Oregon Looks to “Reach” Code for Energy, Carbon Savings

Guest Blog by Angus Duncan, Pacific Northwest Consultant to NRDC

Senate Bill 1518, to be considered during Oregon’s “short” February 2022 legislative session, is a critical pushback against the embedded lowest common denominator aspect of building codes when it comes to energy and climate.

The bill would offer communities their choice of adopting the prevailing building code or one that is markedly more ambitious in prompting more energy and greenhouse gas (GHG) efficient new buildings.  This “reach” code has been on the state’s environmental agenda since the state’s Global Warming Commission “Roadmap to 2020” strategy for achieving an overall 10% emissions reduction below 1990 levels by 2020 (back-cast note from 2022:  we missed).

That 2010 Commission recommended: (1) building codes that aligned with the state’s newly-adopted GHG reduction goals; and (2) incenting new buildings that would achieve an 80% reduction from 2010 efficiency averages (later recommendations adopted the “reach” terminology).

There are both policy and political drivers finally elevating this for legislative attention. 

Two factual givens of structural emissions are: (1) building energy use is responsible for some 40% of the country’s GHG emissions today; and (2) 80% of the buildings we will occupy in 2050 are already in place today.  Most new buildings sited today will take their place in that cohort.  If Oregon and other states are going to take control of and reduce building emissions – primarily heating, cooling and lighting but also plug loads, commuting, and other less intuitive sources – their initial siting and architecture will largely lock in those emissions.

The political drivers underlying the Reach Code are several also.  First, there is great diversity among Oregon communities in the kinds of buildings being sited, and in the willingness and ability of the community to adopt and enforce the more aggressive code.  Equally, the state’s contractors and construction trades resist, for obvious and not irrational reasons, different codes prevailing in each community that reflect that community’s preferences.

The Reach Code is designed to preserve a single statewide code for most elements of a new building, and two alternative pathways for the energy and emissions-related elements.  This minimizes the demands on the building and inspector communities while helping the state achieve its policy outcomes.

This achievement rests also on the expectation that the state’s largest and most dynamic metropolitan areas are also the ones most committed to climate action.  Oregon has 374 incorporated cities.  Fifty-six per cent of the population, and the majority of the commercial and residential square footage, are in the ten largest.

Most of these communities want the option of a Reach Code, and their legislators are expected to be supportive.  The political question remains, will the more conservative areas of the state, many with more, ummm, reserved opinions on the imperatives of climate change – but often also communities with fewer building code enforcement resources – acquiesce in the two-pronged approach that leaves the choice of code to them?  And on this basis, will their legislators support, or at least not oppose, this solution?  Oregon has seen two Republican legislator walkouts on climate bills in recent sessions that, under the state’s arcane quorum rule (two-thirds of members in each chamber), have arrested all legislative activity until their return was negotiated.  

The Reach Code bill is designed to achieve climate goals while not setting off conservative alarms.  Will it?  Stay tuned.

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