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Builders wrestling with new ‘green energy’ regs

JULIE LANE PHOTO At back-to-back seminars last week, David Brignati of Newport Ventures outlined new New York State building codes intended to save energy.
JULIE LANE PHOTO During morning and afternoon seminars at the library last week, architect David Brignati outlined new New York State building codes intended to save energy.

New state regulations on energy conservation, in effect since October 2016, are causing consternation for architects and contractors and concerns for building department officials charged with enforcement.

On the positive side, Building Inspector Reed Karen said, is the result that two four-hour sessions for architects and contractors sponsored by his department at the Shelter Island Library last week helped inform them that he’s not the bad guy. The building inspector is simply the person charged with ensuring his department doesn’t approve construction that fails to meet the “green energy” codes.

The new regulations can be complex for many builders, Mr. Karen said. He compared it working on an old automobile or today’s computerized vehicles, which require mechanics to learn new systems.

“It’s a balancing act,” he said about his responsibilities to enforce the code while working with architects and contractors to ensure they understand what’s expected.

Architect David Brignati of Newport Ventures in Schenectady ran the morning and afternoon sessions at the library June 14, He told about 25 people attending the first session that if there’s a single word that sums up the aim of the regulations it’s “airtight,” .

And if there’s a single word that summed up the response of the contractors and architects to the new requirements, it’s “skeptical.”

The regulations, outlined in a manual that’s about three quarters of an inch thick, cover everything from heating and ventilation, roofing, duct work and insulation to window installation and lighting.

The premise is that all spaces in construction that are considered “conditioned” — space within a building’s thermal envelope heated or cooled using fossil fuel or electricity — must be insulated. That includes spaces adjacent to those rooms.

The new green energy guidelines are designed to look at a building in its entirety, not as individual components, Mr. Brignati said. He compared it to the way various systems in the human body interact with one another.

Contractor Peter Reich asked about the cost of implementing the new regulations, saying he estimated a project could cost a consumer between $25,000 and $30,000 more than it would under previous regulations.

Mr. Brignati said that was way off base, citing additional costs at between $2,500 and $3,000. And while he couldn’t provide the timing of a payback for original costs realized through energy saving regulations, he predicted most costs would be mitigated over a “reasonable amount of time.”

There are various means of testing compliance with the new regulations, Mr. Brignati said. Some aspects of construction may not meet exact regulations, but can function as trade-offs with other elements that exceed requirements. On the other hand, he said, there are construction requirements that are mandatory.

A “blower door test,” for example, is mandatory. This tests the air tightness of a structure using a strong fan mounted in an exterior door and pulling air out of the house, lowering the air pressure inside. That allows the higher outside air to flow in revealing unsealed cracks.

“I understand the builders’ perspective,” said Herb Stelljes, a member of the town’s Green Options Committee, speaking of their skepticism and resistance.

He acknowledged a problem mentioned after the morning seminar by an attendee. In trying to make a house airtight to reduce energy consumption and avoid moisture condensation, other health problems can emerge from a lack of sufficient air exchanges.

“It’s a legitimate problem,” Mr. Stelljes said.

Mr. Reich, a cancer survivor, questioned a requirement to use fire retardant treated wood in flooring, saying he understood it was carcinogenic.

While Mr. Brignati didn’t respond directly, the National Fire Protection Association maintains that fire retardant treatments are tested for safety and don’t pose such a danger, since using chromium copper arsenate (CCA) lumber for residential buildings in December 2003, eliminates the danger. In the United States, CCA-treated wood may be used for other purposes, but not in residential buildings.

Town Engineer John Cronin, who attended one of the seminars, said, “There are [negative] issues with aspects of the new code, but they aren’t environmental.”

Mr. Stelljes agreed, and said environmental considerations are sometimes more important than money.

“We created this problem and we have to solve it,” he said about environmental dangers that have emerged.

Ignoring them, M. Stelljes said, is like running up credit card debt that ultimately must be paid.