New, stricter building codes for energy conservation in Montana homes will save homeowners money in the long run and boost the economy as well, two building contractors said Thursday.

“In terms of your monthly cost, if you spend an extra $10 on your mortgage, you’ll save an extra $20 a month on your energy bill,” said Jim Baerg of Montana Energy+Design in Livingston.

“We’re talking about keeping money in the pockets of local homeowners, and that can mean more money for contractors, too, instead of sending it to the power company.”

Baerg and Steve Loken of Missoula, two contractors who helped lead the effort to enact the stricter codes, were in Helena Thursday for an Alternative Energy Resources Organization (AERO) conference.

The energy codes require newly constructed homes in Montana to have higher insulation ratings for windows, walls and ceilings, tighter “air change thresholds” for homes and insulation of basements. The codes also can apply to some remodeling jobs.

The codes took effect March 26 and must be adopted by cities and four counties by late June. The four counties that enforce building codes are Missoula, Butte-Silver Bow, Anaconda-Deer Lodge and Richland.

Not all contractors or building groups are enthusiastic about the changes. The Montana Building Industry Association, which has about 2,000 members that include contractors, banks and title companies, opposed requiring the insulated basements.

Dustin Stewart, executive director for the group, said Thursday that requiring insulated basements makes it harder for some families to afford new homes.

Without the requirement, a family could build a home with an unfinished, non-insulated basement, save some money up-front and then remodel and insulate the basement later when it had the money, he said.

“There is nothing wrong with what (the codes) do from a building-science standpoint,” Stewart said. “It just takes away the opportunity for homeowners to build some sweat-equity into their house.”

The new codes could increase the cost of a home by as much as $7,000, he said, and one result could be more homes built without basements, to save money.

Loken, who owns Loken Builders in Missoula, argued that an insulated basement pays extra dividends because that’s usually the location of the furnace, and that large amounts of heat will escape from a basement that’s not insulated.

“If you provide a leaky house to someone on a fixed income, you’re saddling them with huge costs over the years,” he said.

When state and federal income-tax incentives are considered, the net additional cost of the codes will be more like $2,000 to $3,000 per home, he added.

Loken also said the codes may encourage more remodeling and retrofitting work to comply with the energy standards, helping boost the construction industry, which is in a down cycle in Montana.

“Not only does it create jobs, but it saves money for local communities in the process,” he said.

Loken said most homes being built in Montana already entail the energy measures in the new code, especially more expensive houses. Adopting the codes ensures that all homes should have the same energy-conservation quality, he said.

However, supporters of the new codes, approved by the state Building Codes Council last year, also say they’d like to tighten enforcement of the codes. Cities currently enforce the codes, but if a home is built outside city limits in a county without county-wide enforcement, the builder has only to “self-certify” that the codes have been met.

Self-certification involves putting a sticker on the home’s electrical panel, stating that the insulation standards have been met.


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