COVID-19 UPDATE: MAYOR WALSH EXTENDS ORDER PAUSING NON-ESSENTIAL CONSTRUCTION WORK IN THE CITY OF BOSTON

The following is a press release from the Office of Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh (March 25, 2020)

BOSTON – Wednesday, March 25, 2020 – Due to the public health emergency caused by the spread of COVID-19 (coronavirus) Mayor Martin J. Walsh today announced he is affirmatively extending the City of Boston’s order to pause non-essential construction for City of Boston permitted sites. Mayor Walsh first announced this order on March 16, 2020, and sites should have been locked down for safety by March 23. Due to the public health emergency in Boston and across the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, this pause is still in effect until further notice.   

“The safety and health of construction workers and all residents of Boston is my first priority, and I am not willing to put that at risk as the virus spreads throughout our communities,” said Mayor Walsh. “Large gatherings such as those at construction sites have been proven to escalate the spread of the virus, and Boston must do everything in its power to flatten the curve, and stop the spread of coronavirus.”   

Mayor Walsh is working with various partners including construction firms and the building trades to determine protocols that would allow these sites to safely re-open in Boston.    This policy only applies to projects permitted by the City of Boston. The City will still allow work that is essential to the safety and well-being of Boston’s residents at this time, particularly work related to the COVID-19 public health crisis.  

In addition to these construction projects, the City will, on a case-by-case basis, review requests for exemptions to the temporary construction moratorium. These may be granted by the Commissioner of Inspectional Services (ISDCommissioner@boston.gov) for building-related work or the Commissioner of Public Works for street-related work. These will be granted if they support increased public health and safety and precautions are taken to mitigate the risk of exposure to COVID-19 among workers.    

Additional details about the order can be found on boston.gov. The guidance order is available online.  

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COVID 19 Update: Baker Issues Guidance Overturning Local Construction Moratoriums

Today, March 25, Governor Baker issued guidance clarifying that the March 23, 2020 Order “Assuring Continued Operation of Essential Services in the Commonwealth, Closing Certain Workplaces, and Prohibiting Gatherings of More than 10 People” supersedes and makes inoperative any order or rule issued by a municipality that will or might in any way impede or interfere with the achievement of the objectives of this order. “Construction Workers who support the construction, operation, inspection and maintenance of construction sites and construction projects” are deemed essential.

Therefore, “the Order provides that all construction projects are to continue operations during the state of emergency, but to do so with allowance for social distancing protocols consistent with guidance provided by the Department of Public Health. Local policies, regulations or directives that provide otherwise are in direct conflict with the Order and should be withdrawn.”  

NAIOP had urged the Administration to issue guidance given the lack of uniformity across the Commonwealth on this issue and we are grateful for this clarity.  

COVID 19 Update: Permit Tolling Legislation Filed Today & FAQ on Essential Services

Permit Tolling Bill Filed Today
Today Governor Baker filed HD4974, An Act to Further Address Challenges Faced by Municipalities, School Districts, and State Authorities Resulting from COVID-19. While the bill addresses several topics, Section 9 of the bill addresses the tolling of permits. The language included in the bill is the result of a collaborative effort and many hours of work during the past few days between NAIOP Massachusetts, the Mass Municipal Association and the Home Builders & Remodelers Association of MA.   Specifically, the language provides the following:

– No permit is automatically granted, approved, or denied because a local permitting authority does not act within a time period required by law.
– Any permit that is currently valid will not lapse or expire during the state of emergency, and suspends any time limitation on such permits during the emergency.
– Allows applications for permits to be filed electronically, so as to eliminate the need for in-person filing.
– Suspends any requirement that a hearing on a permit application be held within a certain period of time until 45 days after the end of the state of emergency.  

These changes will provide necessary relief to cities and towns that, due to disruptions caused by the state of emergency, are unable to timely process and hear permitting applications. At the same time, these changes balance the needs of residents and developers by ensuring that their current permits are not impaired by the emergency. We are pushing for quick passage of this bill and we are incredibly grateful to a phenomenal team of NAIOP members who worked tirelessly to perfect this language and reach a compromise. We will keep you posted as this bill advances. In addition, we are pursuing numerous other forms of legislative and regulatory relief. Please contact us if you have any questions or ideas.  

Non-Essential vs. Essential Businesses: FAQ Now Available  
Yesterday Governor Charlie Baker issued an emergency order requiring all businesses and organizations that do not provide “COVID-19 Essential Services” to close their physical workplaces and facilities to workers, customers and the public as of Tuesday, March 24th at noon until Tuesday, April 7th at noon. These businesses are encouraged to continue operations remotely.  NAIOP has been inundated with requests from professionals who are not specifically listed. The Administration has launched an FAQ page to address some of the most commonly asked questions.  

