Stretch Codes Pull Toward Green Communities

building codesLast week, the City Council of Chickopee, MA, adopted building codes that are more stringent than statewide codes, according to MassLive. It is far from the only community that has mulled over this option.

The move in Chickopee is not dramatic because it applies only to residential new builds and matches up closely with new statewide codes set to take effect on January 1 of next year, according to the story. However, the idea that many communities are discussing or actually implementing two classes of codes that go beyond those on the books  – called “stretch” and “reach” — is important.

Stretch codes go beyond basics, according to Cosimina Panetti, the Vice President of the Building Codes Assistance Project (BCAP). “A stretch energy code is a voluntary appendix to a mandatory statewide minimum energy code that allows municipalities to adopt a uniform beyond code option to achieve greater levels of energy efficiency.”

Its cousin is a reach code.  BCAP distinguishes reach and stretch codes by pointing out that the former are more broadly applied:

Unlike stretch codes (which allow municipalities to adopt a uniform beyond code option), reach codes are a set of statewide optional construction standards for energy efficiency that exceed the requirements of the state’s mandatory codes.

There are, according to the Whole Building Design Guide, more than 300 reach codes in effect in the United States.

Panetti told Energy Manager Today that stretch codes are not yet too common, but have gotten a foothold in Vermont and Oregon in addition to Massachusetts. New York is the next in line. The state, according to Panetti, is “ ‘stretching’ beyond just energy efficiency and will include green code provisions for both residential and commercial buildings.”

Massachusetts is at the center of stretch code adoption. The state says that as of late October, 186 communities in which 62.2 percent of the state’s residents live in communities with stretch codes in place.

Stretch codes are not random. Technically, the are Appendix 115AA to the 8th Edition of the Massachusetts State Building Code. The details are offered by the state in a Q&A. The rules cover new build residential structures of three or fewer stories, existing residential buildings and a variety of commercial structures. The Q&A notes buildings that are exempt from stretch codes: Those of less than 5,000 square feet, “existing renovations” and supermarkets, laboratories and warehouses of less than 40,000 square feet.

Stretch codes have return on investment (ROI) and other financial ramifications. The best information is available on homes. A study performed on the town of Needham, MA, found that owners of new homes will qualify for $1,250 Energy Star rebates and tax credits for as much as $2,000. Tax credits up to 30 percent for upgrades to an existing structure’s envelope could be available. Other incentives also are available.

The study points to 1.2 year payback and ROI of 83 percent with incentives and 3.7 years and ROI of 27 percent without for structures cutting their energy use by 31 percent.

The Center for EcoTechnology provides good insight. Stretch codes, the piece says, look at the overall efficiency of the structure. They don’t mandate requirements for each structural element of the building. Commercial structures, the piece says, have less latitude due to design requirements.

Momentum appears to be building — 12 communities in Massachusetts are set to adopt stretch codes on January 1 — but don’t enjoy universal support. In October, SouthCoast Today reported that a vote to use stretch codes in Middleboro, MA, was defeated. The story reports on a special town meeting to consider the proposal. Concerns that led to the vote included costs, potential impact on historic structures and homeowner loss of control over renovations.

Stretch codes are deeply related to efforts to make codes more environmentally friendly. Indeed, the Chicopee initiative, the MassLive story says, “was part of a larger proposal to officially turn the city into a Green Community.” It seems likely that initiatives aimed at using codes as a baseline and encouraging or mandating greater energy efficiency – whether they are called “stretch,” “reach” or some other name — will spread beyond the small number of states that now employ them.

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