Photo of Oregon covered in wildfire smoke

Oregon’s recently-passed Senate Bill 762 provides $200 million towards preventing widespread death and destruction like the state saw over the last two years, when wildfires destroyed thousands of homes and resulted in the deaths of nine residents. However, the bill also includes new building codes focused on fire safety — which could have a real impact on construction costs in the state.

The bill provides for increased firefighting capacity, expanded forest management programs, and clean air shelters to protect residents from smoke. It also calls for the state to map out regions by fire risk, and to create new fire-safe building codes for these regions.

“Nobody’s even beginning to think we’re going to eliminate wildfire going forward but just reduce risks and protect communities,” said State Senator Jeff Golden, who led the push to pass the bill. “We’re fighting for our survival in a very real way, and there’s a lot of trends working against us.”

“If you overlay the extreme risk zones on the wildland urban interface, if you’re in both, you’re likely to be looking at some defensible space and building code requirements going forward,” he continued.

While the exact changes to building codes have yet to be set in stone this aspect of the plan caused heavy resistance from those who worried about unintended consequences for homebuilders and property owners, as some are concerned that these code requirements could cause prices to rise for new housing construction in the state — with costs falling both on contractors and on homeowners.

This particular worry has tied directly into the recent difficulties that the construction industry is seeing, with supply chain problems causing costs to skyrocket throughout 2021.

Contractors are already dealing with having to pay significant amounts more for their normal products than they’re used to, with Levelset’s September 2021 Construction Pulse noting that the month of September saw a significant number of small businesses dealing with a “large increase” in prices for their normal materials.

An analysis of data from the Department of Labor conducted by the National Association of Home Builders said that “wholesale prices for a category of homebuilding components that includes windows, roofing tiles, doors and steel, increased 22% over the last 12 months,” which constituted a major increase over the normal 1% yearly increase that these prices saw prior to the pandemic.

With these problems impacting the normal supply chain for builders, it’s easy to see why the prospect of more regulations and a market stretched even thinner by newly specific demand could give contractors pause. 

Similar issues have come up very recently in the Pacific Northwest. After newly drawn up requirements laid out in the 2018 Washington State Energy Code went into effect in February 2021, September 2021 saw multiple groups representing the state’s construction industry ask Washington Governor Jay Inslee to pause the changes, saying that “the choice to proceed with the implementation of these codes during [the COVID-19 pandemic] has the added cost that has become a large financial hardship during this crisis.”

The organizations most notably claimed that the code changes have caused increases to the costs of new home builds averaging $15,000 to $20,000 per home.

The Building Industry Association of Washington warned that “These cost increases are due, in part, to enormous and unprecedented supply chain delays for building materials, many of which are needed for compliance with the new residential energy code,” so there’s certainly the space for those in Oregon to have similar concerns.

However, not all people are thinking that the code changes are necessarily going to cause major cost changes in the state. According to a 2018 study by Headwaters Economics, the added costs for homes to be built to wide-spread fire standards are “roughly the same cost as a typical home.”

The study continued by adding that “the cost of constructing new homes to be wildfire-resistant is not substantively different than the cost of typical construction,” pointing to the idea that there may be more ease to the implementation of such codes than opponents believe.

“Retrofitting existing homes can have substantial costs, but components can be prioritized based on neighborhood and landscape context…City, county, and state governments must weigh many issues when considering new regulations, but the cost of constructing to comply with wildfire-resistant building codes need not be a barrier,” the study reported.

Homebuilders associations are mounting steep opposition, as many have in past years

A 2020 analysis from National Public Radio noted that most states in the country don’t require homes built in high-fire-risk areas to be built with fire-resistant materials, and a big part of this has been pushback from construction associations.

In prior years, Oregon had a major amount of pushback from these groups when initially trying to implement fire-preventing construction standards. Some have even alleged that Governor Kate Brown previously made an agreement with industry leaders to keep fire-centered construction regulations from being mandated statewide, as a 2020 report from Street Roots claimed.

The same is proving to be true with Oregon’s passing of SB 762, but opposition is also coming from some of the state’s own lawmakers.

“If Senator Golden thinks for a minute I’m going to cut down the 200-year-old, 200-foot-tall, old-growth ponderosa pine in my yard he is mistaken,” State Senator Betsy Johnson said of the bill and its proponents. “I’m just not sure I want unseen, unaccountable, unelected bureaucrats dictating the future of the state of Oregon and how we all are going to live on our own property.”

However, the bill’s changes could definitely be shaped by the reaction of the community and other lawmakers. As part of a compromise to help ease concerns held by the bill’s opponents, many of the people connected to these organizations — such as Oregon Home Builders Association CEO Mark Long and Oregon Property Owners Association President Dave Hunnicutt — will serve on advisory committees to shape how the bill’s changes will be put into practice. 

“We have a proposed definition of wildland-urban interface that will essentially include the entire state of Oregon,” Hunnicutt said, expressing concern over how widely the bill could be interpreted.

However, the bill’s supporters insist they are keeping an eye on how to balance the environmental and safety needs the bill provides for with the economic concerns that homebuilders are dealing with.

“We are looking for a balance between letting people do exactly what they want on their private property and responding to this existential threat,” Golden said of opposition based around “private property” concerns.

“Our objective here is to…make sure our community has resiliency,” Northwest Youth Corps Executive Director Jeff Parker said. “So if a fire does roll through, it doesn’t have the catastrophic impact, the mass displacement of people and the impact on the community.”