorized it to, in cooperation with the Commissioner of Insurance, prepare and adopt a State Building Code to “protect the public from dangerous and unsanitary buildings”. In 2013, legislators passed and Gov. Pat McCrory signed House Bill 120 into law, which shifted most of NC’s building and energy code updates from a three-year to six-year code cycle. 

Supporters of the change, including the NC Home Builders Association and developers, cited the burden and costs of buying new code books and training building inspectors every three years, with an even higher impact on rural counties. 

However, in recent years, legislators have approved substantial code changes annually, which subverts the responsibilities of the broad group of building experts currently serving on the NCBCC, frequently changing the rules and creating uncertainty for builders and contractors, not to mention the longtime, higher economic impact on NC home, apartment and building owners. 

When presenting a new bill this legislative session – Senate Bill 166 – in committees and on the House floor, the lead supporter, Rep. Mark Brody (R-Union and a contractor), described it as our “annual” building code regulatory reform bill.  

Fire marshals express concerns 

Check out this breakdown of Senate Bill 166 from the NC Fire Marshals’ Association (NCFMA). It uses the word “implore” and says everyone should “consider the consequences if passed.” When was the last time a firefighter “implored” you to do something and you thought, “Nah”? 

The NCFMA says changes in SB166 will “increase the fire risk to communities, occupants, and fire departments.” The changes may also raise insurance premiums, and they’re part of a multi-year strategy by developers to use their legislative influence to override expert advice, allowing large companies to build homes as cheaply as they can, then hand off the keys. 

The builders say code changes legislators pass are done in the name of affordable housing, but the intent is deeper: To dismantle key parts of North Carolina’s important building codes and to block, or control, future code changes or updates. As a result, North Carolinians who own these homes, multi-family apartments or commercial buildings will pay higher energy bills, and in some regions of the state suffer more costly damage from storms or flooding. 

Energy implications 

Last year’s HB488 and now SB166 also lock-in North Carolina’s woefully outdated energy conservation building code rules until 2031, which will result in more energy inefficient homes, apartments and buildings being built.  

Some builders and developers have fought updates to the energy codes, claiming a much higher cost and impact on housing affordability. However, the US Dept. of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory’s independent analysis found that the NCBCC’s latest proposed energy code would add about $5,000 to the cost of a home, but save $400 annually in energy bills. 

Wasting energy contributes to a needlessly higher load on our electric grid at a time of rising energy demand and rapidly increasing electric bills. If we want to reduce electric bills for ratepayers, more energy efficient buildings are key. In fact, buildings are responsible for 40% of total energy use in the United States, including 75% of all electricity use and 35% of US carbon emissions. 

Buildings last a long time. Up to 100 years. Building them right from the start is important. 

NCSEA has supported energy efficient and resilient building codes for decades, and we support updating the energy code at the NC Building Code Council. These long-overdue updates were on track last year, until the legislature stepped in and passed House Bill 488, which stopped two years of work by the NC Building Code Council, industry and stakeholders. 

That was the last time developers asked for a major power-shifting weakening of state building code laws. Over the veto objection of Gov. Roy Cooper, HB488 froze updates to the residential energy code rules until at least 2031. North Carolina’s residential and energy building codes have not seen substantial updates since 2012, and those were based on 2009 standards. 

Less than a year later, the builders say they need another 65+ pages of building code changes. The House tacked those onto SB166 and passed them in less than two weeks in early May. The bill was then referred to the Senate’s Rules Committee, with no additional action thus far. 

Citizens should be worried about SB166 

When a complex measure emerges whole like this, citizens should be wary. So should lawmakers. 

Among other things, this bill would: 

  • Change insulation requirements, which impacts energy efficiency. 
  • Shrink the Building Code Council, shifting appointments from the governor to a split with the legislature and removing expertise requirements for several posts. That includes dropping a required member to represent the general public, a contractor with expertise in coastal development, someone familiar with the fire code, as well as a municipal elected official or city manager. 
  • Weaken sprinkler and firewall regulations in townhomes. 
  • Require fewer inspections during the construction process for multi-family units. 
  • Prohibit the state from requiring the elevation of electric water heaters, putting them at risk in flooding. 

Shifted costs 

The NCFMA also says there are “significant indications that these changes can and will” affect fire department ISO (Insurance Service Office) ratings. When ISO ratings go up, so do homeowners insurance premiums. 

Sound familiar? It’s part of a pattern of shifting costs in the name of affordability. This was some of the analysis after HB488 became law: “Everybody’s going to be paying quite a bit more for homeowners’ insurance because …  our building codes are hopelessly out of date.” 

We’ll pay more for energy too, if SB166 passes as is. The construction lobby likes to talk about the free market demanding whatever energy efficiency we need, but how many first-time homebuyers and apartment renters do you think query their builder or landlord about energy efficiency, much less get concrete details on how much it will cost to heat or cool their home each month? 

Now, how many of them are worried about paying their electricity bills? 

And who among us thinks electricity bills will stop rising anytime soon? 

The NC Sustainable Energy Association is worried that Senate Bill 166 is part of a death-by-1,000-cuts strategy. The NC Building Code Council is made up of experts with a wide range of experience, and it’s staffed by the NC Department of Insurance. A state’s building code should not be written piecemeal by the General Assembly. 

2024 Hurricane Season 

This process has very real consequences. June 1 was the start of Hurricane Season in the Atlantic, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has predicted the highest number of storms in its history. North Carolina’s hazard resistance building codes – the ones meant to protect us from hurricanes and other disasters – are already poorly rated by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which assigned North Carolina a score of 0.0%. 

Zero. Point. Zero. Florida got 98.8%. 

Let the NC Building Code Council do its job. Update our state’s residential, commercial and energy codes on a regular schedule, currently set at every six years. Weigh costs – and not just builder costs – versus risks, but let that debate occur in the open, with the input of experts considered. 

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