Large Building Construction In MA: What You Need To Know About New & Updated Building Codes

Written By Yve Torrie, Director Of Climate, Energy & Resilience

Many A Better City members own or develop large buildings in Massachusetts. They are, therefore, very familiar with the Massachusetts Building Energy Codes, which historically have been a two-tier system monitored by the Board of Building Regulations and Standards (BBRS):

  • The Base Building Energy Code is required to be updated every three years, as per the Green Communities Act of 2008, to ensure consistency with the most recent version of the International Energy Conservation Code (IECC).
  • The Stretch Energy Code is an above-code appendix to the Base Building Energy Code, that emphasizes energy performance, as opposed to prescriptive requirements. It aims at cost effective but more energy efficient construction than the “base” energy code. Introduced as part of the Green Communities Act of 2008, the Stretch Energy Code has been adopted by 299 of 351 cities and towns in Massachusetts.

The 2021 Climate Act introduced some changes to this two-tier system. It required a new climate-focused energy code option, a Municipal Opt-In Specialized Stretch Energy Code, to be created by the Massachusetts Department of Energy Resources (DOER) and promulgated by December 2022. This new code would include net-zero building performance standards, a definition of a net-zero building, and be designed to achieve statutory commitments to MA GHG emission limits and sub-limits, including a 50% GHG emissions reduction economy-wide by 2030 from 1990 levels. In addition, DOER, in consultation with the BBRS, is to update the Stretch Energy Code from time to time.

What has been a two-tier Energy Code system in Massachusetts, will become a three-tier code system by January 2023.

Updates to the Stretch Energy Code and a framework for the new Opt-In Specialized Stretch Energy Code were released to the public by DOER as a Straw Proposal on February 8th, 2022. In addition, A Better City held a meeting with DOER staff - Maggie McCarey, Energy Efficiency Director, Ian Finlayson, Deputy Director of the Energy Efficiency Division, and Paul Ormond, Efficiency Engineer - on March 4th. This meeting provided an opportunity for A Better City members to ask questions, provide comments, and raise issues of concern directly with DOER staff. Ahead of the March 4th meeting, questions were gathered and provided to DOER to help frame a fruitful conversation. Based on those questions, DOER gave the following presentation.

This meeting, along with additional comments provided by members formed the basis of A Better City’s comment letter submitted to DOER on March 18th. The letter lays out a set of comments and associated recommendations, and a set of questions that members have requested additional clarity on. 

A summary of comments and their associated recommendations include:
  • A Better City members expressed concern about the impact that the updated Stretch Energy Code and new Municipal Opt-In Specialized Stretch Energy Code could have on electrical grid reliability, capacity, resiliency, and affordability once adopted. A Better City, therefore, recommended DOER commission and publish a study on the impact that the electrification of the building (and transportation) sector may have on grid reliability, capacity, resiliency, and affordability—and the steps that the state and utilities must take to keep up with increasing demands for an affordable and reliable clean energy supply within buildings. 
  • A Better City members noted that source energy usage intensity would be a better indicator of total GHG emitted by a new building for building performance calculations as it measures both site energy as well as the energy from the energy generation process. A Better City, therefore, recommended that DOER consider the use of source energy intensity for building performance calculations and explore the opportunity for microgrids, utility-scale storage, and renewable energy in the finalized stretch code.
  • A Better City members understand that the modeling to inform the Straw Proposal was performed before the COVID-19 pandemic and may not account for factors like increased energy usage associated with upgraded HVAC and indoor air quality systems due to heightened health and safety concerns. A Better City, therefore, recommended that DOER publish the modeling that was used to inform the Straw Proposal and, if necessary, update the modeling to ensure economic viability under current COVID-19 recovery realities. 
  • A Better City members expressed concern that there has not been sufficient collaboration and coordination between the Board of Building Regulations and Standards (BBRS) and DOER on the Base Building Code update, nor the Straw Proposal, as mandated by the Climate Act of 2021. A Better City, therefore, recommended that to help inform DOER’s Straw Proposal and to ensure alignment with updates to the Base Building Code, the Commonwealth immediately fill the vacant seat for a commercial and industrial building energy efficiency expert on the BBRS. 
  • A Better City members focused on equitable workforce development opportunities and expressed concern with the complexity of both the updated Stretch Energy Code and Municipal Opt-In Stretch Energy Code. They said this complexity sets a high bars to entry for a workforce that will be needed to ramp up quickly to meet new construction demand. A Better City, therefore, requested that DOER consider simplifying the Straw Proposal development to ensure a new and essential workforce can be trained to implement the updated and new stretch code requirements and to design equitable workforce development opportunities that specifically help train historically disinvested communities. 
  • A Better City members noted that in addition to workforce development constraints, another specific area of concern regarding market preparedness is in “embodied carbon requirements” of the Stretch Code and whether current low-carbon construction materials’ supply chain and associated markets in New England are sufficient to meet low embodied carbon materials’ demand. A Better City, therefore, recommended assessing the feasibility of including an embodied carbon requirement in the Straw Proposal and completing a supply chain and market analysis to inform the viability of all components of the proposed stretch energy codes. 
A summary of questions that members have requested additional clarity on include: 
  • How the Straw Proposal will relate to adjacent, developing municipal zoning codes.
  • What retrofit threshold is trigged by each code.
  • When a building is deemed “high ventilation,” and what does “partial electrification is mandatory” mean for such high ventilation buildings.
  • What does the “on-site renewable generation when feasible” requirement means within the Opt-In Specialized Stretch Energy Code, and what role PPAs will play in that code.
  • How much of a building is required to be pre-wired for space heating under the Straw Proposal.
  • How targets will be set for GHG reduction requirements in healthcare occupancies.
  • What equipment was modeled to achieve an 80% effectiveness for heat recovery?
  • What percentage of reduced HVAC cost was used for the Straw Proposal’s analysis to determine the incremental cost to build.

In terms of the next steps, DOER plans to release an initial draft of the update to the Stretch Energy Code and the new Specialized Opt-In Stretch Energy Code language in Spring 2022, based on public comments and outreach. Over the summer of 2022, DOER will hold public hearings on the draft code language. After reviewing public comment, DOER will revise the code language and publish the final update to the Stretch Energy Code and the New Opt-In Specialized Stretch Energy Code in Fall 2022.

A Better City will remain engaged throughout this process. Please reach out to Yve Torrie with any comments and questions.


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