The six witnesses asked a legislative rules committee to delay updates meant to help Vermont reach its climate goals, contending that they could be disastrous without additional training and enforcement. Photo via Adobe Stock

Members of Vermont’s Legislative Committee on Administrative Rules convened Thursday for a surprisingly emotional session. 

Six builders and architects unanimously asked the panel, which is charged with approving state regulations, that proposed energy code updates be delayed until Vermont can implement better education, training, certification and enforcement for builders. 

The proposed amendments to Vermont’s Residential Building Energy Standards, drafted by the state Department of Public Service, are meant to get Vermont closer to its climate goals by decreasing the amount of fossil fuel used for heating.

But the builders contended that a delay was necessary to protect Vermont homeowners from shoddy and dangerous weatherization and construction. 

“The builder community, we’re telling you right now, we’re on the edge of requiring very dangerous building assemblies that most of us don’t understand,” Jason Webster of Huntington Homes testified. “I think it’s really dangerous to require an installation strategy that nobody has been trained on and nobody is looking over to ensure it’s done correctly.” 

Unlike other states, Vermont lacks a government agency with authority over energy codes. Efficiency Vermont provides only voluntary training and incentives, and while the Department of Public Service is required to recommend updates to the energy code every few years, it has no authority over implementation of the code by builders. 

As a result, adherence to the energy code has been voluntary and sporadic. In 2015, the last time it was measured, only half of residential construction adhered to the energy code, which has since gotten stricter. 

“(Massachusetts) has a full agency that is tasked with adopting and amending codes,” said Webster, whose business builds homes across New England. “Massachusetts has near 100% compliance on their target energy scores. They actually inspect, they actually certify, they actually train their builders to do it. 

“In Vermont, the energy code stands on its own,” he said. “No other state does it that way.”

As part of a law passed in 2020, Vermont is operating under a deadline to reduce climate emissions by ambitious targets in 2025, 2030 and 2050 or risk litigation. Only the transportation sector produces more emissions than those created by Vermonters heating homes and other buildings. 

But without a government authority to oversee implementation, witnesses testified, many builders will ignore the stricter energy code and Vermont will fail to meet its climate goals. 

Meanwhile, well-meaning contractors with no training or education in building science who try to follow the stricter energy code will likely create dangerous conditions for Vermont homeowners, including rot, mold and other air quality and structural problems, they said.

Several builders and architects shared horror stories of clients becoming disabled by mold sickness or discovering damage requiring almost $100,000 in remediation and repair traced back to mistakes in weatherization and construction. Currently, a Vermont homeowner’s only recourse upon finding failures and mold is expensive and years-long litigation.

“(The energy code) offers no consumer protection right now,” said Jim Bradley, founder of the building science consultancy Authenticated Building Performance Diagnostics in Cambridge. “When that is left in the lap of the client, where they have to go fix things, remediate things. It’s a waste of our resources, which are in finite supply, and a waste of our builders, which are in finite supply.” 

Bradley added that insurance companies willing to insure residential homes in Vermont — which he said are relatively few, given the lack of building code oversight and enforcement — might decide to leave due to the heightened risk of mold and structural failure should the stricter energy code not be coupled with training and enforcement. 

The recently passed housing bill S.100 mandates the creation of a committee to study and make recommendations on increasing awareness and compliance with the energy code. At the beginning of Thursday’s meeting, citing S.100, Sen. Chris Bray, D-Addison, moved to approve the amendments to the code. 

But the contractors and architects, in written and oral testimony, strongly recommended that the energy code updates be delayed until the new committee’s recommendations can be implemented. 

Montpelier architect Sandra Vitzthum listed for legislators the missing components to Vermont’s energy code: “Basic education for builders. Training for state staff that would help builders. An appeals process. A variance process — that’s important for historic buildings. Conflict resolution with other parts of the building code. Project review. Inspection during construction. Certification once the building is complete. Enforcement. Performance data.

“Honestly, we have no idea under our current code the performance and failures,” she said.

Builders and lawmakers referred several times to VTDigger’s investigation into spray foam insulation failures, which was published earlier that week. According to testimony during Thursday’s hearing, spray foam failures are just one subset of Vermont’s lack of building science know-how or oversight. 

Vermont has taken one step forward in this area in the past year by requiring contractors to register with the state and creating a mechanism for homeowners to submit complaints about contractors. 

Two architects testified that a government agency dedicated to the energy codes could also make sure that they aren’t in conflict with electrical and plumbing codes. For example, many homes would need electrical upgrades to support complete electrification, such as replacing gas ranges with induction ranges, and oil furnaces with air pump mini splits. 

In theory, according to calculations by the public service department, the stricter energy codes would add somewhere around $1,000 in upfront costs above the 2020 standards to an average new home’s construction cost. The department redesigned the code after the first submission, which estimated additional costs of $12,000. When the extra costs of the current proposal are spread across a mortgage’s monthly payments, they should be more than offset by energy cost savings.

But the builders who testified said that they weren’t concerned about the cost of code implementation. “I am the last person to recommend we need more enforcement by the government,” Collin Frisbie, vice president of Sterling Homes, testified. “It’s a health and safety issue. Will builders be fine? Yes, we will still make money. Will Vermonters be better off? No.” 

No one except representatives from the Department of Public Service supported implementation of the amendments to the code, and their clarifications were, in contrast, short and without apparent enthusiasm. By the end of the long session, all of the committee’s members seem to be convinced by the tradespeople’s testimony. 

“What I’m hearing is that by putting (Residential Building Energy Standards) in place without putting in place these other components, we’re doing a disservice to people in Vermont,” said Sen. Ginny Lyons, D-Chittenden Southeast. “I’m feeling really uncomfortable right now about putting in place something that isn’t going to happen and could cause huge problems. I think we might be better off sending this out until March 2024 as the closest time.” 

With just a few minutes left in the hearing, lawmakers were unclear on what they were allowed to do under the legislation’s rules to delay implementation, nor had they come to an agreement on how long to delay the implementation of the energy code amendments. 

Bray withdrew his recommendation to approve the code changes and instead moved to delay action for two weeks until the next meeting of the committee on June 8. 

“We have been begging the state for 20 years to fix this problem,” Vitzthum said. “We need to put our foot down, because it gets more serious with every update in the code. This is an untenable situation.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story overstated the Department of Public Services’ estimates of the proposed energy codes’ impact on upfront costs to the construction of new homes and misspelled an instance of Sandra Vitzthum’s name.