In addition, if the function of your business is not listed as essential, but you believe that it is essential or it is an entity providing essential services or functions, you may request designation as an essential business. Requests by businesses to be designated an essential function should only be made if they are NOT covered by the guidance. To request designation as an essential business, please click here  Any questions can be directed to covid19.biz@mass.gov  

Construction Moratoriums Continue & Conflict with Executive Order?
Last night, Somerville ordered all construction projects to cease general operations, establish services necessary for in-use buildings to function, and make their sites safe to the general public by Friday, March 27.  Somerville now joins Boston, Cambridge, and numerous other cities and towns that have put construction moratoriums in place.

We have received numerous requests for clarification on how the Essential Services list, which lists as essential:  “Construction Workers who support the construction, operation, inspection, and maintenance of construction sites and construction projects (including housing construction)” and “Workers to ensure continuity of building functions, including local and state inspectors and administrative support of inspection services who are responsible for the inspection of elevators, escalators, lifts, buildings, plumbing and gas fitting, electrical work, and other safety related professional work”should be interpreted in communities where there is a construction moratorium.   

As of March 23, Mayor Walsh and the BPDA made it clear that they do not plan to lift the moratorium. However, given the sheer volume of questions on this issue and the confusion that exists, we have reached out to the Baker-Polito Administration for guidance on this issue.

E-Notary Legislation Filed
Massachusetts is one of only a handful of states that does not allow for e-notarization. On Friday, SD2882, An Act Relative to Remote Notarization During COVID-19 State of Emergency was filed to allow for e-notarization until 3 days after the emergency declaration is lifted. The Real Estate Bar Association has been the lead on this issue, but NAIOP is supportive of the legislation and will be advocating for its passage.

COVID-19 Update: Non-Essential Shutdown – What It Means for CRE

All Non-Essential Businesses to Cease In Person Operation, Stay at Home Advisory For Two Weeks
Today, Governor Charlie Baker issued an emergency order requiring all businesses and organizations that do not provide “COVID-19 Essential Services” to close their physical workplaces and facilities to workers, customers and the public as of Tuesday, March 24th at noon until Tuesday, April 7th at noon. These businesses are encouraged to continue operations remotely. The Baker-Polito Administration issued a list of designated businesses and other organizations that provide essential services and workforces related to COVID-19 that shall continue to operate brick and mortar facilities during this two-week time period. Last week, NAIOP, ICSC and GBREB issued this request in preparation for a such a situation.

We were, therefore, pleased to see that “Construction Workers who support the construction, operation, inspection, and maintenance of construction sites and construction projects (including housing construction)” are listed as essential. In addition, “Workers to ensure continuity of building functions, including local and state inspectors and administrative support of inspection services who are responsible for the inspection of elevators, escalators, lifts, buildings, plumbing and gas fitting, electrical work, and other safety related professional work” are also listed as essential. We are seeking clarity on what this means for communities that have shut down construction.  

E-Notary and Smoke & CO Detectors
Friday, after a letter was issued by NAIOP and several other groups, Governor Baker issued guidance on smoke and CO detector inspections to allow home sales to move forward. It allows the requirement to have smoke and CO detector certificates transferred from the seller to the buyer as long as both sides agree in writing. We expect the e-notary legislation to move soon.  

Permit Tolling
NAIOP has been working very closely with the Mass Municipal Association on language that addresses the tolling of permits during this time. We have been in constant contact with legislators and the Administration on this issue. Final language is expected to move soon. We are also pushing for a Permit Extension Act to address the significant number of projects affected by this.  

Donate Supplies to Help Fight COVID-19
The business community is working to support the Massachusetts Life Sciences Emergency Supply Hub to help coordinate efforts to try and bring additional supplies and resources to our state’s healthcare institutions so they can continue to test and treat patients with COVID-19.

NAIOP is asking our member companies to consider how they may be able to help, specifically in donating lab, testing, and diagnostics supplies, personal protection equipment (PPE), and medical and scientific expertise needed to combat COVID-19. Please fill out the following survey to let us know what you can donate: https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/TVP69NJ

NAIOP will continue to advocate for policies, Executive Orders and legislation that address how this public health crisis is affecting real estate and overall economic development. We are working on numerous initiatives. Please feel free to reach out to CEO Tamara Small or Government Affairs Associate Anastasia Nicolaou if you have any questions.  

