News
02.22.2010
Greener Than Thou
California issues first statewide mandatory green building standards
Weber Thompson's award-winning Terry Thomas building in Seattle is a role model for California's new green code.
Courtesy Weber Thompson

A January 12 announcement from Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger concerning the nation’s first mandatory state green building standards (CALGreen) was met with something rarely seen in real estate and architecture: the public support of more than a dozen prominent trade associations. In a letter to the California Building Standards Commission (BSC), which unanimously adopted the code, 16 trade groups, including the American Institute of Architects California Council (AIACC), voiced support for CALGreen. The standards, part of California’s Title 24 Code Regulations, are voluntary for now and will take effect next year.

The near-universal consensus was not accidental, said sources close to the situation. Working from a 2007 directive from the governor, BSC spent nearly three years developing and refining sustainable standards for residential, commercial, and public building construction.

Among other requirements, under CALGreen, every new building constructed in the state will have to reduce water consumption by 20 percent, divert 50 percent of construction waste from landfills, install low pollutant-emitting materials, and include separate water meters for use in non-residential buildings. In addition to the mandatory regulations (Tier 1), the code allows for more stringent voluntary provisions (Tier 2), such as a 65 percent waste-diversion mandate.

Cities with green building programs that exceed standards outlined in CALGreen will not be required to change their own programs to comply with Tier 1. “However, it is more stringent for the state as a whole,” said Nellie Reid, a director of sustainable design at Gensler. It is estimated that more than 400 jurisdictions in the state are now without green building rules.

A few groups and individuals have voiced dissatisfaction with the code, citing concerns over a lack of rigor and the potential confusion caused by its tier system. The U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC)’s Northern California chapter first raised concerns over the tier system, but then reversed course, eventually applauding the state.

The code was developed under an appointed committee that included an architect, a construction representative, a building official, and an environmental specialist. BSC also solicited public comment.

Matthew Hargrove, senior vice president of governmental affairs of the California Business Properties Association, said that instead of being confusing, the code has the potential to clarify issues for architects working across the state. Currently there can be 30 different jurisdictions with LEED-equivalent programs but no set standard, he said. “Now, across the state, Tier 1 will be the same within any 30 cities that have adopted [CALGreen’s] module,” Hargrove explained.

Though many liken the new code to LEED, CALGreen relies on local building departments rather than third-party inspectors. Exceptions apply to schools and hospitals, which will be overseen by the Division of the State Architect (DSA) and the Office of Statewide Health Planning and Development (OSHPD), respectively.

Gensler’s Reid questioned if leaving inspection to local building departments would open the code to too much interpretation, but BCS Executive Director Dave Walls was quick to discount those concerns.

Because the code applies to all buildings, regardless of size and purpose (with the exception of federal buildings and those constructed on Native American land), some say it could pose challenges for design and building professionals who will have to comply on projects big and small. Robin Bass, a senior associate with Huntsman Architectural Group, pointed out that residential construction is very different from commercial and may be better suited to separate guidelines, like those in San Francisco. But Reid thinks the code will make certain services more attainable. “Everyone will have to comply,” Reid said. “It now will be easier to find contractors who can meet waste-diversion goals [for residential projects].”

Regarding the additional costs the standards could bring at a time of economic crisis, Walls said the state conducted cost-benefit analyses on all aspects of the code and found some parts, such as the moisture-sensitive irrigation systems required for larger projects, will increase projects’ first-time costs. “We did end up moving some mandatory items to voluntary and vice versa,” he said. CALGreen compliance, however, does not require any additional verification fees, such as those incurred with LEED, and, as Reid pointed out, requirements like more efficient toilets shouldn’t cost any more.

For now, the code only takes new construction into consideration, ignoring existing building stock. Bryan Jackson, partner at Allen Matkins Leck Gamble Mallory & Natsis, thinks California will have to move in that direction at some point, if for no other reason than to comply with Assembly Bill 32, the Global Warming Act.

Though Reid and others expect to see revisions in the next version of the code, due in 2013, it is too early to say how different that version will be; the mandatory code did not turn out much differently than the voluntary version. At least in its first iteration, CALGreen seems to pose little threat to the LEED program, which has grown to include neighborhoods and existing buildings. “The USGBC has marketing panache. I don’t see them going anywhere,” Jackson said. “I predict people will pursue both CALGreen and LEED and hang both plaques with pride.”

Jennifer Caterino