Snow in July

If they could, no doubt the National Ski Areas Association (NSAA) would lobby the supreme powers for snow in July. More winter would be good for business. Winter all year would be even better. If they could, they would; that’s what most organizations tend to do. They promote their self-interests without regard for larger public interests. What matters is what’s good for them, today. Under the sanctified umbrella of a larger group—acronym and all—somehow positions that would be viewed in an individual as selfish and narrow-minded morph into collective righteous causes. Baseball? Boating? Swimming? Not our problem. You can hear them proudly pronouncing: “We’ve done our research and we’re very sure that snow in July would make for a better world.” It’s easy to imagine they’d even believe it.

The problem with special interest organizations is that they get all tangled up in themselves, lose perspective, eventually become dead wrong, and often do harmful things with their accumulated influence. I do not believe the people involved have perverse intentions, but what is true and right can become groundless shifting sands when the primary purpose of the organization is to support and promote that which (they think) most benefits its membership.

As an example: The American Automobile Association (AAA) has over 46 million members (second only to the Catholic Church), nearly all of whom joined for the roadside assistance and travel services, not to support their not-so-public lobbying efforts. Yet the mission of AAA since 1902 has been to give cars and car manufacturers clout and they do so with zeal and sometimes recklessness. “For the most part, on the big ticket issues, AAA and the Center for Auto Safety are on opposite sides,” says Clarence Ditlow, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based auto safety group, a nonprofit consumer organization. They’ve lobbied against the Clean Air Act, against every automobile pollution control effort and lobbied against the airbag law. You sign up for more worry-free travel, but you get your personal investment in pollution and highway carnage.

Now, for today’s villain: The National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) has won another important battle. It helped defeat a proposal to raise the energy efficiency requirements of the International Energy Conservation Code (IECC) and the International Residential Code (IRC). This story was reported in the November issue of Energy Design Update by outgoing editor Martin Holladay.* The proposal was affectionately called the “thirty percent solution” because it combined a number of easily and inexpensively implemented improvements to reduce energy consumption in new homes by thirty percent.

While thirty percent may seem like a lot, it’s important to understand the current regulations are pretty much on the floor. They allow the typical home to be a virtual energy sieve and a severe economic burden for homeowners when energy costs rise to reflect their real value. The millions of homes built to these standards are also a huge barrier to achieving energy independence as a country. One of our biggest problems today is to find a way to upgrade the energy performance of the existing housing stock. The answer isn’t easy because the problem is deep in the bones of the buildings, hidden between the exterior and the interior finishes. What’s usually in there—stuffed between the framing members—is loosely fitted fiberglass insulation and a tangle of wires, electrical boxes and sometimes even plumbing and heating pipes. The result is a typically abysmal level of energy efficiency and a conundrum: to fix the homes, you have to nearly demolish the interior or exterior and what’s left at that point begs the question of whether it’s worth the cost. Often it’s not.

While we wrestle with this vexing issue, the least we can do is to raise the bar for new homes, which is precisely what the “thirty percent solution” proposed to do. It was a plan endorsed by the US Department of Energy, the US Conference of Mayors, the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy (ACEE) and the Natural Resources Defense Council and many others. But the NAHB opposed it and used their huge influence to defeat it. In their view, it was too expensive for homeowners, difficult to achieve and an oversight hassle for code officials. This is wrongheaded. The NAHB should be helping its members find ways to build better homes, not using their muscle to ensure that builders can continue to be sloppy and ignorant.

The proposal they defeated primarily focused on modest increases in R-value, more stringent requirements for air barriers and that ductwork be installed within the thermal envelope or improved (no leaks!) and inspected. These are all things we learned in 1978 and have been a part of better building practice for many of us since. The biggest issue isn’t the expense; it’s the problem of teaching people how to build better. It’s like the difference between measuring and cutting to ¼ inch vs.1/16 inch. It takes exactly the same number of steps and the same amount of effort, but the result is dramatically different. In the same way, the “thirty percent solution” only asked that builders do things right and that code officials see that they do. It’s not harder, but it does require the equivalent of cutting to a finer line. It requires only that you know what you’re doing and that you care. The small cost increases would be more than offset by the energy savings, making the consumer, the environment and national security all winners in the bargain.

When I was a young builder in the early 1970s, I joined the NAHB with a sense of pride. I thought joining the “club” was a way of signaling my legitimacy and hoped it would also provide me with support and guidance in my new business. I quickly learned that the NAHB provided more support for the largest builders and were therefore far more concerned about quantity of homes built rather than their quality. Still, I remained a member, hoping to find something through their publications and research that would be of use. In the early 1980s, I discovered that they were fighting against changes in the code that were intended to improve the safety of stairs. The allowable standard at the time was an 8 ¼ inch riser and a 9 inch tread, but studies showed that there were too many stair accidents with that configuration. (Stairs are the most dangerous place in the house. There are literally tens of thousands of falls and thousands of fatalities that happen every year as people are navigating the stairs in their own homes!) Therefore, there were proposals to reduce the riser height to 7.5 inches and the tread width to 10 inches. It made sense to me, but I was shocked to discover that the NAHB was fighting against the change. Their argument wasn’t sophisticated; it was patently selfish, but was couched in terms that sounded like they were fighting for the consumer: It would eat up floor space. Stairs would cost more. Homes would cost more. Fewer people could afford the dream of owning their own home.

It was hogwash. I wrote futile letters in protest, but eventually just cancelled my membership. This kind of negative effort is shameful. How could an association made up of homebuilders use its resources to fight against safety improvements in homes? There’s no reasonable excuse. It beggars belief.

From the EDU report, we now know they will fight with equal determination to prevent improvements in energy efficiency. What’s next? They will apparently fight for anything that makes it easier for their member-builders to put up low quality buildings with the least amount of structural, energy or safety requirements.

Despite the NAHB efforts, eventually building codes do get more rigorous and stringent. Structural improvements get enforced after earthquakes, hurricanes and other natural events prove the existing standards are inadequate. Energy efficiency improvements will come about when the cost of energy is unaffordable, perhaps when people start freezing to death in their homes. Safety improvements will finally happen after enough people have died in preventable accidents. Structural improvements happen after enough homes have been destroyed by one natural event or another. The phrases for every code improvement seem to need the names of disastrous events or multiple human tragedies attached to them. Things get better, but it always comes the slow, hard, painful way because progress is consistently retarded by the diligent, resourceful efforts of the NAHB minions to keep padding the floor instead of raising the bar.

Unfortunately, the NAHB is winning for now. All these years later, the stairs are not safer and energy efficiency isn’t better. And the code minimums are always the maximums for the average American home. A higher performing, safer house is what people deserve for their investment, but they’ll continue to get far less because the battles being fought by the considerable lobbying weight of the NAHB, in defiance of conscience and common sense, are systematically killing a once-proud industry.

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*Energy Design Update (EDU) has long been one of my top sources for up-to-date information from the frontlines of efforts to improve energy efficiency in housing. EDU is quick to report about new systems and products, but it is equally quick to debunk overzealous marketing claims. Martin Holladay will be missed. I always looked forward to reading his reports, as they were typically carefully researched and objective, but came with a refreshing tinge of impatience. As much as anyone, Martin knows that dramatically improving the energy performance of our housing is as easy as making it a priority; there are no technical or economic barriers.

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