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Should cities and towns adopt the future net zero stretch energy code?

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Cammy Peterson

Director of Clean Energy, Metropolitan Area Planning Council, a regional planning agency for 101 cities and towns in Greater Boston

Cammy Peterson
Cammy PetersonMarilyn Humphries

The new net zero stretch code the state must now develop as an option for cities and towns will pave the way for highly efficient buildings that are predominantly electric and fueled by renewables.

The state’s newly enacted climate law directs the Department of Energy Resources to write this new stretch code, which would set “net zero” standards for new construction — and possibly major renovations — exceeding those in the state building code or the existing stretch code. In municipalities adopting the new code, that could mean, for example, requiring highly efficient electric heating and cooling systems and renewable energy, with the goal that residential, commercial, and municipal buildings use no more energy than they generate. Communities should seize this opportunity to improve air quality, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, enhance comfort, and bolster resilience to extreme weather.

Municipal leaders have called for the new code to support their climate goals. Twenty-seven percent of Massachusetts’ greenhouse gas emissions result from building heating and hot-water systems. Add electricity from lighting, appliances, and other systems, and buildings constitute over 70 percent of emissions in some municipalities. State data shows that while most building construction between now and 2050 will likely occur by 2030, a net zero code by 2023 could reduce emissions 87 percent from new construction.


Affordable housing advocates have rejected the claim that the new code will increase production costs or slow housing construction. More efficient affordable units can actually improve the long-term financial viability for low-income residents.

Throughout Massachusetts, we are already seeing new net zero affordable buildings being constructed. One report estimates construction is ongoing or complete on over 7 million square feet of these buildings, including schools, homes, and laboratories. They feature robust building envelopes, and heat pumps that provide heating and cooling — by exchanging air between the inside and outside — and reduce operating costs.


Net zero buildings will greatly diminish the need for fossil fuels. These highly efficient buildings generally have lower peak electric demand so won’t overload the grid, and renewable costs are now often as low as fossil sources. Communities adopting the code will avoid locking in fossil fuels while retaining the option to rescind the code later. It’s a no-regrets strategy that advances both better buildings and climate goals.


Robert L. Brennan, Jr.

President of the CapeBuilt Companies; chair of the Government Affairs Committee for the Home Builders & Remodelers Association of Massachusetts; Amesbury resident

Robert Brennan
Robert Brennan

Municipalities should not adopt a net zero building code — nor should they be asked by lawmakers or others to do so — without first being informed of the costs of compliance, without understanding the impacts that increased building costs will have on housing production, and without the Commonwealth standing ready with new programs to offset the higher costs and support housing production.

Any objective consideration of a net zero building code must acknowledge the additional costs of construction — including for multi-family rental housing and “starter” homes. These costs will be further increased by the absence of a mature and competitive market for qualifying products and providers. Increased construction costs will impact housing production because they will be passed on to buyers or tenants. Some projects will simply fail to “pencil out” as financially viable in areas of the state where increased rents cannot be supported or higher purchase prices exceed what new buyers can afford.


Increased construction costs are not — standing alone — reason to reject a net zero code. However, municipalities and families should not be forced to choose between housing attainability and climate action. This conflict can be easily avoided. Now that the Legislature has put in motion an opt-in net zero code for municipalities, the Commonwealth has an opportunity and obligation to: (1) objectively calculate the cost implications of every new requirement that the administration considers as it drafts the code; (2) assess the cumulative impact of those additional costs on housing production; and (3) put in place climate and housing programs to mitigate those costs and avoid negative impacts on housing production.

These simple steps would allow the Commonwealth to move thoughtfully and effectively toward reducing fossil fuel emissions and continue to support housing production for families. Cost offsetting programs successfully fueled the Commonwealth’s last major climate initiative by boosting energy production from 3 MW in 2007 to over 2,000 MW in 2018. Similar net zero programs could include tax credits, robust product rebates, and low-interest loans for net zero home improvements.

The Home Builders and Remodelers Association of Massachusetts supports the advancement of both climate policy and housing production. Massachusetts can lead in both!

As told to Globe correspondent John Laidler. To suggest a topic, please contact laidler@globe.com.


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