Senate panel votes to kill building code update supporters say would save energy, improve safety

Voting along party lines, members of a state Senate committee rejected an update to Wisconsin’s commercial building codes Thursday by a vote of 3-2. Supporters said the new codes would improve energy efficiency and reduce emissions that contribute to global warming.

The proposal would bring Wisconsin’s standards up to date with the 2021 International Energy Conservation Code. Wisconsin’s last code update was based on standards set in 2015, according to testimony at a public hearing in July.

The vote in the Senate Housing, Rural Issues and Forestry Committee was taken by paper ballot Thursday without an in-person debate. The motion that Republicans on the committee wrote to block the code change stated that the state hadn’t adequately analyzed the cost to business or local governments of implementing and complying with the revisions.

At a July 18 hearing held jointly with the Assembly Housing and Real Estate Committee, witnesses for the state Department of Safety and Professional Services (DSPS) and for the state Commercial Building Code Council said the update would improve building safety as well as help reduce energy costs. 

Mick Schwedler, representing a professional association for heating, air conditioning and ventilation industry engineers, said the new standard was projected to cut construction costs by $1 per square foot for a mid-rise apartment building, and save $3.50 per square foot over 30 years.

“The same cost effectiveness study also shows net and energy savings for small offices, small hotels in standalone retail buildings that are even greater than the average life-cycle cost savings for all building types,” Schwedler testified.

Adopting the new standards would be “critical to reducing air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions associated with energy usage by commercial buildings,” testified Erik Kanter of Clean Wisconsin. “Emissions from buildings are a significant contributor to climate change.”

Over time, if the new code is not adopted, building owners’ insurance costs would likely increase, according to Michael Tierney, legislative liaison for DSPS.

The only hearing testimony against the code update came from Associated Builders & Contractors (ABC), the trade group for nonunion building contractors, who said it would create an unnecessary hardship for construction projects.

“One thing we know for sure, is that the 2021 code is going to be, energy-wise, stricter than the current code,” said Steve Klessig, an architect whose design-build firm is an ABC member. “The current code, energy-wise, is already difficult for many popular building types in Wisconsin to comply with.”

While not providing testimony, several other business lobbies registered in opposition to the rules update, including Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, the National Federation of Independent Business, the Wisconsin Builders Association, the Wisconsin Ready Mixed Concrete Association, the Wisconsin Realtors Association and NAIOP, which represents commercial and industrial real estate developers.

Republican lawmakers at the July hearing signaled their skepticism of the proposed code update.

“We always have to weigh out safety vs. cost,” said Rep. Robert Brooks (R-Saukville), chair of the Assembly committee. “We could require everybody to build a brick house, because they’re going to be much more stable,” Brooks added. “We don’t do that in a free-market system.”

Also at the hearing, Sen. Rob Stafsholt (R-New Richmond) said that lawmakers should think about reducing regulations, which he characterized as part of “the nanny state.” Rather than government trying “to impose all these little rules and regulations,” he argued that fear of criticism on social media was enough to encourage contractors to do a good job. 

“Most of the contractors I know really want to build a quality building. They want people to be safe, and they place their name on that,” Stafsholt said. “I’m going to try to urge that we actually eliminate codes and restrictions and allow the market to take the brunt of that and do what it’s meant to do.”

While the Senate committee voted down the rule Thursday, the Assembly committee took no action on it, referring it instead to the Joint Committee for the Review of Administrative Rules (JCRAR). The committee has frequently exercised its power to block regulations proposed by administrative agencies since Democratic Gov. Tony Evers first took office in January 2019.

Amy Barrilleaux, spokesperson for Clean Wisconsin, said Thursday that despite the vote to block the code, the organization will continue to advocate for its adoption and to explain to  the public why it is important.

“The cheapest energy is the energy you don’t use, so conservation and efficiency are key to saving money and protecting our climate,” Barrilleaux said.

While “building codes probably don’t come to mind” for many people considering saving energy or addressing climate change, “we need much more attention on this issue because buildings are huge contributors of greenhouse gas emissions,” she said. “Wisconsin is falling behind on these updates, and it’s costing us. It’s leaving money and jobs on the table.”

Sen. Mark Spreitzer (D-Beloit), a member of the Senate committee who voted against killing the new code Thursday, said that “we’re just setting ourselves back” by failing to adopt it.

“Why would the public not want to make sure that at least if something new is being built, that it has the best chance possible of being safe?” Spreitzer told the Wisconsin Examiner. “There’s a reason codes are updated as we learn more and develop new techniques and new technology, and we’re missing an opportunity to update along with that.”



originally published at https%3A%2F%2Fwisconsinexaminer.com%2F2023%2F08%2F11%2Fsenate-panel-votes-to-kill-building-code-update-supporters-say-would-save-energy-improve-safety%2F by Erik Gunn

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