The housing market decline has almost bottomed out, but updates to
Pennsylvania’s Uniform Construction Code will drive up home prices and
delay a recovery, regional homebuilders said.
The housing market decline has almost bottomed out, but updates to Pennsylvania’s Uniform Construction Code will drive up home prices and delay a recovery, regional homebuilders said.
State lawmakers enacted the code, known as the UCC, in 1999 to create a minimum building standard across the state. Municipalities can enforce stricter codes. The code primarily is based on the International Code Council Inc.‘s residential code. The ICC is based in Washington, D.C.
This year’s updates to the UCC include a mandate that calls for sprinkler systems in newly constructed townhouses, and sprinklers in single-family houses next year. There are hundreds of other changes that combined could increase the price of single-family houses when the market cannot bear it, according to the Pennsylvania Builders Association.
The state didn’t have enough time to evaluate the changes and hear public comment from builders, architects, engineers and other construction professionals affected by the changes, builders said.
The Pennsylvania Builders Association on Jan. 19 filed for an injunction in Commonwealth Court to stop the changes. This year’s updates, combined with mandates that begin next year, could add up to $15,000 to the price of an average single-family house, said the association, known as PBA.
“We should extend the 2006 building codes another three years and give us time to extend public debate, or homes will be priced out of range for Pennsylvanians,” PBA spokesman Scott Elliott said.
Every three years, the ICC updates its codes that jurisdictions across the U.S. us to create their building codes. The ICC adopted its 2009 codes last fall, and Pennsylvania code changes based on those updates went into effect Jan. 1.
Builders contested the sprinkler code at the ICC level, ICC spokesman Steve Daggers said. But the group decided to keep its sprinkler code after its organization’s hearings on 2009 code updates.
That doesn’t mean any jurisdiction has to adopt it, Daggers said. Pennsylvania can delete changes to the ICC code from its own code, he said. The sprinkler law always was a part of ICC’s index, which means the state could have adopted sprinklers into the UCC years before, he said.
“(The ICC) doesn’t take sides. We’re a not-for-profit membership organization. We create the codes and put them together,” Daggers said. “We heard testimony from both sides. The final decision is made by our governmental members. It was a public safety decision.”
Prior to last year, the commonwealth automatically adopted ICC updates into the UCC, Elliott said. To stop the rubber stamping, the state created Pennsylvania’s UCC Review and Advisory Council to analyze the updates.
The council has 19 members, including builders, architects, engineers, building code officials and other industry experts. The group has the authority to delete ICC requirements from the UCC.
The group didn’t have enough time to thoroughly review this year’s updates, said Frank Thompson, chairman of the council, known as RAC. Members had their first meeting in March; the group completed its review by May 1, as required by law, Thompson said. After four meetings, the RAC didn’t delete anything from the ICC.
“We were under such a rush that it compromised the public input and the time we really had to give these things the merit I think they deserved. But it has been a learning experience,” Thompson said.
The RAC still adopted the changes because there was an overriding feeling among a majority of members that if the ICC adopted the changes, then Pennsylvania should, too, Thompson said.
There are hundreds of changes to the UCC this year that will cost homebuyers a lot more money, however, he said. Thompson also heads a homebuilding business in Butler County.
For instance, a new mandate calls for increased structural bracing of houses even though Pennsylvania is not a high-wind or seismic state, Thompson said, and that adds several thousand dollars to the price of a single-family house.
“I didn’t agree with the bracing requirements,” Thompson said. “More is better, unfortunately, is the philosophy most often.”
Other energy changes add significant cost, including added testing of houses for air-movement energy loss, and extra insulation, which tacks on another $2,900, he said.
Some energy provisions were minute and unnecessary, he said. One example includes a new mandate that requires builders to place extra insulation around hatches connected to attics, Thompson said. The problem is, there is not enough of a significant energy loss from hatches to warrant the extra work, he said.
For many high-end homebuilders, UCC changes will cost even more because the houses they build are bigger.
But the updates will not significantly affect West Hanover Township-based Heritage Builders because most of the code changes were things the company already did, said co-owner Tate Livelsperger.
The Dauphin County builder uses heavy-duty lumber in its houses. Heritage builds large, custom houses, priced $1 million and above.
“A lot of the mandates are evening the playing field,” Livelsperger said.
Still, Livelsperger said he can see how the changes add up for other builders. If Heritage didn’t use the materials it uses, the extra $15,000 the updates could add to the price of a regular house would drive up the prices of the company’s houses by $30,000 because they are bigger, he said.
Livelsperger said he doesn’t agree with all the changes. Sprinklers in townhouses make sense because the structures are connected, but sprinklers often do more damage in houses when they go off unnecessarily, he said.
This is a bad time to add more stress on the housing industry, he said.
“I think the homebuilders association is going to get it turned around,” Livelsperger said.
The RAC received 22 public requests to delete changes to the UCC, but the council did not remove the updates. The council received no requests for deletion of the International Building Code.
“I think some of those issues were heavily discussed by the council, and a majority of members decided to keep them in. I didn’t always agree with them,” Thompson said. “It was a daunting task. Next time around, I hope we have a more cohesive unit.”