Strict state energy standards likely to raise price of home ownership; county scrambles to fix

  • A new home is under construction in Kona on in this 2015 file photo. (Laura Rumisnki/West Hawaii Today)
  • A new home is under construction in Kona in this 2015 file photo. (Laura Ruminski/West Hawaii Today)

Building a house on Hawaii Island just got a lot more complicated — and more expensive — because the county missed a deadline to enact local exemptions to a strict new statewide energy code.

Hawaii counties had two years to implement changes to the International Energy Conservation Code, but neither the Department of Public Works nor the County Council initiated a new law to do so. Both Maui and Kauai passed bills to lessen the impact by taking their own particular climate zones into consideration.

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For now, Hawaii County is stuck with the state code that’s also being used in Honolulu, at least for the several months it’s expected to take to draft a bill and get it through the council. The new state rules went into effect last week.

Architects and builders, some of whom attended an Aug. 8 information session with the State Energy Office, were vocal about their displeasure, but they don’t want their names used because they fear repercussions from the department, which has authority to approve or deny their applications.

Pahoa architect Charles Traylor was critical of the code, saying the state is forcing builders into a one-size-fits-all building design that was created for mainland structures in harsher climates. Traylor said most of his design work is now for mainland clients, because of his frustrations with the county Building Division.

“The best thing to do with the International Energy Code and the International Building Code is tear it up and throw it away and use a code that’s meant for tropical climates,” Traylor said. “It’s just totally, totally ridiculous.”

The state says the updated code will reduce energy use in buildings by almost one-third, saving more than $1 billion in energy costs statewide over the next 20 years.

Traylor said he built a house in Puna four years ago that’s “sturdy and stout and comfortable,” using single-wall construction and taking advantage of mauka-makai cross-ventilation. Houses like this don’t need heating and air conditioning, he said, which saves money and energy.

The new code requires double-paned windows, fully insulated walls, floors and roofs and a completely sealed house. Opponents say closing up houses and installing drywall is unsustainable because it raises energy costs and encourages mold, fungus and insects.

There’s a “Tropical Zone” option for houses at the 2,400-foot elevation or below, provided half or less of the residence is air-conditioned. A third, “performance compliance,” option uses software to allow designers to plug in features that add to or subtract from energy consumption to arrive at the required level.

To use the Tropical Zone rules, there must be ceiling fans in every bedroom plus the main living area and openable windows to be at least 14% of each room’s floor area. That usually means a switch to jalousie windows over the more common slider style, at three times the cost. The ventilation requirements alone could add almost $10,000 to the window cost of a two-bedroom package home, one architect said.

It’s also creating a challenge for designers of two-story houses, who are finding all the required window space makes it difficult to get the wall strength needed to support a second story.

“I know there’s a lot of uproar there,” said Howard C. Wiig, energy analyst at the Hawaii State Energy Office and chairman of the state Building Code Council. “The Big Island is complicated by the fact that you have so many elevations.”

Still, he said, “The county is free to amend in any way they wish.”

Public Works Director David Yamamoto and Hilo Councilwoman Sue Lee Loy, chairwoman of the Public Works and Mass Transit Committee, said they are working on a solution.

“We’re working on it,” Yamamoto said Wednesday. “Being that other county governments were able to do this, I don’t see any reason why it can’t be done here.”

Lee Loy said Friday she’s been getting calls and emails from design professionals who are worried about the costs the new requirements will add to constructing a new home, a cost that will have to be passed to the buyer. Lee Loy said she’d asked the state whether it had done a cost analysis and was told it had not.

Lee Loy’s bill, which also involves a major rework of county building, electrical and plumbing codes, is expected to go the council in October or November. She’s working on the bill with Puna Councilman Matt Kanealii-Kleinfelder, an electrician.

Yamamoto said his office is currently studying Maui’s and Kauai’s exemptions to see how they could be applied to Hawaii County. Lee Loy agrees that’s a good place to start.

“It seems like a no-brainer to borrow what Maui and Kauai already have,” she said.

It’s a hot topic. The last time the council took up the building code in 2010, it went through seven drafts over two years, more than 100 people testified and at one point it got so heated that police had to be called to clear the council chambers.

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It’s unclear why county officials didn’t act sooner on the newest state requirements, given the two year heads-up. Either the council or the administration can introduce bills. Lee Loy said the Building Division held stakeholder meetings with design professionals about the changes but “did that separate and apart from the council.”

Email Nancy Cook Lauer at ncook-lauer@westhawaiitoday.com.

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