If you hear someone say they know building codes, take it with a grain of salt. The code book, just for homes, called the International Residential Code, is two inches thick of dense text in eight-point font on thin pages.
Reading is not easy.
Steve Onstad, owner of Evergreen Building Solutions and Santa Fe’s premier building science guru, is perhaps one whose opinions on code can be taken without salt.
Local home-building code watchers, who are very few in number, have long lamented that the city’s green building codes fall on them harder than apartment builders. Apartment builders do not have to meet the city’s Home Energy Rating System score of 60 like home builders do, nor do they have to meet the city’s water efficiency score. 70. There are no HERS or WERS requirements for apartments.
City officials, many of whom agree the inequity should change, are raising their collective arms and saying they are bound by the definition of “residences” in the International Residential Code. On the surface, they seem to be okay.
This definition states that residences are “single and two-family dwellings and townhouses not more than three stories above ground level with a separate means of egress.”
This clearly excludes apartment buildings, which must therefore follow the rules of the International Building Code, an even denser codebook applied to anything not covered by residential codes.
The city has long dreamed of having green energy and water conservation codes for commercial structures, but the endless variety of commercial uses immediately puts your hands up. The apartments, which are clearly residences but grouped with commercial structures, are subject to the city’s strict conservation rules.
Not so fast, says Onstad, who notes that the city has also adopted another subset of building codes based on the International Energy Conservation Code. When it did, it erroneously adopted the definition of residences from the general residential code.
What the city didn’t realize, Onstad says, is that the energy conservation code explicitly defines residences in broader terms than general residential codes. The definition of the conservation codes begins with single and two-family structures and townhouses, but then says: “as well as buildings of groups R-2, R-3 and R-4 of three stories or less”.
The apartments are R-2 buildings. Onstad is right. The city is wrong. Apartments can clearly be subject to the same energy and water conservation rules that single-family homes, duplexes and townhouses now follow in Santa Fe. All the city has to do is agree this definition of residences for its conservation codes rather than general residential codes.
This means apartments can be decoupled from commercial buildings now. What about four and five story apartments? Onstad says there’s nothing magical about conserving energy and water in housing as apartments rise in height. Other codes will come into play, such as elevators, fire suppression, and means of egress, but a dwelling is a dwelling no matter where it is in a building.
The search is underway for a permanent director of the city’s land use department, and acting director Jason Kluck has applied, but he’s expected to expedite this sensible change before a leadership decision is made.
The turnover of city administrators can lead to stasis. There’s a lot of talk, a lot of hand wringing (when not thrown in the air), and a lot of promises to study, but no movement on long overdue initiatives.
Who is the councilman to present these energy and water conservation code changes to the governing body for a vote?
Kim Shanahan has been a Santa Fe green builder since 1986 and a sustainability consultant since 2019. Contact him at [email protected]