Idaho legislators often talk about the need for local control: who best to make decisions on their own behalf than local governments. But House Bill 547 would actually prevent local communities from having a say on building codes that differ from state codes.

Building codes may not be the most exciting topic, but they have a huge effect on our lives and environment. Codes set minimum construction standards – for things like wall bracing and insulation   – to ensure that newly built homes are safe, durable and energy efficient. Based on model codes updated every three years by industry professionals, modern codes can reduce energy use by 10 to 15%, saving you money and cleaning our air by avoiding power plant pollution. Ensuring that Idaho continues to enact strong codes is important so that our rapidly growing population enjoys safe, efficient homes.

Unfortunately, the Idaho Building Contractors Association has gummed up the collaborative process on state codes for years. Now the association wants to wrest the power to adopt strong codes from local decision makers who best understand their own communities. The Idaho Conservation League opposes HB 547 because we believe that Idaho communities should be able to craft building codes that reflect local needs.

Strong Codes Equal a Strong Idaho

Building codes establish minimum standards to ensure that new homes are built to last and be affordable to operate. Along with obvious things like adequately sized lumber and strong wall bracing, codes also set standards for insulation, window quality and air sealing. These are the three major factors that make a house either leaky and expensive or warm and affordable. Strong codes address a classic policy issue called the "split incentive": the builder doesn’t benefit from more insulation while the homeowner does – yet the homeowner cannot easily control or inspect the insulation levels in a new home. Idahoans rely on strong codes to protect their most important investment, their homes.

Idaho’s homes consume 21% of the energy we use in our state. About half of our electricity and all of the gas come from out-of-state fossil fuels. By making sure that  our homes don’t waste energy, we meaningfully protect our air quality while also reducing our reliance on out-of-state fuels and effects of price swings on Idaho consumers.

HB 547 Takes Power Away from Cities

Current Idaho law requires the Office of Building Safety to set statewide minimum codes. Then cities adopt local codes that either mirror these state minimums or are stronger for "good cause." For example, a city may want to address local concerns like snow loading, fire preparedness or the availability of particular construction materials. A city may wish to amend the state codes to address local administrative or inspection concerns. Or a city may want to help citizens save money – surely a good cause – and require additional energy conservation measures. Setting statewide minimums, with the ability to incorporate changes at the local level, provides an appropriate framework to address the differing needs of Idaho communities.

Now a special interest group – the Idaho Building Contractors Association – wants to change Idaho law. The Idaho BCA represents large-scale new home builders. Since at least 2011, the BCA has successfully thwarted the state-level code process so that the energy conservation standards for Idaho homes are stuck at 2009 levels. Despite repeated efforts by the Idaho Code Collaborative to find common ground to update state codes, the BCA has steadfastly opposed adopting the 2012 or 2015 standards.

Because the BCA has stymied the state code collaborative efforts, the city of Boise used its power under state law to update the city building codes to 2015 levels with adjustments to meet local needs. The city followed the state law by finding "good cause" based on the costs outweighing the benefits, the paralysis at the state level, and the desire for all builders to meet current best practices in the industry.

Now the BCA is backing HB 547, which would remove the power of cities to amend codes to address local concerns.The BCA argues that allowing communities to go beyond state standards would create a patchwork of rules. But really, the BCA wants to make sure that building codes do not require builders to meet modern industry best practices for insulation, quality windows and houses that don’t leak energy.

This is the strategy behind the BCA’s actions to gum up the state-level process and oppose local efforts to strengthen building codes that are in the best interest of local citizens. If successful, this strategy means new Idaho homes will continue to waste energy and cause families to pay more while polluting our air.

Return Power to Your Community!

The bill has moved through the House and now is up for consideration on the Senate floor. Now is your chance to tell your senator that local communities should be able to amend minimum state building codes to address local concerns. Take action now! [This action has ended.]