New building code puts Northampton in vanguard

  • The city of Northampton last week adopted a new new specialized stretch code for new construction starting in January. Habitat For Humanity is building this all-electric home on Burts Pit Road. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Published: 9/10/2023 1:00:07 PM

NORTHAMPTON — The city’s new building code can’t come a moment too soon for city councilor Alex Jarrett.

“As our daily life goes along, world climate crises happened, local climate crises happened this summer,” said Jarrett at Thursday’s City Council meeting where the council unanimously approved a new specialized stretch code for new construction. “It just underscores the need at each level of government and society to take action.”

Advocated by the state, the new specialized stretch code is designed to ensure any new construction in Northampton is consistent with the state’s goals to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050. The building code would not ban the future use of fossil fuels completely, but any new building using fossil fuels would require on-site solar installations and wiring that would enable the building to switch to being all-electric at a future date.

Ward 7 councilor Rachel Maiore, who together with Jarrett and Mayor Gina-Louise Sciarra were co-sponsors of the order to adopt the code, said the move toward more sustainable buildings was inevitable, and that any additional costs incurred by the code’s adoptions would be less than changes that would need to be made in the long run if the city did not adopt the code.

“If we want to decarbonize, we need to decarbonize buildings,” Maiore said. “The writing is on the wall that this has to happen. There’s really no choice, and it’s going to cost so much more to retrofit [buildings].”

Though not currently required by the state, all municipalities may opt-in to the new specialized stretch code. Such adoption is recommended by the Department of Energy Resources for communities that want to participate in the Ten Communities Program that requires all electric heating for new construction. Northampton has filed a home rule petition to become part of that pilot program.

With the council’s approval, Northampton becomes the first municipality in western Massachusetts to do so. The city of Boston has adopted the special code, as have a few of its surrounding cities and towns including Cambridge, Newton and Wellesley. The towns of Truro and Wellfleet on Cape Cod have adopted the code, as has the town of Aquinnah on Martha’s Vineyard.

Even prior to the code’s official adaptation, several upcoming housing projects in Northampton are planned to be entirely electric. An ongoing project for affordable homes on 278 Burts Pit Road built by Habitat for Humanity is one such property. Another proposed affordable housing building, located on 27 Crafts Ave. in the city’s downtown, will also be all-electric.

Though the idea of buildings being entirely electric have raised some worries about potential energy costs, the DOER has stated that low-rise residential buildings, powered by heat pumps, will cost less than those with fossil fuel heating.

“One reason for this is that heat pumps can be used for both heating and central air conditioning, whereas fossil fuel heated new homes typically require a separate air conditioning system,” the DOER wrote in a FAQ sheet regarding the specialized code.

At Thursday’s council meeting, Sciarra said that a specialized stretch code was crucial for Northampton, which has many older buildings that are difficult to retrofit to be carbon neutral. 

“We can’t go back in time with a lot of our houses and magically put in this kind of infrastructure,” said Sciarra. “But we can control what we’re building right now. Even if some of these buildings aren’t going to be all electric, and some of them will be, it’s incredibly important that we prepare them for the direction that we know we need to.”

According to the order approved by the council, buildings are one of the largest sources of greenhouse gas emissions in Massachusetts. Between oil and gas heating, hot water heaters and gas stoves, they’re responsible for about 27% of annual emissions.

The new building code is set to take effect in January.

Alexander MacDougall can be reached at

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