Code raises housing bar

Posted Feb. 03, 2011, at 11:40 p.m.

The statewide building code that went into effect Dec. 1 will rankle some, and in the anti-regulation mood that holds sway in Augusta, those complaints will find support. Though some political hay might be made in repealing the code, that course would set Maine back. As with other new, complex laws, tweaks may be needed. But the new standards are key to helping Maine achieve some important goals, including energy independence.

The code applies to municipalities with 2,000 or more residents. In addition to its structural standards, the code addresses the best insulation practices. As a cold-weather state that relies heavily on No. 2 heating oil and its volatile cost, Maine houses must be better insulated. The new code addresses overlooked problems such as foundation insulation.

“It’s meant to be protective of consumers,” Dylan Voorhees of the Natural Resources Council of Maine said. While some legislators claim it has gone over like a lead balloon among contractors, the code had industry support. Among the groups endorsing the code were the Associated General Contractors of Maine, the Home Builders and Remodelers Association of Maine, the Retail Lumber Dealers Association of Maine, the Maine Real Estate and Developers Association and the Maine Building Officials and Inspectors Association. And 40 other states have similar codes.

By making new houses better-built and better-insulated, the code increases the value of houses, a boon to consumers when the time to sell comes. In a state with one of the oldest housing stocks in the nation, this is an important consideration. As older houses are renovated, and as new ones are built, state leaders are correct in raising the bar.

Better-built and better-insulated houses will cost more to construct, as critics note. But if those houses retain heat better, the higher standards will pay for themselves in energy savings. In fact, Mr. Voorhees of NRCM says, the better-insulated homes will see a net savings of $200 annually.

Another cost concern relates to enforcement. Many of the smaller towns in Maine do not have code enforcement officers on staff. In those communities, contractors will have to pay third-party inspectors to review their work. It is likely, as critics argue, that this cost will be passed on to consumers. But that cost is modest, and it helps ensure that consumers are getting their money’s worth on the much larger cost of the construction.

Maine’s housing stock reflects its economic past. Many of the houses in dire need of repair or renovation were constructed in the post-World War II period, and often were built by their owners. Those houses, and many of the pre-1976 mobile homes, reflect a general poverty that held sway over much of the state from about 1930 until about 1980. Yet, many of the houses built in the post-Civil War through World War I era are grand, well-constructed and remain in fine form.

Mainers deserve quality, energy-efficient houses. The new code ensures that more will be built. It must not be rolled back.

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