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How New Building Codes Could Help Fight Climate Change The KC City Council is set to continue discussing implementation of new building codes at their Aug. 10 meeting.

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Above image credit: Activists sit inside City Hall on July 13, while the Neighborhood Planning and Development Committee deliberates on updating building codes. Groups like the Sierra Club and Sunrise Movement have been prominent during these meetings. (Zach Bauman | The Beacon)
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4 minute read

William Davies thinks action on climate change is urgent, and adopting new building codes in Kansas City would be a step in the right direction. 

“Folks are looking to Kansas City for leadership and we shouldn’t shy away from that,” said Davies, an organizer with the Sierra Club. “We’re not saying that this is the magic bullet, but this is a critical piece.”

Sierra Club and other local climate action groups have advocated for updates to the city’s use of the International Energy Conservation Code for a few years. 

Those opposed to adopting the updated code without amendments say it would increase costs for consumers. The new code calls for increased insulation of new homes, which would decrease energy usage but may increase the cost of building the home as well. 

“This is really a question of whether or not is the appropriate time and the appropriate environment in which to drastically increase the cost of housing production in a city that has frequently said that we are in the midst of a housing crisis, on top of being in a climate crisis,” said Will Ruder, executive vice president of the Home Builders Association of Greater Kansas City. 

Kansas City currently uses the 2012 IECC code and hesitated to adopt the 2018 code, which provided for more energy efficiency, for financial reasons. 

“The City would save money by moving directly to the 2021 IECC instead of first adopting the 2018 IECC and then later adopting the 2021 IECC,” according to the ordinance fact sheet. 

The city’s Neighborhood Planning and Development Committee plans to address the IECC plan again at its Aug. 10 meeting. Councilwoman Andrea Bough, who represents the 6th District and sits on the committee, said she wants to move forward with the code. However, she understands there are conflicting views. 

“We’re trying to make sure we’re balancing affordable housing with implementation of the new codes,” Bough said. 

How the IECC and Building Codes Work

The IECC informs states how to build while being energy efficient, and new guidelines are released every three years. 

According to the Energy-Efficient Codes Coalition, the 2015 and 2018 IECCs were only “slightly more energy efficient than the 2012 version,” due to opposition from local and state officials. However, the 2021 code was 9% more efficient than in 2018. 

“The 2021 codes are the first to really address our Paris (Accord) commitments and how we decarbonize our houses,” said Stephen Melton, who leads the local Citizens’ Climate Lobby, a group often present at Neighborhood Planning and Development meetings. 

It’s important to adopt the building codes now and follow its guidance, Melton said, especially regarding insulation. He said it will save builders money if new homes are built with enhanced insulation, rather than trying to retrofit existing homes to fit the updated standards. 

“The work now is to quit building homes that need to be retrofitted,” Melton said. “We can put this insulation in homes for about $6,000 a home, and if you build the homes wrong and you have to put it in later, it’s like $50,000.”

Melton said those opposed to the building codes’ adoption are worried about losing income, specifically income tied to the fossil fuel industry. He added there’s a possibility jobs would increase as a result of the codes, as more resources would be poured into homebuilding. 

Ruder, the leader of the Home Builders Association of Greater Kansas City, said over 950 houses were built in Kansas City last year under the most recent code. However, he says this does not constitute a significant improvement in emissions and energy use, given the small percentage this housing takes up compared to the entire Kansas City area. 

Altering existing houses is the best option right now, Ruder said. 

“Changing out the light bulbs all to LED, putting insulation in attics and piping insulation into walls, that’s where you’re going to get the biggest bang for your buck,” Ruder said. “Only concentrating on new home construction is not going to get our community to a place where we can feel good about having made a meaningful impact on our emission goals.”

Melton says it’s true a small number of energy-efficient homes are built each year, but making some progress by following the updated code is better than making none. 

“When you’re digging yourself into a hole, the first thing you do is quit digging,” Melton said. 

What Does the Future Hold for Kansas City Climate Action?

Residents packed inside the chambers of City Hall on a Wednesday in mid-July, holding signs reading “Vote climate for our children” and “Protect our earth.” Public pressure like this has been a common occurrence over the past few months. 

Davies said he’s glad different groups have been so involved in raising awareness about the building codes, including his own, the local chapter of the Sierra Club. 

“That’s one of the great things about this process – the attention that the council has given to the peoples’ voices, like centering their voices in deliberation and making sure there’s public testimony,” Davies said. 

Advocacy has been a long process for both sides. Melton said he’s hopeful for Kansas City’s future and sees the adoption of these codes as a step in the right direction.

“It’s difficult for politicians to do difficult things, but if Kansas City does this, it makes it easier to spread it to surrounding communities,” Melton said. “Kansas City has been a leader in climate action for a decade.”

Kansas City has already taken action on climate, as the Climate Protection Steering Committee formally endorsed a climate plan early in July. The City Council will consider the plan next. More affordable, energy-efficient housing was part of the plan’s provisions. 

This is a hard decision to make, Bough said, but she agrees it’s a necessary one. 

“I kind of feel like we’re in a chicken and egg situation, where other communities may be looking to Kansas City to take the lead and adopt the more energy efficient codes,” Bough said. “We need to be the leader in the region, especially in a week where we’ve had four days of 100 degree weather.”

This story first appeared on The Beacon, a member of the KC Media Collective. Abby Shepherd is a reporting intern for The Beacon. She is from Olathe, Kansas, and is a rising senior at the University of Kansas.

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