Wondering how to get involved? Donate Supplies to Help Fight COVID-19

It’s incumbent upon all of us to do everything we can to address the COVID-19 pandemic and aid the first responders and healthcare providers who are putting their health on the line every day to help patients. To that end, the business community is working to support the Massachusetts Life Sciences Emergency Supply Hub to help coordinate efforts to try and bring additional supplies and resources to our state’s healthcare institutions so they can continue to test and treat patients with COVID-19.

NAIOP is asking our member companies to consider how they may be able to help, specifically in donating lab, testing, and diagnostics supplies, personal protection equipment (PPE), and medical and scientific expertise needed to combat COVID-19. Please fill out the following survey to let us know what you can donate: https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/TVP69NJ

In addition, please let us know if your firm is interested in providing other resources. We are happy to work with you to ensure the commercial real estate industry can be supportive during this challenging time.

With all of this information centralized, state government will be able to more efficiently match requests with available supplies. This is in no way meant to replace the current structure the state has in place for resource requests from healthcare institutions to the Massachusetts Department of Public Health but is meant to augment it.

Please join us in helping to ensure healthcare institutions across the Commonwealth have what they need to continue this fight.

Please feel free to reach out to CEO Tamara Small or Government Affairs Associate Anastasia Nicolaou if you have any questions.

Goulston & Storrs Files Amicus Brief on Behalf of NAIOP Massachusetts in Murchison v. Sherborn ZBA

Brief Urges SJC to Reject Appellate Court’s Decision on Standing

BOSTON, MA – Law firm Goulston & Storrs recently filed an amicus brief on behalf of NAIOP Massachusetts, The Commercial Real Estate Development Association, in the case of Murchison v. Sherborn ZBA.  The amicus brief urged the Supreme Judicial Court to overturn the lower court’s decision, which sided with the plaintiffs in the case.

NAIOP chose to pursue this opportunity because of concern that the Appeals Court’s decision in this case will, if allowed to stand, chill the development of commercial, industrial, and residential projects statewide by eliminating a meaningful requirement that plaintiffs in zoning cases must establish their standing with admissible evidence of harm to their interests protected by zoning.

“We are grateful to the incredible team at Goulston & Storrs for their work,” said Tamara Small, CEO of NAIOP Massachusetts. “Meritless appeals of zoning decisions are used all too frequently to delay and kill beneficial development projects. The decision in Murchison v. Sherborn ZBA will have far reaching implications for our industry. Making it easier for plaintiffs who are not injured to pursue zoning appeals will worsen the current housing shortage, hinder economic development projects, and eliminate a critical standing doctrine. For these reasons, we hope the SJC will overturn the Appeals Court decision.”

The Goulston & Storrs team involved in the matter includes Gary Ronan and Alana Rusin. 

Oral arguments will be held Thursday March 5.

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NAIOP Contact: Anastasia Nicolaou / 650-380-9440

About NAIOP

NAIOP Massachusetts, The Commercial Real Estate Development Association, represents the interests of companies involved with the development, ownership, management, and financing of commercial properties.  NAIOP’s 1,700 members are involved with more than 250 million square feet of office, research & development, industrial, mixed use, multifamily, retail and institutional space. In addition to providing education and networking opportunities, NAIOP advances the interests of the industry and advocates for effective public policy. For more information, visit www.naiopma.org.

About Goulston & Storrs

With over 200 lawyers across multiple disciplines, Goulston & Storrs is a real estate powerhouse with leading-edge corporate, litigation, tax, and private client and trust practices. We employ a team approach that values client outcomes first and foremost. The firm’s dedication to providing prompt, practical legal advice, cost-efficiently and tailored to our clients’ business needs, has resulted in Goulston & Storrs being acknowledged for excellence by leading industry, client, and peer rankings including Chambers USA, BTI’s A-Team for Client Service, and U.S. News & World Report Best Lawyers. Goulston & Storrs is an Am Law 200 law firm with offices in Boston, New York, and Washington, D.C.

Real Estate Industry Applauds Senate Leadership on Climate Change, Opposes Net-Zero Energy Code

Industry Groups Concerned Provisions Will Chill Economic Development, Increase Housing Costs

BOSTON, MA – NAIOP Massachusetts, The Commercial Real Estate Development Association (NAIOP); the Home Builders & Remodelers Association of Massachusetts (HBRAM); The Associated General Contractors of Massachusetts (AGC MA); and the Massachusetts Association of Realtors (MAR) applaud the Massachusetts Senate for recognizing that climate change is an economic development, public health, and environmental issue that affects every resident in the Commonwealth. 

