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Colorado Approves Updates to Building Codes to Address Climate Change

The bill was among a suite of measures that will save Coloradans money on home heating, housing, and transportation while keeping the air clean.

A bill approved by Colorado lawmakers will require local governments to update their building codes to adopt standards to make new buildings and homes more energy-efficient and less polluting.

Buildings are the source of about 40% of the worldwide heat-trapping emissions, so reducing those emissions is considered essential to dealing with climate change. Under House Bill 22-1362, a new state board will write building codes that are as strong or stronger than the latest international energy conservation codes for buildings.

In Colorado, building codes are adopted and enforced at the local level but are subject to statewide minimum requirements. The bill updates the requirements and also applies to major renovations and additions to buildings and homes.

In addition, the legislation also provides for grants for high-efficiency electric heating in public buildings and at a neighborhood scale.

The bill, signed by Gov. Jared Polis’, was among a suite of measures that will save Coloradans money on home heating, housing, and transportation “while helping to clean up our air and protect our future,” Elise Jones, executive director of the Southwest Energy Efficiency Project, said in a statement.

Colorado Energy Office

The Boulder-based organization and other conservation groups worked on the legislation.

But an industry representative questioned the bill’s benefits.

“While it’s good, it’s certainly not enough and it’s certainly not aggressive enough to be addressing where the built environment needs to go over the next five to six years,” Deb Noller, CEO of Denver-based Switch Automation, said of HB 1362.

Switch Automation was started in Australia and moved its headquarters to the U.S. in 2016. The software company, which works with commercial customers on building management and making buildings more energy-efficient, relocated to Denver because of the universities, research institutions, and the fact that Colorado is “one of the most livable states across the U.S.,” Noller said.

“The most disappointing thing to me about this legislation is that it’s nowhere ambitious enough,” Noller said of the bill. “And it runs the risk that the jobs and the skills and the economic opportunity will go to the states that do understand how much of a transition the built environment is about to undergo.”

Noller said the process of writing and implementing new building codes will take the next five or six years when immediate solutions are needed to face the “existential crisis around climate change.”

“I would love for it to start tomorrow, but it will take effect in the coming years, local jurisdiction by local jurisdiction,” said Howard Geller, senior policy adviser to the Southwest Energy Efficiency Project.

However, Geller, who worked on the bill, said local governments want time to incorporate the updates. Cities and counties that update their building codes starting July 1, 2023, will have to adopt the international energy-related requirements.

A board appointed by the director of the Colorado Energy Office and the head of the state Department of Local Affairs will have the job of developing state building codes by June 2025.

“It’s a big step forward on energy and carbon performance for new buildings,” Geller said.

In the meantime, Noller said Colorado could follow models used elsewhere and immediately require owners to disclose the carbon footprint of larger buildings, which provides an incentive for owners to make improvements.

A 2021 Colorado law requires the energy use and emissions of buildings 50,000 square feet and larger to be logged into a public database. The data will be used to develop standards aimed at a 7% reduction in emissions across the sector by 2027 and 20% by 2030.

The first report by building owners is due at the end of 2022 for data from 2021. The Colorado Air Quality Control Commission will develop the standards in 2023.

While the 2021 law requires building owners to submit annual reports, Noller noted that compliance doesn’t begin until 2024 and buildings do not need to begin meeting the performance standards until 2026. The fines for violations, which range from $500 to $5,000, aren’t steep enough given the societal impacts of climate change, she added.

Building blocks to carbon reductions

Will Toor, executive director of the Colorado Energy Office, said the new legislation on building codes adds to the 2021 law and others designed to meet the state’s goals for reducing emissions. Previous measures focused on existing buildings.

Targets set by the legislature and in the Polis administration’s Greenhouse Gas Pollution Reduction Roadmap are reductions in emissions from 2005 levels of 26% by 2025; 50% by 2030; and 90% by 2050.

“The one significant strategy in the road map that didn’t move last year on the building side was a bill to strengthen energy codes to assure that new buildings are built in a way that is aligned with clean air and climate action. House Bill 1362, from our perspective, really achieves that,” Toor said.

Colorado has made progress in its quest to address climate change, said Meera Fickling, a senior climate policy analyst at Western Resource Advocates, a Boulder-based conservation group that also worked on the legislation. However, Fickling said the proof will be in the implementation of the new standards and rules.

“We have been concerned about some of the regulator timelines being pushed back at the Air Quality Control Commission,” Fickling said.

One example is the recent delay in writing rules for a plan to speed up the transition to electric trucks and buses.

Fickling said the legislation on building codes includes a grant program to help local governments adopt and enforce the codes and for training and technical assistance. Other grants are geared to help schools, local governments, state agencies, and special districts install energy-efficient heating equipment and help utilities, developers, and others to install electric heating equipment in several homes across a neighborhood.

When building codes are updated, new structures will have to be solar or electric ready, meaning they must have the capacity to accommodate electric vehicles and appliances and space for solar panels for people who want to use renewable energy and electric heating. There are exemptions for smaller roofs and shady areas.

“It is cheaper to build a home electric-ready than to retrofit later on,” Fickling said.

At least 30% of the grants would have to go to low-income communities disproportionately affected by pollution or ones affected by the closure of fossil-fuel plants or mines.

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