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Cali Adopts Nation’s First Green Building Code, Not Everyone's Happy

Just two weeks into the new year, California government authorities are helping to bolster one of our four green building trends to watch in 2010: the tightening of green building regulations. Earlier this week, a California state commission voted unanimously to approve the nation’s first mandatory statewide green building code that, according to a statement by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, “lays the foundation for the move to greener buildings constructed with environmentally advanced building practices.” The move sends a signal that the state is serious about green building, even if some groups worry it might cause confusion in the market around rating systems.

Building codes have long been an effective stick for governments to push the construction industry toward higher standards, for example to make structures safer in the event of a fire or earthquake. The new regulations announced this week, dubbed CalGreen and taking effect Jan. 1, 2011, tackle the environmental impact of buildings. They require builders of new residential and commercial structures in California to install plumbing fixtures that reduce indoor water use by 20 percent over current standards, to recycle half of their construction waste, and to use low-pollutant options for interior finish materials like paints, carpet and vinyl flooring.

Nonresidential buildings will need separate water meters for indoor and outdoor water use, with a requirement for moisture-sensing irrigation systems for larger landscapes, and larger commercial buildings will need to have air conditioning, heating and other mechanical equipment inspected upon completion of construction to ensure they work efficiently. Buildings that pass the state’s inspection can label their facilities as “CalGreen compliant.”

Some groups, however, such as the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC), which develops the popular green building rating system LEED, have expressed concerns about certain provisions in the new code (while also supporting many of its measures). The USGBC’s Northern California chapter posted a statement on its web site saying that the code contains a “voluntary quasi rating system” that “will likely create significant market confusion.” The comments were referring to provisions in CalGreen that allow cities to adopt more stringent goals such as around water use and waste diversion, effectively creating two tiers for the new code.

Elizabeth Echols, director of the chapter, rejected the notion that her group has reservations because it’s trying to protect its position as the country’s leading rating system for green buildings, the San Francisco Chronicle reports. Echols declined to comment for this article, instead referring me to USGBC’s Washington, D.C., office because this has become a “national” story. She wrote in an email today that the statement on the chapter’s web site is now “out of date.”

Jason Harkey, vice president of national policy for the USGBC, told me that the group has “long supported improvements in regulatory code” and that California’s move is a “great achievement.” He said the USGBC still has some concerns around “implementation,” but the group looks forward to working with the state. Harkey also said that LEED, a voluntary system, attempts to “push the ceiling” of the green building industry while codes set the “floor.” LEED, for example, has much more expansive requirements related to energy efficiency and the use of recycled materials in construction than California’s new green building code.

Still, state officials clearly feel the need to defend CalGreen against the criticism. The Governor’s office released a memo that includes a chart specifically contrasting California’s green building code with “point-based systems” such as LEED and GreenPoint Rated, a separate system which is focused on homes. The memo effectively criticizes point-based systems for a lack of transparency and high certification costs compared with CalGreen (the memo mentions LEED in particular), and it emphasizes the state’s “stringent, successful and cost-effective” methods for building inspections.

“We wanted to highlight the differences and show that some things being said weren’t true,” Dave Walls, executive director of the California Building Standards Commission, which is responsible for administering and adopting the state’s building codes, told me. He said he didn’t believe CalGreen would cause market confusion.

California’s new code will likely bring more attention to sustainable practices in the construction industry, and it tells innovators and investors that green building is now a mandatory feature when it comes to the state’s building infrastructure. It’s too soon to say with certainty if CalGreen will muddle the market for LEED. In the meantime, the USGBC should be happy with the existing rule that requires all new construction of larger California state buildings to achieve the group’s certification.

Image courtesy flickr user Wonderlane.

3 Responses to “Cali Adopts Nation’s First Green Building Code, Not Everyone's Happy”

  1. cellisis

    How can we push federal government to mandate LEED standard on all new constructions nationwide? We should also push for residential building green upgrade (with government assistance if necessary), once the national standard or new green building code has been established.

  2. Another reason for protecting LEED is the tie-in with Euro building codes. Most don’t realize it; but, what we finally get round to adopting here in the states is one or another variation on European building codes. They’re generally a decade or two ahead of the U.S.

    Typically, the only need for changes is the larger rooms and structures Americans think they need.

    Most of the “advances” in LEED and probably Cali – already exist in European codes.