Bedford Planning Board Back Expediting Adoption of Energy Efficiency Code

July 18, 2023

The Bedford Planning Board last week voted to recommend that the Select Board include adoption of the so-called state “specialized” building code on the November Special Town Meeting warrant.

The provisions, enacted by the Legislature in 2021, are intended to expedite reaching greenhouse gas reduction targets, through electrification and energy efficiency that reduces heating loads. 

Only 17 cities and towns have adopted the voluntary code. They include three of Bedford’s contiguous towns, Concord, Lexington, and Lincoln, as well as Boston, Brookline, and Cambridge.

According to the state Office of Energy Resources, the specialized code is “designed to ensure new construction that is consistent with a net-zero Massachusetts economy in 2050. Use of fossil fuels such as gas and propane or biomass is permitted but comes with additional requirements for on-site solar generation and pre-wiring for future electrification.”

The code applies only to new construction. It requires that single-family houses larger than 4,000 square feet be certified as “zero energy,” as well as pre-wiring for eventual electrification in new structures using fossil fuels. The code requires some rooftop solar photovoltaic panels in buildings using fossil fuels.

Last week’s Planning Board vote was not unanimous, although there was no objection to the specific content. Steve Hagen said he opposed the recommendation because “the Select Board should be analyzing this themselves from a broader perspective.” He said, “They know the Planning Board is in favor of it.” 

Jacinda Barbehenn said she felt it was premature, saying, “I don’t have enough detail to make an informed position.”

“In principle, it sounds like a great idea,” Barbehenn said. “I’m a little concerned about the added cost to build and sale prices. 

She noted that “it’s not something we can solve at a town level except to advocate collectively that we need to do a serious dive into the state building code,” particularly removing redundancies. “We keep adding things that make things more expensive.”

Supporting the specialized code was member Todd Crowley, who said, “I don’t see any compelling evidence that there is a significant cost burden associated with construction.”

Amy Lloyd said she is “very much in favor of adoption.” She emphasized that the requirements of the specialized code apply only to houses more than 4,000 square feet in area. “If someone can afford a house that big, then I don’t think cost is that big a concern,” she noted. She added that the current state energy “stretch code,” which has been adopted by 283 towns and cities, will be updated before the end of the year, and that will result in a “pretty tiny increment” when compared to the specialized code.

Barbehenn expressed concern that “small-scale builders don’t have the bandwidth to change their system of how they do things.” They will pass additional costs to buyers, she said. 

But Lloyd countered that “it’s not the consumers that we are focused on.” Developers, she said. “already have very large margins,” and their large homes target “a demographic that has rather large incomes. I don’t think that should be a major concern to us.”

She added that over the long run, the requirements of the specialized code “may turn out to be a benefit to the higher income demographic,” because their houses will be more energy efficient and sustainable. 

Planning Board Chair Chris Gittins also voted in favor of the recommendation. 

The Energy and Sustainability Committee also supports adopting the specialized code. The local climate action group Mothers Out Front is also aggressively promoting the “logical next step in implementing Bedford’s net zero plan for buildings.”

“The next generation deserves to have comfortable homes that are affordable to operate and not destructive to their climate,” the group’s literature states.

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