For those who thought the current furor over federal regulation meant that Uncle Sam would somehow back away and give it up, there is sobering news today.
Old Uncle is not about to back away or give it up.
Deep in the warrens of the bureaucracy, papers are being shuffled and standards are being drafted intended to effect almost every new building in this country after early 1980.
The shape, size, style and even the cost of most new commercial and residential buildings could be affected by the government's BEPS - shorthand for Building Energy Performance Standards.
The BEPS, which are nearing final form at the Departments of Housing and Urban Development and Energy, have become the subject of a rip-roaring backstage fight in government.
Two congressional committees are considering investigatons. Engineers and architects are at each other's throats. State and local building code officals are upset. Consumer groups are fuming.
Now, before you denounce BEPS as another dastardly federal acronym, consider a point:
Depending on whose estimate is used, buildings consume, with heating, cooling and appliances, from a fourth to a third of all the energy used in the country.
Congress reasoned that any design and construction changes that could save energy would be good. So in 1976 it passed the Energy Conservation Standards for New Buildings Act and sent is to DOE and HUD for implementation.
At this juncture, however, the story ceases to be simple. The bureaucrats insist they have been thorough and thoughtful. But critics say the standards being readied are so bland, illfounded and complex that Congress ought to abort the exercise and start anew.
One of the problems is that the entire process was speeded up by a year at President Carter's insistence. HUD and DOE are adhering to the new timetable, which, the critics say, is only making matters worse.
These points emerge from the backstage bickering:
When completed, the standards will be Uncle Sam's recommendations for conserving energy through building design. While states and localities are supposed to incorporate them into their building codes, there is no penalty if they don't. The Senate wanted to make the standards mandatory, the House did not, and the latter prevailed.
HUD and DOE outlined their intentions last month in a lengthy advance notice of proposed rulemaking, a step in the process that will lead to promulgation of the standards.
The nonresidential standards came from data prepared by the American Institute of Architects Research Corp., with an $8 million federal contract. Yet the proposed standards fall well below what the researchers concluded designers and engineers could achieve with little more education on energy-saving techniques.
The residential guidelines came directly from the National Association of Home Builders, the building industry's trade group. Those modest guidelines already are in use, on a voluntary basis, in many parts of the country.
The work of another group, the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Condidtioning Engineers (ASHRAE) in developing building energy specifications apparently got short shrift from the bureaucrats. About half of the states have incorporated ASHRAE's guides into their building codes.
Notwithstanding the time and millions of dollars spent so far on the BEPS, the Farmers Home Administration already has tougher mandatory energy-conservation standards for projects it finances. And HUD is about to adopt similar mandatory standards for other residential developments it underwrites.
A question that arises, then, is why DOE and HUD are bothering to go ahead with the BEPS that are neither mandatory nor as stringent as some energy-saving requirements already in place. Nor does the advance notice provide information on projected savings or possible new costs.
"We have spent about a total of $12 million in research money," said David Rosoff, one of HUD's project officials. "We have made many people conscious of good energy design. Our job is to help educate . . . And we feel if the architect and designer hear of what we are doing, they will come up with a plan to meet the standards."
But a coalition of consumer and environmental groups-Rural America, the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Center for Renewable Resources, the Conservation Foundation, Solar Action-are indignant.
They argue that HUD and DOE ought to scrap their work and come up with "more credible more stringent and more enforceable" standards. Moreover, they say, the standards ought to encourage the use of renewable resources, principally solar energy, in buildings.
They contend that standards should force the industry-architects, engineers, builders-to come up with readily attainable energy-saving techniques. And incentives could be provided by giving tax breaks to energy savers.
Clark Bullard, a DOE official involved in monitoring the HUD team's development of standards, said that the advance notice is only the beginning of a process to significantly tighten building energy regulations.
"We are making sure that our cost and savings estimates are certain and we are trying to determine where the limits lie on these things," Bullard said. "We have gone out honestly, not wedded to anything. We are not committed to them [the early proposals] in any way."
Nevertheless, the work of HUD and DOE so far has stirred concern on Capitol Hill. The House Banking Commitee and the House energy and power subcommittee are contemplating investigatory hearings next year.
"We are very concerned," said a Banking Committee staff assistant. "If the departments' strategy is to make the standards weak just to get them passed with little controversy, it makes little sense . . . This was really the first congressional incursion into nationwide building practices and we think Congress was serious about it."
Added another subcommittee aide: "They have wasted time and money and they have got everybody upset in the process. It is as though HUD dressed up the chickens and then threw them at the fox-the architects and the homebuilders."
Unless the game plan is changed, the BEPS will be in final form in August and the states will have until early 1980 to incorporate them into their building codes. But if they don't, they will face no penalties-unless Congress changes its mind.
No one is betting either way.