California Greening: State’s New Green Building Codes Have Some Crying Foul

'An Example of the Law of Unintended Consequences'

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California last week became the first state to integrate green building practices, largely based on the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Efficiency and Environmental Design (LEED) standards, into its statewide building codes.

It was a big, Governator-style move, but while the USGBC officially supports CalGreen, and most in the green building world see it as a net-positive step, not everyone is thrilled about it. In fact many architects, engineers and city planners that fully support the integration of green building practices in the building code are concerned about the challenges involved in implementing and enforcing that code — and those are the building professionals who are advocates of green building in the first place.

“I think we’re living through an example of the law of unintended consequences here,” says Bill Worthen, a member of the American Institute of Architects.

Worthen helped draft San Francisco’s municipal green building standards and was involved in the three public hearings held as the state standards were drafted.

“The intent of LEED was to transform the market, and it was targeting the top 25% of buildings in the construction market,” he said. “What has happened is the USGBC has grown into an enormous organization, and it has done a great job of framing the discussion on sustainability in construction — so much so that it has made state governments, ASHRAE, and everyone else all want to draft their own green building standards, and they all borrow from LEED.”

That would seem to be a good thing, or at least not a bad one, but in fact it is causing problems.

Competing Codes, Lack of Flexibility

Whereas in LEED and in most existing municipal green building codes there is flexibility built in so that architects and developers can decide what works best on their project and find the most cost-effective way to achieve the level of sustainability they want, the state codes make these things mandatory and, according to Worthen, “no one understands what that means.”

To wit, what if the local planning commission requires green front lawns, but the building codes require reduction in water use — which rules win out? Similarly, if the building codes mandate, say, the use of storm-water catchment, but it doesn’t make sense at a particular location, it might not actually be the most eco-friendly construction choice. And, Worthen points out, if a designer is doing something really creative, such as a structured wetland, and it’s something that isn’t covered by the codes, what happens then?

Another concern about the CalGreen system is that it’s not just one set of codes.

There’s the initial, mandatory baseline code, but then the state is introducing two tiers that municipalities can adopt if they want to go above and beyond. The cities that adopt the higher tier will be more expensive to build in than the cities that adopt just the baseline code. In cities like San Francisco, where green building codes are already in place, the municipal codes will trump the state codes, provided they are equally or more rigorous.

There are concerns within the building industry about the potential confusion caused by having first the variations on the state code (mandatory, Tier One and Tier Two), and then the different local building codes. And how does it all interact with LEED?

“LEED and building codes are always complementary, and this just helps integrate green building practices further into the code,” says Jason Hartke, vice president of national policy for USGBC. He notes that the organization has a history of supporting improvements to building code minimums, and that its multiple California chapters were involved in the development of the Calgreen standards.

“We were worried at first that state codes would prevent localities from going beyond what the state has put in place, but we helped drive some changes early on that eliminated that problem."

Impact on Green Construction

While the USGBC may be giving California and its green building codes an official thumbs-up, many in the green building community were put off by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s announcement of the codes, during which he thumbed his nose at what he called “expensive, third-party certifications,” stating that the new codes would allow California to build green without the expense of costly third-party programs. It was a bit of a slap in the face given that CalGreen borrows generously from LEED.

The people who will have to actually figure out the code — namely architects and engineers — are still concerned about dealing with multiple sets of standards.

“There was a lot of opposition to the state developing its own standards, because it creates a lot of confusion around the now-patchwork of required municipal standards and voluntary standards, and it seemed to people that the state was going rogue with it,” says Laura Tam, sustainable development policy director for the San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association, which helped draft San Francisco’s green building codes.

Building professionals also felt left out of the process.

“The California energy code is excellent because they worked with the private sector to develop it, and those people had more expertise than anyone, so they came up with requirements that were both cost-effective and saved a ton of energy,” explains Raphael Sperry, AIA, and a member of San Francisco’s green building task force.

“This code covers a lot more areas — energy, but also water, materials and so on — and they weren’t nearly as rigorous. It’s largely based on analysis done by the USGBC, and while that analysis is good, the state really shouldn’t be basing a whole new building code on just that.”

It’s unfortunate that building professionals weren’t consulted more in the drafting of the codes, because they will undoubtedly have a drastic effect on how architects and engineers do business.

Whereas there are currently a handful of such professionals who are able to guide a project through LEED certification or have specialized knowledge in green building, now all architects and engineers will need to know about green building practices. And that’s a good thing, but there will be a learning curve, and some in the industry are chaffing at the thought of being asked to add a whole new set of skills to their practices at a time when many are struggling to stay in business.

The codes also will affect the construction industry — they will make building more expensive in California, which neither economic development departments nor construction professionals are excited about. And they could also affect where development happens since developers are likely to gravitate to the areas where lower requirements make it cheaper to build.

It also remains to be seen how the codes will be enforced. One year doesn’t seem nearly long enough to train all of the state’s building enforcement officials, nor are California cities in a financial position to pay for such training.

There appear to be a number of issues with how the code came to be and how it will work, but sometimes drastic change is needed. According to Worthen, the same thing happened when the American Disability Act was passed, and the building industry had to quickly figure out how to be ADA-compliant.

Moreover, the move isn’t entirely bad for business. Green building experts should see boost to their bottom lines in the short term (although in the long term, being a green building expert in California could become a thing of the past). Firms like Sperry’s, which he describes as being “the one people call when they hit bumps with green projects,” are likely to have more business than they know what to do with once the codes become official in January 2011.

“In the end, it will be a good thing that we all have to know about green building,” says Worthen, who works with Sperry and is himself a green building specialist. “It’s just going to be a challenging, painful road to get there.”


See also:

LEED No Longer Stops at Construction: Version 3 Checks Up on Efficiency

Architects, Engineers LEED the Way to a Sustainable Future

Will Smart Grid Benefits Be Limited by Dumb Buildings?

Reaching for Sustainability in the Next Real Estate Cycle

How Green Retrofits Could Save the World