New Douglas County construction codes, highlighting energy-efficient housing and tiny-home construction, will take effect Jan. 1

photo by: Rochelle Valverde

The west side of the Douglas County Courthouse, 1100 Massachusetts St., is pictured on Sept. 23, 2021.

At the start of 2023, builders in Douglas County will have options allowing for tiny-home construction, and new homes will have more thorough energy-efficiency requirements.

That’s because the Douglas County Commission approved updating the construction codes for unincorporated areas of the county to align with the 2018 International Code Council series of construction codes in June, and they’ll officially take effect Jan. 1, 2023.

Tonya Voigt, Douglas County’s zoning and codes director, told the Journal-World Friday that probably the biggest highlight in the updated codes affecting homeowners and contractors is the section addressing energy efficiency. Voigt said new homes would need to be more energy efficient in general, illustrated through requirements like an “air leakage” test, which measures the air infiltration of a building after it’s been completely enclosed and finishes have been installed.

“That will be probably one of the biggest changes for homeowners, the energy code, which obviously in light of climate change and all of the extremes that we are seeing even just now with extreme weather conditions, those types of homes are going to be really beneficial for future landowners for a long, long time,” Voigt said. “It’s a really good move and a good direction.”

The county’s chief building official, Charlie Garzillo, added that it would be a good change because building materials are already being manufactured at these standards.

Garzillo stepped into his role in September following predecessor Tina Rakes’ retirement, but he’s no stranger to how building codes work. He has spent nearly 40 years working in various capacities for the City of Lawrence, the county and as a contractor.

Garzillo said updating construction codes was a typical housekeeping item intended to help keep new construction in the community safe and efficient.

“That’s kind of why I came (to work for the county), to volunteer to help ensure we keep a safe and viable and efficient community,” Garzillo said. “If we were still on the 1980s and 1990s codes, well, heck, the value of our homes wouldn’t be there, and the safety wouldn’t be there.”

That isn’t to say there aren’t any substantial changes when new construction codes take effect, especially since the county last adopted updated codes in September of 2012. On top of the energy-efficiency requirements, additions like allowing for tiny-home construction show that building codes are constantly evolving, Garzillo said.

Those types of homes, and other “unconventional construction” like straw-bale homes, are the other highlight in the new codes, Voigt said.

“… We want them to be safe, viable structures,” Garzillo added. “We don’t want just storage containers flying up everywhere, where people aren’t safe, or not held down so they can’t be blown over.”

The new codes bring the county in line with the City of Lawrence, which has been operating under the 2018 code for several years. Voigt said the majority of construction in Douglas County is performed by licensed contractors, so aligning the city and county codes helps to eliminate any confusion as they submit plans for future builds. She said county staff has been preparing for the code change for a while.

Along with capturing new technology and building standards, Voigt said one additional factor lending importance to updating codes is the ability to purchase flood insurance. Douglas County is part of the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s national flood insurance program, but eligibility for residents to purchase it is tied to whether codes are updated.

Voigt stressed that the new codes are a “living document,” and the Douglas County Commission has the ability to make modifications based on county staff’s recommendations if something’s not working as intended.

“Because this document is so new, I anticipate that will happen,” Voigt said. “We can’t anticipate every future change that might happen, but I would guess that through working the code, living the code, that it’ll be just like any other code that may need modifications.”

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