Massachusetts needs a Net Zero building code

State board should not stand in the way

IN MASSACHUSETTS, buildings contribute to nearly half of all carbon pollution when accounting for electricity, heating, and cooling. In many cities and towns, especially urban centers, buildings can produce more than 70 percent of the carbon pollution. The energy that it takes to power buildings on a daily basis combined with the emissions generated by the construction process have a serious impact on the state’s carbon footprint and pose a significant barrier to achieving the Commonwealth’s mandated requirement to reduce greenhouse gas pollution by 80 percent by 2050.

To address the climate crisis, we need to drastically reduce the building sector’s carbon pollution. Updating the state’s building code to establish a Net Zero Stretch Code is key to making that happen.

Massachusetts’ building energy code, set by the state’s Board of Building Regulations and Standards (BBRS), determines the minimum energy efficiency requirements with which all new construction projects and major renovations must comply. In 2009, the state adopted a Stretch Code that created a pathway for communities to opt into higher energy efficiency standards than required in the state’s Base Code. Over the past decade, however, as efficiency practices and technologies have improved and our need to transition away from fossil fuels has become increasingly urgent, the Stretch Code has failed to keep up.

Today, more than three-quarters of Massachusetts communities have adopted the Commonwealth’s Stretch Code. While this is great progress for clean energy, towns and cities that want to hold their buildings to a higher standard of energy efficiency are constrained by a code that is no longer a “stretch” and that falls far short of the standards that the climate crisis necessitates. Cities and towns in Massachusetts are unable to adopt building energy efficiency requirements that exceed that state building code, and therefore hit the ceiling imposed by the current Stretch Code.

While the BBRS has the power to update the Stretch Code to Net Zero – an ask that many leaders across the state have now made – the Board has yet to take the necessary steps to do so. In June, the BBRS requested that its Energy Advisory Committee begin looking into a Net Zero code. In October, however, as described in the December 8 Commonwealth article, “Cracking the Climate Code,” BBRS voted to restructure the advisory committee reducing the overall size of it. The restructuring also replaced energy experts, who could help make progress toward energy efficiency, with building contractors, who are less likely to promote it. This shift is worrisome, as it seems unlikely to benefit the process of developing the innovative Net Zero building energy code for Massachusetts needed to help tackle the climate crisis.

Beyond being critical for our environment, more energy efficient buildings will bring down the costs of utility bills, saving homeowners and renters thousands of dollars over the lifetime of the building. Renters, low-income people, and communities of color who are disproportionately affected by the high costs of energy and the pollutants generated by fossil fuels will have greater access to cost-saving resources and cleaner, safer homes. Vulnerable populations will live and work in more resilient structures that promote passive survivability, enabling them to shelter comfortably in place for extended periods during power outages, severe storms, and extreme heat and cold. Developing buildings with more sustainable materials now will also save the Commonwealth the much greater cost of having to retrofit infrastructure in the future.

Meet the Author

Cameron Peterson

Director of clean energy, Metropolitan Area Planning Council
Meet the Author
Communities like Boston, Worcester, Somerville, New Bedford, Brookline, Cambridge, and others are taking major steps toward establishing Net Zero requirements, and mayors across the state are voicing their support for an updated Stretch Code that will empower their communities to do the same. However, it’s become increasingly clear that a disconnect exists between the actions of the BBRS and the ambitious climate goals to which cities and towns across the state are committing. If we want to continue to carry the mantle of being a national leader in clean energy and truly make progress in addressing climate change, our state-appointed boards should chart the way to a more sustainable and equitable future for the Commonwealth, not stand in the way of it.

Cameron Peterson is director of the clean energy department at the Metropolitan Area Planning Council and Rebecca Winterich-Knox is net zero organizer at the Massachusetts Climate Action Network.