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Texas builders adapt to new energy standards

Know the Code

More than 100,000 new homes were built in Texas during 2000, a sure sign that despite economic rumblings, many Texans are still willing and able to invest in a piece of the American Dream.

But new building means new demands for power. And these demands can contribute to pollution in the Lone Star State.

Senate Bill 5 (S.B. 5), approved by the 2001 Legislature, addresses Texas' future air-quality needs by changing the way buildings are constructed.

According to code
S.B. 5, which took effect on September 1, 2001, aims to reduce Texas air pollution by creating the state's first building codes. The theory behind the codes is that by improving the energy efficiency of new homes, less energy will be needed from Texas power plants, thus reducing their need for fuel and subsequently lowering their emissions.

For most of the last century, several groups, including Building Officials and Code Administrators Inc., the International Conference of Building Officials and the Southern Building Code Congress International, developed building codes for use in the U.S. In 1994, these groups formed the International Code Council in an effort to eliminate the multiple codes.

S.B. 5 adopts the energy efficiency requirements of the council's International Residential Code (IRC) as Texas' standard for single-family residential construction. The first version of the IRC was published in 2000. S.B. 5 also adopts the council's International Energy Conservation Code (IECC) as Texas' standard for all other residential, commercial and industrial construction.

In the zone
Texas weather can vary widely, and that can mean different energy needs. With this in mind, S.B. 5 divides the state into eight "climate zones," each with different requirements. Builders determine which sections of the new code apply to their projects depending on where the project is.

In addition, S.B. 5 identifies 38 of the state's 254 counties as "affected" or "non-attainment" areas, which both mean the same thing--their air quality needs to be improved. All 38 counties share some common characteristics. Dr. Charles Culp, associate director of Texas A&M University's Energy Systems Laboratory (ESL) says the most notable common element is that they contain the bulk of the state's population.

"Anywhere you see a lot of people we've got a challenge," Culp says. ESL estimates almost 80 percent of the people in Texas live in the 38 counties identified in S.B. 5.

The affected counties include the Dallas/Fort Worth metroplex area; the Austin-San Antonio corridor; Houston and the Gulf Coast area; and El Paso County.

Dub Taylor of the State Energy Conservation Office (SECO) says the code is definitely aimed at those areas.

"S.B. 5 contains much stronger language for those 38 counties," says Taylor. "The code is designed for urban areas, and outside of those areas there is some flexibility."

The remaining 216 Texas counties and unincorporated areas are called "non-affected" areas. Some of these unincorporated areas lie within one of the 38 affected counties, but are outside of any municipal control. These counties and areas are not exempt from the new codes. On the contrary, they have to comply with them sooner than affected areas.

Texas Attorney General John Cornyn issued an opinion in January 2002 stating that the 38 non-attainment counties have until September 1, 2002, to start enforcing the new codes, even though S.B. 5 went into effect on September 1, 2001. The other 216 counties and unincorporated areas were subject to the law on its effective date. New homes in these areas must meet the standards set forth by S.B. 5. Also, under S.B. 5, municipalities and counties can make local amendments to the state building codes as long as they are no less stringent than the state code.

Teaching to build
With statewide codes in place, building to meet the new standards might appear to be easy. Culp, however, says it is not that simple.

"We're doing everything we can to help," Culp says, "but we've got to train people, give them tools and teach them. If we don't get out and train them, have someone saying "here's what this means," then we'll not be as successful as we need to be."

S.B. 5 charged ESL with developing a guide to help builders know what the new codes require. The form is a first step in helping builders make sure they are in compliance.

Specific penalties, such as fines, for non-compliance have not been laid out, but the cost to a builder of replacing building components could add up.

The guide--called the Texas Residential Building Guide to Energy Code Compliance--contains the climate-divided map of Texas and tables builders can use to reference the specific requirements for windows, insulation and foundation materials needed for their region.

Getting up to speed
Builders are not the only ones who need training on the state's new codes.

"The training is aimed at builders and enforcement both," says SECO's Taylor.

Code enforcement starts at the municipal level. In addition to city and county codes already applied to new structures, code enforcement officers must now be trained in the requirements of S.B. 5.

During the last three months of 2001 and the early part of 2002, SECO conducted four training workshops on the codes--in Austin, Houston, Dallas and Corpus Christi--in conjunction with the Texas Municipal League, Texas Conference of Urban Counties and Texas Association of Counties.

The workshops, jointly funded by SECO and the U.S. Department of Energy, help representatives of cities, counties, utility districts and other affected organizations learn how to enforce the state's new codes and to inform them of opportunities for grant funding.

"[The meetings] have helped tremendously as far as getting acquainted with guidelines," says Nancy Fisher of the Texas Association of Builders (TAB). "The organizers have done a great job of conducting them, and they have been heavily attended. Builders are turning out for them, heating and air-conditioning guys, subcontractors and other affected trades are all taking the time to go."

Several more workshops will be held before the September 1, 2002 deadline for non-attainment areas to begin complying with the codes. Workshops will be held in Tyler on May 16, in Laredo on May 28 and in McAllen on May 29. A complete list of planned meeting sites and dates can be found on the SECO Web site at www.seco.cpa.state.tx.us.

New materials needed
Fisher says TAB has supported S.B. 5 since it began making its way through the legislative process. But, she adds, "It's a pretty massive process getting these statewide codes [implemented]."

Fisher also points out one problem builders may have for a time: shortages in the energy-efficient materials required by the code. She says that with a shift like this, suppliers will need some time to catch up and get their products into the marketplace.

SECO's Taylor says that, in some cases at least, this is starting to happen.

"Take window companies, for example," he says. "They've just been waiting for the final word to come down on a deadline saying, "we can make whatever it is that is needed." Now that they know, they're starting to ramp up their supply to serve the Texas market."

In the end, Fisher says, "Builders across the state just want to do their part. They want to make sure Texas is in compliance with the federal clean air standards." Clint Shields

Clint Shields