Biden unveils $90 million for upgraded building codes

When Hurricane Ida battered Louisiana, strong winds ripped the roofs off tens of thousands of homes. But today, the Biden administration is hoping a simple fix could save homes in that state — and others across the country — from a similar fate.

In a bid to make buildings more energy-efficient and resilient to extreme weather, the administration on Wednesday will award $90 million in grants to help cities, states, tribes and organizations implement stronger codes for new and renovated construction, according to details shared first with The Washington Post.

The funding, which stems from the bipartisan infrastructure law of 2021, comes as the nation reels from a string of weather disasters fueled by climate change. In the Northeast, severe storms have dumped more than two months’ worth of rain on Vermont, causing catastrophic flooding, while in the southern United States, 54 million people are slated to see triple-digit temperatures this week amid a punishing heat dome.

The Energy Department will distribute the grants to 27 projects in 26 states and the District of Columbia. Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm will announce the funding on Wednesday during a visit to Louisiana, where Hurricane Katrina in 2005 destroyed or damaged more than 800,000 homes and caused an estimated $125 billion in damage overall.

Katrina — and Ida after it — has spurred state officials to act. Last year, the Louisiana State Uniform Construction Code Council adopted some of the strongest building codes in the southeastern United States, according to environmental advocates. The Southeast Energy Efficiency Alliance, a group that promotes energy efficiency in the region, will receive three grants totaling $4.7 million to help implement these codes.

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“If the building codes are not appropriate, then the way people build — and what they build — actually produces a bad result when a bad thing happens,” Mitch Landrieu, President Biden’s infrastructure implementation adviser, said in an interview Tuesday at the White House.

“That can be water, it can be floods, it can be fire, it can be whatever,” said Landrieu, who served as mayor of New Orleans from 2010 to 2018, helping to jump-start the city’s recovery from Katrina. “And this is the president’s attempt to basically say, ‘We’re not building back like we did before. We’re going to build back better.’”

According to the White House, modernized energy codes can save households an average of $162 each year on utility bills. But nearly 2 out of 3 U.S. communities have not adopted the latest model codes from the International Code Council, a private consortium of local governments and industry groups. Idaho, for instance, has not updated its codes in nearly two decades.

The announcement Tuesday reflects the policy limitations that Biden faces. Building codes are adopted at the state and local levels, so the federal government is limited in what it can require. And with Republicans in control of the House of Representatives, Congress is unlikely to impose any new national requirements.

These constraints have caused Biden to embrace carrots rather than sticks when it comes to building codes and climate action more broadly. By dangling billions of dollars through the infrastructure law and the Inflation Reduction Act, the administration is hoping to encourage more states and municipalities to act.

“We’re not going to mandate it. But by getting the data out there, getting the tools out there [and] by being a partner at the federal level, then you have all of these state and local actors fall in the right direction,” Ali Zaidi, the White House national climate adviser, said in the joint interview with Landrieu.

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The climate impact could be considerable. The United States’ 130 million commercial and residential buildings are responsible for roughly 35 percent of the nation’s carbon emissions, according to the Energy Department. From 2010 through 2040, updated building energy codes are set to reduce carbon emissions by 900 million metric tons — roughly equivalent to the annual emissions of 108 million homes, the department projects.

The largest grant of $9.6 million will go to the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy, a D.C.-based nonprofit group that plans to work with states and municipalities on updated energy codes. In Pennsylvania, the state Department of Environmental Protection will receive $3 million to train students at technical high schools and community colleges in energy codes and building sciences.

And in Louisiana, the Southeast Energy Efficiency Alliance will use the funding to train and educate home builders, contractors and building code officials on implementing the state’s new codes “as quickly as we can,” said Maggie Kelley Riggins, the group’s built environment project manager.

Following Katrina, Louisiana’s legislature mandated that the state adopt updated building codes at least every five years. The new codes, which took effect on Jan. 1, require roofs in high-wind areas to be sealed to prevent shingle losses during storms.

The National Association of Home Builders, one of the largest lobbying groups in Washington, has voiced concerns about the Biden administration’s push for updated energy codes, saying it could increase costs for builders and homeowners.

“[T]here is no need for a state to update its energy codes in most cases,” the association wrote in a blog post in March. “Adopting new building codes is expensive, as building departments need to update their procedures, resources and training, which is why federal money was appropriated to help, and can be confusing for both builders and building officials. And increased energy conservation requirements, which always cost more upfront, do not offer home owners the paybacks they are promised.”

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But the Louisiana Home Builders Association has emerged as a vocal supporter of the state’s new codes, saying they will help lure insurance companies back to the state. At least nine insurance companies that wrote homeowner policies in Louisiana have been declared insolvent since three major storms pummeled the state in 2020. At least a dozen other insurers have pulled back from the state, either by canceling existing policies or announcing they would no longer renew them.

Left with little choice, about 120,000 households have been forced to buy insurance from the state-run insurer of last resort, Louisiana Citizens Property Insurance. But these households have seen a 63 percent increase in premiums, leading the state legislature to convene a special session early this year to address the burgeoning insurance crisis.

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Randy Noel, a past president of the Louisiana Home Builders Association, said he thinks insurers “will come back now that we’ve got this code in place.”

“But we’re in desperate need now of getting everybody trained on the new code,” said Noel, also a past chairman of the National Association of Home Builders board. “So we could use all the help we can get.”

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