Policy Update: The Massachusetts Stretch

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Isaac Elnecave, a member of the PHIUS certification team, has written this update on the Massachusetts stretch cove, the latest installment of his policy updates.

Over the last 8 years, Massachusetts has made significant progress towards making the passive house (PHIUS+) standard an integral part of its building energy code. This effort points the way to the end goal of creating a cost-effective net-zero energy code.

Besides its statewide base energy code, which is an amended version of the latest International Energy Conservation Code (IECC) model code, the Board of Building Regulations and Standards (BBRS) in Massachusetts has, since 2009, promulgated a “stretch” energy code. The base energy code governs the minimum energy saving requirements in buildings throughout the state. The requirements include: the amount of insulation required in ceilings, walls and foundations; window performance; the level of air tightness; ventilation requirements; the efficacy of lighting and the efficiency of HVAC equipment. It is often described as the worst possible building (from an energy perspective) that can legally be built.

A stretch energy code incorporates similar measures and design approaches but mandates energy efficiency requirements that result in higher performance buildings than those meeting the base energy code. While the base energy code is the default requirement across all towns and cities in the Commonwealth, the stretch energy code must be affirmatively adopted by local municipalities that want to enforce it (at which point, it supplements and overrides the base energy code in that jurisdiction). Importantly, unlike New York State, because the BBRS approves the stretch code, municipalities that adopt it cannot amend it.

In both the Base and Stretch codes in Massachusetts, there is a section for alternative compliance strategies, which specifically includes passive house in both the low-rise residential energy code chapter and the commercial energy code chapter. Under the requirements of its current edition, and in fact since 2012, in any jurisdiction that adopts the stretch code in Massachusetts, a PHIUS+ certified passive house automatically meets code. The current code amendments specify that the annual heating demand for PHIUS certified home or commercial building must be less than 10 kbtu/ft2/year; a value easily met by all certified PHIUS buildings.

The latest edition of the Massachusetts stretch code has just been adopted but has not yet been promulgated* — the expected promulgation date is February 8, 2020 with an effective date of Aug 8, 2020. There will be two significant changes. First, PHIUS itself has updated its standard to PHIUS + 2018 from PHIUS + 2015. Second, with this new edition, a residential or commercial building will be code compliant when it passes the pre-certification stage (much like saying a typical house is given code approval once the plans have been approved.) The updated energy code, based on the IECC 2018, shifts the passive house compliance option from the 10 kBtu/ft2/year metric to an option to seek PHIUS precertification prior to pulling a permit. A project must demonstrate that it has been submitted for final certification by PHIUS to receive the certificate of occupancy. Because PHIUS maintains a rigorous review process through the end of construction, this approach ensures a high quality of construction.

Passive house certification requirements are significantly more stringent than even the other alternative paths in the stretch code (the most commonly used path in the Massachusetts residential stretch code allows for an Energy Rating Index score of 55, which is well above the score typically achieved by a certified passive house).

Massachusetts provides an excellent example of how to use incentives to spur the development of high-performance buildings. Mass Save®, the statewide energy efficiency program in Massachusetts, launched a mid- to high-rise passive house incentive program in the summer of 2019. In the first 6 months over 40 projects with over 3,000 passive house units in development have signed up for the program.  As more projects are built meeting PHIUS standards either through the stretch code or through Mass Save, the universe of designers and builders who become proficient in the construction of high-performance builders grows. This proficiency will result in greater confidence among construction professionals and lower costs with respect to high performance buildings.

As the PHIUS standard includes a pathway to net-zero construction, including it in the stretch and base energy code provides a path for future improvements. In Massachusetts, stretch code development will now focus on a ‘net-zero’ code to run alongside an amended IECC 2021 base code. Having the passive house pathway in the energy codes has introduced designers and builders to the tools and techniques necessary for building cost-effective net-zero single-family and multi-family dwelling. PHIUS looks forward to working with Massachusetts Department of Energy Resources, BBRS and other key stakeholders in making a net-zero code a reality.

Massachusetts in one of three states and one municipality that have incorporated the PHIUS standard in the energy code. New York was discussed in a previous blog (Policy Update: New York State, Two Steps Forward, One Step Back, January 16, 2020). I’ll discuss efforts in Washington State and the city of Denver in a future post.

* Adoption means voting and signing by government official. Promulgation (it specifically means the decree that puts a law into effect), in practice, refers to when the agency in charge of enforcing the law signs off on the rules and regulations relating to the law.

 

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