As the Commonwealth leads the nation in climate mitigation and adaptation, technical and economic realities cannot be ignored. Senate Bill 2477, An Act setting next-generation climate policy includes a proposal to enact an opt-in stretch energy code that defines net-zero building. Achieving a net-zero energy building with today’s technology is not always feasible. As an example, very few net-zero lab properties or residential or office projects over 10 stories have ever been built. The projects that were able to achieve net-zero did so at a cost premium. If implemented, this net-zero code would increase the cost of the construction and maintenance of residential and commercial buildings.  Current rents could not cover the increased costs associated with such requirements.  In addition, the change would dramatically alter project design, in some cases preventing the project from being built at all – threatening the creation of new housing during the existing housing crisis, negatively impacting housing affordability and serving as a financial barrier to homeownership for thousands of young families seeking to purchase their first home.

In addition to increasing costs, it would have the effect of undoing the uniformity of the State Building Code by creating multiple codes – resulting in codes that would vary by community and little to no predictability for developers. This lack of uniformity threatens public safety and security by creating confusion surrounding implementation and enforcement, one of the reasons that the Board of Building Regulations & Standards was charged with implementing a statewide code.

Finally, we are concerned that some communities may adopt the net-zero code as a way to block development.

While we believe that net-zero construction may be possible in the future, we caution the Legislature against codifying timelines that are currently impossible to achieve, and instead encourage the continued investment and development of diverse technologies that will achieve our climate goals.

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NAIOP Contact: Anastasia Nicolaou / 650-380-9440

Home Builders Contact: Benjamin Fierro / 617-429-3053

MAR Contact: Justin Davidson / 781-839-5510

AGC MA Contact: Robert Petrucelli / 781-235-2680, ext. 114

What Does 2020 Hold for CRE in Massachusetts? Companies Incorporate Real Estate as Recruitment Tool

By: Tamara Small, CEO of NAIOP Massachusetts

The following first appeared in Banker & Tradesman on December 29, 2019.

The end of 2019 marks more than 10 years in the current real estate cycle. As we enter a new decade, now is a good time to take stock of current market conditions and make predictions for 2020. 

Experts are predicting continued, moderate, growth for 2020. Nationally, investor appetite for real estate remains strong and active in all sectors – retail, industrial, lab, office and housing. National vacancy rates are not showing signs of oversupply, and banks are remaining disciplined and conservative in their lending practices.  

While slow and steady job growth is expected, trade wars, political uncertainty and a labor shortage pose the biggest threats to continued economic growth. Market fundamentals remain strong, but such threats should be monitored closely given their potential to dramatically impact the market. 

Access to Talent Drives Market  

The Greater Boston market had an exceptionally strong year in 2019 with record rent growth and tenant demand. Boston remains one of the top markets for foreign investment. However, while continued growth in 2020 is expected, threats exist.   

Construction and land costs continue to soar, weakening returns and potentially threatening the feasibility of new projects. In the third quarter of 2019, Massachusetts real gross domestic product declined 0.2 percent according to MassBenchmarks, while U.S. real gross domestic product grew by 1.9 percent. A labor shortage, which is only expected to continue, is viewed as the single largest threat to the Massachusetts economy.  

At the recent NAIOP/SIOR Annual Market Forecast, which featured leading real estate experts who provided an analysis of the 2019 statistics and predictions for 2020, the need for access to a talented workforce – and what this means for real estate – was a major theme.   

Historically, tenant space was viewed as a cost center by employers, but it is now being used to attract and retain talent. While WeWork’s business model may have been flawed, it did have a dramatic impact on tenant expectations. Whether it’s beer on tap, game rooms or state-of-the-art fitness centers, employers are now using their space to gain a competitive edge when it comes to getting the best talent. This can be seen in the suburbs as well as Cambridge, Boston and surrounding markets, and it will continue in 2020. This all translates into a rising need for new or renovated space and an average tenant improvement allowance average of $5 per square foot. 

Looking Ahead to 2020  

As we enter a new decade, the Boston market remains strong with opportunities opening up beyond the urban core. Limited supply and high demand for lab space are fueling growth. With East Cambridge lab vacancy rates now at 0.8 percent, life science projects are moving forward in Watertown, Alewife, Allston/Brighton and Somerville, as well as Dorchester, the Seaport and South Boston. Cambridge’s success will also create opportunities for well-located suburban assets, particularly transit oriented development projects with the right amenity base.   

