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The Omaha City Council in session on Sept. 17, 2019.

By David Holtzclaw

The writer is president of Transduction Technologies, an Omaha engineering company that analyzes buildings' environmental- and energy-related aspects.

On Tuesday, the Omaha City Council will vote on an ordinance from the Planning Department to update the city’s residential building codes. The residential building code applies to the construction, renovation and repair of homes and apartments that are one- and two-family dwellings and townhouses up to three stories above-grade in height.

The residential building code is called the International Residential Building Code (IRC). It is used across the U.S and abroad and is updated every three years to reflect changes in best construction practice. However, this update, mandated under a new law from the Nebraska Legislature, will be the first update to Omaha’s residential building codes since 2006.

Instead of updating the IRC every three years with the latest IRC version, which is standard practice in most cities, Omaha has waited 14 years and four revisions of the IRC. This delay has placed a significant burden on local builders to make significant updates to their construction practices and techniques. Therefore, the Planning Department staff, in collaboration with the Metro Omaha Builders Association, included 26 pages of amendments to the IRC. Many of these amendments were designed to lower the burden and cost to builders to meet the most recent requirements of the latest building codes, published in 2018.

Unfortunately, the home buyer or tenant may be left holding the bag.

For example, since 2012, the IRC required new homes to have an air-tightness test to determine how much outside air leaks into the home. Thirty-three states now require this test, and it has been performed on more than 2 million new homes across the U.S.

In Omaha, this test costs about $200 but will save homeowners and tenants, on average, about $90 annually per household in utility costs and save 964 pounds of CO2 emissions annually per household, based on a 2018 Nebraska Department of Environment and Energy study. More importantly, increasing a home's air-tightness will make a huge difference for the occupants' comfort and indoor air quality.

However, this test was amended out of Omaha's proposed update to the IRC to ease the burden on home builders. But it’s the homeowner and occupants who have to pay the higher utility bills and breathe the worse-quality indoor air for the life of the house. 

Why should the homeowner or tenant bear the burden when the Planning Department refused to update the local building code for so many years? Did they not recognize that sooner or later, the city would have to update its local residential building codes?

Although I empathize with the plight of local residential builders and remodelers, I believe the occupants should not be left with higher utility bills, more pollution and lower public health outcomes due to the inaction for so many years by the Omaha Planning Department.

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