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Environment and Outdoors

Contractors, Inspectors Prep For New Energy-Efficient Building Codes As Home Construction Rises In Maine

megan brooks
Construction on a home in Brixham, Maine.

With home construction on the rise in Maine, contractors will have some new requirements to contend with this summer. Starting July 1, the state is raising minimum standards for new home insulation and ventilation. It's part of government efforts to improve the energy efficiency of Maine's building stock.

The ultimate goal of realigning Maine's building codes is efficiency, to reduce the amount of energy needed for home heating and cooling, and reduce the consumption of fossil fuels.

"That's the hope," says Paul Demers, a former Kennebunk code officer who now holds the title of Maine's "State Building Official," a position the Legislature created alongside the new efficiency standards.

"In a climate that goes from extremes of last week being in the 80s and 90s to being 10 or 15 or 20 below zero without a second thought in the wintertime," Demers says. "The benefits to what we're proposing with these energy codes is they give us better heating performance in the winter, and better cooling performance in the summer, thus saving you year 'round."

The new codes will require that a new home's walls have more robust thermal barriers between exterior and interior walls. They'll also ensure that new residential structures be tighter - measured by how many times the air indoors turns over in an hour: used to be air could turn over seven times in an hour and meet code, but that will now need to be only three times.

Builders are scrambling to digest all the new regulations.

"One of the interesting things is they are super-complex," says Matt Marks, executive director of the Associated General Contractors of Maine. He says that while commercial-scale designers and builders may already be familiar with the new standards, smaller home construction companies – and their clients – will likely need some time to get up-to-speed, particularly on how to keep compliance costs reasonable.

"We were behind schedule in adopting codes broadly, and the board had a timeline to try to process all the codes, including energy efficiency, and I know that's going to have a drastic impact, particularly on the home marketplace," Demers says.

Efficiency investments ultimately should save homeowners money, reducing energy bills every year. But they do add upfront costs of hundreds of dollars and more. And with the price of construction materials already being driven up by pandemic-driven supply chain issues, some would-be homeowners are facing tough choices.

"We've had some people that have contacted us about maybe downsizing on what they originally were going to build. So instead of a 2000 square foot home they're going to build a 1500 square foot home," says Jessica Hanscombe, who directs Portland's permitting and inspections department.

Hanscombe says she and her staff next week will attend state-led training classes on the new codes, meetings that are starting just a week before the new codes go into effect. After that, the city staff have another challenge: learning the ins and outs of a set of even more rigorous efficiency standards that city voters adopted as part of a broad Green New Deal referendum last year.