Unprecedented growth is expected to continue in the industrial sector. According to Rick Schuhwerk, executive managing director at Newmark Knight Frank, every $1 billion in online sales translates to 1.25 million square feet of new warehouse demand. The demand for “last-mile” facilities near high-density urban centers is driving up values. In the last five years, rents in core urban industrial space have more than doubled. In 2020, with online sales only expected to increase, vacancies will drop and rents will continue to rise. Spec developments are expected as well as a western migration of industrial space.  

On the housing front, according to Kelly Whitman, vice president of investment research at PGIM Real Estate, opportunities exist to upgrade and develop larger suburban apartments. Suburban apartment annual rent growth continues to outperform the urban, and, given changing demographics, a shift away from small units in the suburbs is expected. As the housing crunch continues, these areas outside of Boston’s core are vital to easing the pressure and providing middle income housing.  

On Tap on Beacon Hill 

Finally, while national economic and market indicators tell us that continued growth is expected next year, legislative and regulatory proposals at the state and local levels have the potential to significantly impact the market and should be watched closely. 

Housing: More housing production is needed to keep up with increased population growth. H.3507, An Act to Promote Housing Choices, is targeted at lowering voting thresholds in key zoning votes, allowing for increased production of housing. If it is not passed before the end of the legislative session, anticipate a continued tightening of the housing market, statewide. 

Transportation: NAIOP believes that a functional, accessible transportation system is key to continued development and investment. As area residents and business owners know, congestion has gotten worse in Greater Boston. The Baker-Polito Administration recently filed the Transportation Bond Bill, (H.4002), outlining a capital plan for addressing gaps in transportation infrastructure statewide. Other legislative proposals to address transportation are expected in 2020.  

Fossil Fuel Bans: A number of communities are considering bans on natural gas connections in all new construction, which will likely halt development entirely. While addressing climate change must be a priority, it is critical that policymakers employ achievable measures that are grounded in the reality of today’s technologies, without blocking housing production.  

Tackling Congestion: Lessons Learned from London and Stockholm

Other Cities Show Greater Boston Needs Both Carrots and Sticks

The below column, written by NAIOP CEO Tamara Small, first appeared in Banker and Tradesman on December 15, 2019.

Whether it’s in a board room, on a soccer field, or at the doctor’s office, the conversation invariably touches on traffic. Our daily commutes have become personal battles and the details are shared like war stories.  

As area residents know, and as multiple reports have confirmed, congestion has gotten worse in Greater Boston. Boston’s economy is booming – with nearly 100,000 new jobs created in the last year alone. There are 300,000 more vehicles on the road than five years ago, which is only projected to grow with the on-demand economy. The result? Bottlenecks on highways and local roads throughout the region. It’s clear that creative solutions, big and small, are needed to address congestion.  

Boston is not alone. Other cities across the nation are struggling to address traffic, air pollution, unsafe roads and emissions. Recognizing that the U.S. benefits by learning how other nations have tackled this issue the Bloomberg American Cities Climate Challenge, along with the Barr Foundation, brought a study group to London and Stockholm to see firsthand how these cities have used one specific tool: congestion pricing.  

How Other Cities Tackle Traffic 

The group, of which I was a part, included elected officials, environmental advocates, and business representatives from San Francisco, Seattle, Portland, Washington, D.C., Honolulu, Boston and Philadelphia. We met with government officials, transit industry experts, and local community members who shared how London and Stockholm implemented congestion pricing and how it has evolved over the years.  

London launched congestion pricing in 2003 after Ken Livingstone’s mayoral campaign included a pledge to reduce the number of vehicles entering the city. In advance of the launch of the program, London focused on making public transit and other alternatives to car travel easier, cheaper, faster and more reliable. It expanded its already robust public transit options by adding 300 buses, froze fare increases, created discounts for residents in the district and upgraded trains and subways heading into the zone.  

Within the first year of the program, the number of cars in the congestion pricing zone dropped, eventually creeping back up somewhat as the population increased and road capacity was reduced by allocating space to cyclists, pedestrians, and buses. Today, the number of people riding buses is up 40 percent and twice as many people commute by bicycle than in the year 2000. Overall, traffic in London has decreased by 20 percent.  

In Stockholm, congestion pricing was implemented in 2007 after a six-month pilot program. Again, in preparation for the program, major investments in public transit were made, including 14 new bus lines, more high frequency trains, and 2,500 new park and ride spots. People experienced a decrease in traffic congestion starting on day one of the program, which has continued with a permanent reduction of 20 percent less traffic.  

