Code green (and blue) – It’s not easy balancing energy and cost efficiency

The buzzwords of the times we live in right now are ‘Green’ and ‘energy efficient,’ and Revere is looking to march into that movement this year by taking steps to qualify as a state-defined Green Community.

However, as many are finding out concerning this movement, when the heat is on to go Green, it often means a lot of cold cash coming out of the pockets of private businesses and consumers.

That’s just what many construction businesses owners and city councillors are finding out about one portion of the Green Community Act that Mayor Tom Ambrosino is pushing. The reason for the push is so that Revere can capitalize on state government grant money.

One of the most controversial points in the quest to become a Green Community is to implement a stricter building code.

The code – called the Stretch Building Code – is now voluntary statewide, but the city would look to be the first in the state to make it mandatory. The hitch is that it increases construction costs, anywhere from five to 20 percent or $8,000 to $10,000.

The mayor said such increases to construction – despite the terrible building environment – is not his concern.

“The grant money is enormous; it’s not small money,” said the mayor. “It’s about $10 million a year available. The city has enormous energy needs. Every one of our [city] buildings needs significant improvements. This code is coming anyway. It’s inevitable. It will be required in a few years. The pros of going forward outweigh the cons. I have to worry about the City of Revere and not developer’s profits.”

Tony DelVecchio, a Revere-based builder, said it’s a noble goal for the future, but not now.

“I think it would be a good idea in the future, but now, with things being so bad, I don’t think you can spend the extra money,” he said. “With this downfall, it’s hit the construction industry deeply…I think it’s a great idea, but I don’t think people will spend the money now.”

Some developers though, see the code as ill timed. At a time when construction workers are unemployed at a rate of 30 to 50 percent, more costs and regulation are not easy to stomach.

“Everything we do now in building is a big improvement from when I started out,” said Steven Ciambelli, a long-time Revere developer. “I would say the timing is a little off on this now. Enough is enough. If they’re just doing it for grant money, it’s not a good idea. I believe in building as efficiently as possible. Right now is not a good time to add costs. It’s already too expensive to build.”

Building Inspector Ben DeCristoforo said the Stretch Code is a very complicated animal. In fact, he said that many of those who try to explain it at seminars get stuck on certain parts of it.

He said the code is the future, and that parts of it will be implemented anyway statewide on July 1. However, he added that mandating the code in Revere might be more difficult than in more affluent communities.

“I don’t necessarily think it’s a bad thing; I think it’s the future, basically,” said DeCristoforo. “Whether it’s a good thing or not, I’m not sure. A sophisticated builder in another market may be able to recoup those costs, but it may be hard for the group here in Revere to recoup that…The market in Revere is a little different than in Winchester. They may be able to afford it better in Winchester.”

He said that, if adopted, the city would look to have seminars to help educate local builders about the code and ways to make it more cost-effective.

Overall, the Stretch Code looks to increase efficiency in new construction through better insulation, more expensive, cutting-edge heating equipment and other similar measures. The daunting part of the code is that it calls for an independent evaluator to measure the efficiency prior to occupancy. The efficiency would have to be 40 percent more efficient than the current standards.

Those standards are also something that – at this point – are scaring off builders.

“I don’t even know where you’re going to get the extra 40 percent over and above without putting solar panels and windmills built into every home,” said Ciambelli. “That’s not a bad thing, but it’s something – a decision – that should be left up to the builder or developer or the person buying the home.”

Even large-scale developers have expressed skittishness.

Peter Bradley, the project manager for the giant Waterfront Square project at Wonderland, said he is concerned about how the new code might affect their $500 million project.

“My take is that anything that will impose additional costs onto the project is very concerning,” he said. “These additional code changes will certainly increase costs…The goal [here] is to be as energy efficient as possible within a very tight budget and it is essential that we have some control on what energy saving measures we implement and what ones make the most sense for our project rather than having a one size fits all approach imposed on us.”

Said chief Waterfront Square developer Joe DiGangi, “As a major public/private undertaking, we are very focused on adhering to current best practices in all areas, with energy conservation being a very important part of that effort. At the same time, we have an obligation to be wary of anything that could add to project costs unless it can be clearly seen as delivering a corresponding increase in benefits for the project.”

Politically, adopting the code will be up to the City Council, and right now there are mixed reactions as councillors just begin to consider the proposal.

“Unfortunately, I find myself to be in a dilemma,” said Council President Tony Zambuto, a former construction professional. “I certainly want to bring funds into the city, but then I know what it is to be a construction business owner and keeping people working and obeying the rules and regulations. Massachusetts is one of the toughest places to be in business…From what I know about it, I think it’s going to be hard to pass right now.”

However, the mayor has an unlikely ally in Councillor George Rotondo, who has come out in favor of adopting the code.

“It isn’t as daunting a regulation as many believe it might be,” said Rotondo. “A lot of these builders are already meeting the requirements [of the Stretch Code] and don’t even know it.”

The mayor concluded by saying that the business versus government nexus is a difficult path, but he sees this building code as an important path to travel down.

“It’s a balancing act,” he said. “My need to collect revenue is imperative. When I don’t collect revenue, people are also out of work, like the 19 we have out now…Whether or not we can entice people to develop in our city, this will not make a difference. If it means some developer isn’t going to build a two-family home on a [small] lot, that may not be a bad thing for the city.”

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