Legislature’s rules committee kills new building standards that advocates said would save money

By: - October 2, 2023 5:30 am

A new hotel under construction in Madison, Wisconsin, in August 2023. (Wisconsin Examiner photo)

On a party-line vote, members of the Legislature’s administrative rules committee have blocked a proposed Wisconsin commercial building code update that advocates said would save energy, improve safety and lower insurance costs.

The update would have brought Wisconsin commercial building standards in line with the 2021 standards of the International Code Council, including the International Energy Conservation Code. The state Department of Safety and Professional Services (DSPS), the agency responsible for maintaining and enforcing state building codes, had recommended its adoption.

With Friday’s 6-4 vote to block the code update in the Joint Committee for the Review of Administrative Rules, the state will continue with its current building code, based on standards set in 2015.

The committee’s vote was foreshadowed in August, when the Senate housing committee recommended rejecting the new code, also on a party-line vote.

Republican lawmakers favoring rejection said DSPS had failed to ascertain whether the update would result in added cost to government or businesses.

DSPS legislative liaison Michael Tierney said at a July hearing that “there’s a lot of variables that come into play” that make it difficult to tie construction cost increases to the building code. Tierney also said insurance premiums are higher for buildings constructed to older standards.

The code update had the backing of professional and trade associations representing building inspectors, architects, engineers for building climate control systems and related professionals as well as environmental groups.

Brian Flannery, director of building inspection for the city of Sun Prairie and a board member of regional and state professional associations for building code inspectors, told the Wisconsin Examiner Friday that the failure to update the code would put Wisconsin builders and building inspectors behind other states.

“These codes need to be updated on a regular basis to make sure that we’re properly regulating the industry,” said Flannery, who had urged lawmakers not to reject the update.

The 2021 standards would have been a substantial advance, Flannery said, because work on the 2015 code now in effect started in 2012 — making it based on technology a decade old. “We now are looking at codes becoming so antiquated that modern materials aren’t even in the book,” he said.

The rejected code also included accessibility-related changes that are expected to become part of federal requirements under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), Flannery said. As a result, he explained, builders following the 2015 code in Wisconsin might find themselves out of compliance with the updated ADA.

Flannery said approval of the new code had moved along unremarkably over the last three years until this summer. “It’s been through a rigorous review process by the Commercial Building Code Council,” he said. The code council, a body established to advise DSPS on the uniform building code, conducted two public hearings that produced no major opposition, he said.

That changed at a third hearing in July during a joint meeting of Assembly and Senate committees, after which “this thing kind of proverbially blew up,” Flannery said. Had objections been raised earlier in the process, he added, “we could have avoided all this by going to the table to discuss differences and come up with an amicable solution.”

At the July 17 hearing, business lobbyists including Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, the National Federation of Independent Business, the Wisconsin Builders Association, the Wisconsin Ready Mixed Concrete Association, the Wisconsin Realtors Association and NAIOP, which represents commercial and industrial real estate developers, registered their opposition to the code update.

The hearing records posted on the Legislature’s website do not include written testimony from any of the opponents. Spoken opposition testimony came from only one group, Associated Builders and Contractors (ABC), a trade association for non-union building contractors.

The ABC witness, architect Steve Klessig, described higher costs he said would be incurred from following new energy efficiency standards. A provision in the proposed code for special inspectors to examine certain stages of the construction process would add “additional bureaucracy,” Klessig said. “What will it cost?”

Lawmakers skeptical of the new code said they were concerned about overregulating builders needlessly. “I’m going to try to urge that we actually eliminate codes and restrictions and allow the market to take the brunt of that and do what it’s meant to do,” said Sen. Rob Stafsholt (R-New Richmond).

The rules committee vote was held without a hearing and conducted with a paper ballot without members meeting in person, where they could say why they voted for or against the measure.

Sen. Kelda Roys (D-Madison), one of the rules committee’s four Democrats voting against blocking the change, on Friday called the committee leaders “cowards for doing this by paper ballot without a public hearing.” Code supporters had sent numerous messages to committee members urging them to approve the code update, she said.

“We’ve heard from a wide variety of individuals and businesses that having outdated codes and not adopting up-to-date codes is going to cost business more, cost us more in insurance and make our homes and buildings less energy efficient,” Roys said.

Rep. Sue Conley (D-Janesville) said Friday that she was disappointed the rules committee hadn’t held a hearing of its own before holding a vote to kill the new code.

“I’ve been getting emails from many folks in the industry saying this rule is good and here’s why we need a safer code,” Conley said. “Don’t we want safer things for all Wisconsinites when we’re putting up buildings?”

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Erik Gunn
Erik Gunn

Deputy Editor Erik Gunn reports and writes on work and the economy, health policy and related subjects, for the Wisconsin Examiner. He spent 24 years as a freelance writer for Milwaukee Magazine, Isthmus, The Progressive, BNA Inc., and other publications, winning awards for investigative reporting, feature writing, beat coverage, business writing, and commentary.

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