Four Key Takeaways 

In some ways, comparing Boston to Stockholm or London is not an apples–to–apples comparison. These cities have very different public transit systems. However, as the Greater Boston area attempts to address congestion through a variety of mechanisms, the following are the key takeaways from the study trip:  

  1. Pilot programs work. In Stockholm, public support for congestion pricing was extremely low until a pilot program allowed people to experience it firsthand. It demonstrated the significant impact congestion pricing could have on traffic. A pilot program also provides critical data that could shape and fine–tune a more comprehensive program.
  2. People will not get out of their cars if alternative mobility options do not exist. Whether it’s new protected bike lanes, expanded bus routes or increased frequency of commuter rail and subways, investments and expansion must be made before a comprehensive congestion pricing program can succeed. Importantly, the revenue generated by congestion pricing in Stockholm and London was used to further expand these options. In addition, riders must be confident that the public transit system is reliable.
  3. A successful congestion pricing program must consider equity – whether it is the impact on certain populations or regions. Outreach to key community stakeholders along with data collection on exactly who would be impacted and in what ways are critical in the development of congestion pricing programs. 
  4. Congestion pricing is an effective tool. Cordon and area pricing have generally reduced driving by 15-20 percent and congestion by 30 percent or more. Importantly, in Stockholm, even after investments were made to expand public transit options, ridership did not increase until after congestion pricing was implemented. This is proof that a carrot and stick approach is needed to effectively reduce congestion.  

One thing is clear, there is no one silver bullet that will reduce congestion throughout Greater Boston. A wide range of investments and actions is needed. MassDOT recently issued recommendations on how they plan to tackle congestion including, among other things, addressing local and regional bottlenecks where feasible; reinventing bus transit at both the MBTA and at regional transit authorities; increasing MBTA ridership and capacity; and creating infrastructure to support shared travel modes.  

Changes of all sizes will make a difference and NAIOP looks forward to working with MassDOT and key stakeholders as discussions around addressing congestion continue.  

Cracking the Climate Code: Battle Raging Over Building Energy Standards

NAIOP Massachusetts remains committed to addressing the serious ramifications of climate change, and we look forward to working with policy makers to move forward practical, feasible initiatives. However NAIOP continues to oppose technologically unattainable and impracticable proposals. The below article, written by Andy Metzger, originally appeared in the online edition of CommonWealth Magazine on December 8, 2019.

An arcane state board, known to few outside the world of design and construction, is the setting of a furious clash the outcome of which could influence the amount of climate-curdling emissions that pour out of chimneys, as well as the future supply of housing in Massachusetts, where affordable homes are already scarce.

The Board of Building Regulation and Standards might seem an odd venue for the drama that has unfolded there. The BBRS adopts and administers the statewide building code and the building energy code, sets of rules that are important but would bore the average reader to tears. It is the domain of professionals who think in cubic feet, seismic loads, and kilowatt hours. Now, the problems of the world are before it.

While much attention has been focused on reducing emissions from power plants and cars, commercial, residential, and industrial buildings in Massachusetts collectively spew more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere than either the power or transportation sectors. Commercial and residential buildings in Massachusetts emit about as much harmful gas into the air as the entire transportation sector.

That’s leading activists like Dr. Gaurab Basu, a Somerville physician who says the climate crisis will ultimately produce a public health crisis of increased deaths and hospitalizations, to insert themselves into the byzantine world of building codes. “As a parent of two young children and as a physician, I’m deeply concerned about this. I realize that the crisis forces us to do things that feel uncomfortable, to be pushing at a scale that feels like it’s untenable, but that’s the situation we’re in,” Basu told the board at its November meeting.

Climate activists like Basu, who have paid careful heed to the dire warnings of the world’s scientists, have pressed the BBRS to put out a net-zero energy code. The idea is that under a more stringent code newly constructed and newly renovated buildings would produce virtually no greenhouse gases, notching a small but meaningful victory in the worldwide campaign to avoid a climate catastrophe. That could be accomplished with tighter construction, energy efficient appliances, on-site renewable energy generation such as solar roofs, or under certain circumstances, a financial arrangement to procure renewable power from off-site.

Real estate agents and some builders are strongly opposed to the net-zero campaign, arguing that piling new requirements on top of existing construction costs would grind development to a halt, squeezing home prices, and exacerbating the region’s affordable housing crisis.

“We encourage an energy-efficient code, but we need to go where it makes sense from a cost standpoint and a technology standpoint,” said Tamara Small, CEO of NAIOP Massachusetts, which represents commercial developers. “We may get there, but we’re not there yet.”

