Why are we afraid to construct buildings as if we care about the future?
Developers need not fear the state’s Specialized Stretch Code, also known by its acronym, SSC. This new building code was developed to help meet the state’s mandate to decarbonize our economy by 2050. In Worcester, the target date is 2045. A key strategy is to electrify transportation and building heating, the two largest sources of carbon emissions in the state. Concerns that the code would drive up costs for developers are misleading, and ignore the problem it is meant to address.
We are in the early stages of a climate crisis that is creating unprecedented weather extremes across the globe. The residents of Vermont and the Pioneer Valley are just the latest of many victims of extreme weather, flooding, forest fire, ocean acidification, and extreme drought.
To avoid the worst predictions of climate change, we need to reduce our carbon emissions now and the SSC is a low- to no-cost option to kickstart the process.
The Specialized Stretch Code will encourage the use of high-efficiency heat pumps, the low-emission choice for heating and cooling, in new construction. This technology has the lowest life-cycle cost based on modeling done by the state Department of Energy Resources. Moreover, buildings free of fossil fuels are safer and healthier–there is no oil to spill, no gas to leak or explode, and no hydrocarbon pollution in the air we breathe.
Under the code, higher costs will be incurred only if the developer chooses to take the fossil fuel heating option. Thecode does not prevent developers from making that short-sighted decision. It only requires that their fossil-fueled buildings be wired now for the electrification that will be needed in the future, when someone else will have to bring them up to date.
A good building code considers the life cycle of the building, promotes efficiency, and discourages the use of obsolete technology. There is always a learning curve with new technology, but as the construction industry gains experience with electrification, costs will come down, and those who learned first will have the advantage. Because buildings with heat pumps are expected to have the lowest life-cycle cost, it’s becoming a better choice to build that way–but no one is forcing the developer to do so.
When the city declined to join a pilot last year that would have allowed Worcester to ban new fossil fuel installations entirely, the reason given was that we could reduce fossil fuel use, with greater flexibility, by waiting to adopt the SSC when it came out. The time has come to make good on that.
We need to change our old ways of thinking about development. The notion of continuous growth in an ecosystem of finite capacity is a dangerous illusion on a collision course with reality. We must account for the costs of not acting to mitigate extreme weather fueled by climate change. Hurricane Sandy caused $60 billion in damages. Our neighbors in Western Massachusetts and Vermont have lost homes and livelihoods in recent flooding. We need to be responsible to each other, to future generations, and especially to those most vulnerable to these harms.
The Worcester City Council declared a climate emergency in 2019. An effective response to this emergency requires that we adapt and change, not maintain the status quo. At another inflection point in human history, Albert Einstein was credited with saying, “We cannot solve problems at the same level of thinking that created those problems.”
We call upon the city administration to support the adoption of the Specialized Stretch Code, which would recognize our moral responsibility to think in new ways about how to address our climate emergency, and would continue Worcester’s legacy of compassionate care for its residents.
We are grateful that the City Council unanimously adopted the Green Worcester Plan in 2021, with the goal of phasing out Worcester’s use of fossil fuels for heating and transportation by 2045. It is critical that we succeed in that major transition, and new construction is the low-hanging fruit.
Worcester has10s of thousands of old homes and buildings in need of energy upgrades and retrofits. Why would we keep adding to this problem? If we listen to the short-sighted objections of those who resist building with the future in mind, we will never meet our target, and we will go on paying the ever-higher financial and human costs of our climate inaction. We are hopeful that the city administration and the City Council will affirm their commitment to the Green Worcester Plan by acting soon to implement the Specialized Stretch Code in Worcester.
Paul Popinchalk represents 350 Central Mass. Ted D. Conna represents District 4 on the Green Worcester Advisory Committee, which promotes the full implementation of the city’s award-winning Green Worcester Plan and has unanimously endorsed the adoption of the SSC. The viewpoint expressed here is consistent with the Green Worcester Plan.