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Thu., June 17, 2010

Editorial: Prudent to postpone adding green standards

The Washington Building Codes Council didn’t reverse gears on energy efficiency standards last week, but it shifted into neutral.

That left builders relieved, environmentalists frustrated and Gov. Chris Gregoire perhaps a little of each.

The governor has been a big supporter of green building standards and had resisted pleas from builders to cancel or delay them, but it was her letter last week that persuaded the council to hold off.

It was the appropriate call.

Even without a catastrophic oil spill on the front pages daily, few would argue that the nation needs to curb its appetite for energy. But the prospect of adverse economic consequences calls for a measured response, including in the way efficiencies are attained when homes and offices are designed and equipped.

That’s what was behind the code that the council was scheduled to implement on July 1. Among other provisions, it would have required new houses to be equipped with high-efficiency furnaces and hot water heaters that would make new homes more expensive. While the council contended the cost differential would have been modest enough that utility bill savings would have offset it, builders argued it would be much higher, up to $15,000, and would stall the construction industry, putting thousands out of work. With the state’s unemployment rate just above 9 percent, that’s a frightening risk, and it was enough to cause Gregoire to agree to wait.

She wrote to the council, urging a nine-month delay – long enough to get us through the current construction season and avoid renewed recessionary impacts as the federal funds that got construction back on its feet expire.

The council has temporarily extended the implementation date to Oct. 27, but a public hearing scheduled for Sept. 10 in Spokane will help determine whether the delay lasts until April. Eventually, possibly before April, the question could be out of the Building Code Council’s hands.

Unmentioned in the governor’s letter, but undoubtedly on her mind, the Building Industry Association of Washington has taken the council to federal court, challenging the state’s authority to impose regulations the builders contend are overruled by the federal government.

That’s a discussion for another time. For now, a temporary pause won’t foreclose society’s push for energy efficiency, but it will allow time to see where economic trends and legal questions lead. It was a sensible decision.

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