Because of the schedule for adopting new building codes in Massachusetts, which statutorily follows the issuance of the International Energy Conservation Code, the big decision over whether to include a net zero code in that update won’t come to a head for another couple years – probably 2021 at the earliest. But environmentalists and business interests have already begun to skirmish and jockey for position.

Click here to read the sidebar.

Meanwhile, activists are making other plays at the local level to try to cut down on climate pollutants. In late November, Brookline’s town meeting adopted a bylaw to prohibit the installation of oil and gas pipes in new construction and renovations, which would give the market a big shove toward electrical appliances and home-heating systems. It was the first municipality to take that step. All town bylaws must undergo a review by the attorney general’s office to see whether they align with state laws and the constitution, so opponents still have a chance to kill the policy. Arlington town manager Adam Chapdelaine said on Twitter that depending on how the attorney general rules, he would be interested in trying the same sort of thing in his town.

From a global perspective, environmental initiatives undertaken so far have failed to slow – much less reverse – the output of greenhouse gas emissions into earth’s atmosphere. For the past decade, emissions have grown 1.5 percent annually, and emissions must drop sharply over the next decade to avoid the worst ravages of climate change, according to the latest United Nations report. The blight, disease and flooding that unchecked climate change will unleash is all the more reason, according to advocates, to take the necessary steps in Massachusetts to significantly reduce the amount of greenhouse gas that seeps out of our homes and workplaces.

BOARD MEETING SHOWDOWN

The Board of Building Regulation and Standards is nestled under several layers of government bureaucracy. It is contained within the Division of Professional Licensure, which is an agency of the Office of Consumer Affairs and Business Regulation, which is itself a component of the Executive Office of Housing and Economic Development, whose secretary, Mike Kennealy, serves at the pleasure of Gov. Charlie Baker.

The 11-member board is presided over by John Couture, who doubles as the town of Sutton’s building inspector. Couture, who decline an interview and said he doesn’t talk to any news reporters, will see his term come to an end December 31. Couture will remain on the board, which will elect its next chairperson, according to a spokesperson.

The BBRS holds its monthly meetings all over the state. When in Boston, it generally uses a conference room in a non-descript state office building across the Massachusetts Turnpike from Chinatown. That is where the board convened on a Tuesday in early November for a session where net-zero proponents and opponents each warned of a calamitous future.

Over the course of several hours, members of the public alternately pressed the board for stricter environmental standards to avoid a complete environmental collapse, or cautioned against rash action that could further balloon housing costs or threaten the chimney and fireplace industry. Couture and other board members listened respectfully to some of the testimony, but they were at times dismissive or skeptical of environmentalists pitching the net-zero idea.

Jacob Knowles, director of sustainable design at BR+A, a national engineering firm, told the board that net-zero building makes for cheaper and healthier living spaces, and his firm found that making buildings net-zero adds less than 1 percent to the construction costs. To buttress his case, Knowles unfurled a letter signed by roughly 1,500 people and 80 companies, including prominent architecture firms, calling for the development and adoption of a net-zero code.

“Take that with you,” Couture replied curtly, after Knowles displayed the letter on the table. “We don’t want your prop.”

Board members also occasionally debated with commenters, questioning the philosophical underpinnings of their advocacy.

“There are a lot of developers that will do the code minimum, period. Period. So we need to raise all boats,” argued Jim Stanislaski, an architect for the international firm Gensler, who supports creating a net-zero code. “And incentives are great; carrots are great. But we need to move out of the voluntary into the compulsory.”

To Michael McDowell, a board member and homebuilder, that sounded like an indictment of people’s intelligence.

“The more we regulate, the less we give citizens of Massachusetts an opportunity to make a choice,” McDowell said. “In other words, you’re almost saying to the citizens, ‘You’re too stupid to make the right choice so we’re going to make it for you. Congratulations.’”

Stanislaski protested that he wasn’t calling people stupid. Then Couture jumped in to question what would happen if the highest standards were used for structural integrity and fire protection requirements – as opposed to energy efficiency.

“If we started saying, you know what, ‘We think that we should have 200-pound roof-loads, just because it’s good,’” said Couture. “There are ramifications for that.”

To deal with these knotty issues, the board had tasked its Energy Advisory Committee – which is made up of other building professionals and engineers – to “show us what net-zero looks like,” according to Couture. But around the same time, the board changed the composition of that committee so that it tilts more toward the views of the construction industry. In October, the board decided to add three contractors to the advisory committee and remove spots designated for a utility representative, an indoor air quality expert, and an appliance expert.

To those hoping to push the state towards a net-zero code, the committee shakeup seemed part of a strategy to thwart that effort.

“It seems like a big shift to say, ‘Take off some of the energy experts and put on contractors,’” said Knowles in an interview. “At face value, that screams to me of trying to shift the whole dialogue towards a more conservative solution.”

A discussion about the shakeup raised hackles among board members during their November meeting when member Richard Crowley suggested that “people on the ground know more about what’s going on” than architects or engineers who rely on books.

“Just stop. Really stop,” board member Kerry Dietz, an architect, interjected. “It is insulting to those of us who are professionals.”

According to Couture, the shakeup was based on a directive from Division of Professional Licensure commissioner Diane Symonds, who wanted more input from “stakeholders.”

“Just because we added three contractors doesn’t mean we added three villains,” said Couture. “We added people that are actually building this stuff.”

Couture also expressed his irritation at an email circulated about the advisory committee issue that he said was “mean” and attacked the board’s integrity. Couture appeared to have been talking about a missive from the Massachusetts Climate Action Network encouraging people to attend the November meeting. While that email criticized the board’s changes to the advisory committee as a “big step backwards,” it did not suggest ulterior motives or make any overt attacks on the board’s integrity.

Advocates on both sides of the issue will have plenty of time to hone their arguments. Under a 2008 state law dubbed the Green Communities Act – which was one of Deval Patrick’s signature environmental accomplishments as governor – the state must meet or exceed the standards of the International Energy Conservation Code, which is developing an update for 2021. That would present the next obvious opportunity to push for a net-zero code.

WHAT WOULD NET-ZERO MEAN?

Net-zero construction is already happening in Massachusetts, and the principle of a net-zero code is pretty straightforward: eliminate the carbon footprint of buildings by enhancing their efficiency and using renewable energy sources for all power. But advocates are fuzzy on the details. As of November, only the American Institute of Architects had submitted a fleshed out proposal to the BBRS.

The AIA plan would give builders a couple of options to determine a building’s energy needs either through a formula or by measuring the building’s actual energy performance. Then the AIA plan would require a corresponding amount of renewable energy generation either installed on-site or procured off-site. The AIA net-zero plan would apply to new commercial, institutional, and mid-level or high-rise residential buildings.

There is one big complication with applying a net-zero standard to urban development. Residential towers and commercial skyscrapers don’t have enough space on their roofs to provide solar power to all the floors below.

“High rise is extremely challenging,” said Stanislaski, the architect who supports shifting to net-zero.

One irony is that high rise developments can help reduce carbon emissions in the transportation sector, especially if they are near transit, because they tend to make neighborhoods denser and more walkable.

It’s not impossible to build a net-zero skyscraper. Solar power and wind energy can be procured off-site, and under the current mix of government incentives, it can even be cheaper than using fossil fuels, according to Knowles, who acknowledged that a renewable energy requirement presents new risks for developers.

“They want to minimize risk, so if there is any potential volatility, they want to avoid that, but I don’t see how that supersedes the need to address climate change and minimize our carbon footprint,” Knowles said.

Small, the NAIOP Massachusetts CEO who represents commercial real estate developers, has a bleaker view on what sort of effects a net-zero standard could exert on the marketplace.

“When you then talk about adding on something that makes a building zero net-energy, it’s going to be cost-prohibitive, so nothing’s going to be built. The numbers simply don’t work. And I don’t think when we have a housing crisis that really is necessarily the best approach,” Small said. “I think we have to proceed with caution because the unintended consequences could literally be no new commercial office space, lab space, retail, multi-family, mixed-use, you name it.”

Other areas with high housing costs have pushed the construction industry towards net-zero standards. California has instituted new requirements and set goals to phase-in net-zero construction for new and existing buildings over the next decade. New York is taking a number of steps to encourage net-zero developments and retrofit existing buildings to make them more energy efficient.

Massachusetts has made significant strides in energy efficiency. For nearly a decade, the Bay State has earned top marks from the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy for its policies, including the relatively stringent measures adopted by the BBRS.

But given the scale of threat posed by global warming, many believe more should be done, and Knowles said the changes needed in construction are well within reach.

“This is not pie-in-the-sky. This is not some sort of dream fantasy idea. This is something that we’re doing consistently now on large, complex urban and non-urban projects,” Knowles said. “I have not come across a project that cannot achieve these goals, and in every single case we’ve been able to prove it’s cost-effective.”