Are Green Building Codes The Only Answer?

There has been significant discussion over the past few months over the need for green building codes to achieve major green building goals.  The International Green Construction Code Version 2.0 was published in November 2010, and CalGreen, California’s mandatory green construction code went into effect in January 2011.

A developer friend asked me what I thought of CalGreen, and it got me to thinking:

Could you achieve the same environmental results by implementing regulations that did not require an overhaul of the building code? 

Last week, San Francisco passed a regulation requiring owners of nonresidential buildings to conduct Energy Efficiency Audits of their properties every five years, and file Annual Energy Benchmark Summaries for their buildings. The regulation is available here. San Francisco is following the lead of Washington DC and other municipalities mandating disclosure of energy performance.

Could mandatory energy, water use and indoor air quality disclosure, along with rigorous benchmarking be the foundation of an alternative green regulatory approach?  An interesting thing that San Francisco did is not only to make the disclosures mandatory, but also to file them with the city, allowing public access to the records. Thus, they can be used by anyone looking to purchase or value the buildings.  By mandating disclosure, it incentivizes building efficiency measures, and lets the market do most of the work to force the highest levels of efficiency. 

The next piece would be to provide major incentives for infill development, brownfield redevelopment and trandevelopment around mass transit–and charge a premium for infrastructure improvements outside developed areas

Another component would be to reduce parking requirements, and create parking maximums.  The reduced parking capacity would reduce building costs, incentivize public transit usage and make properies built in strong transit hubs more attractive.

Finally, mandate recycling of construction and demolition waste.   C & D waste is easy to track and waste management is already highly regulated. 

These efforts address most of the green building focus areas–water, waste, energy, site, and indoor air quality.  The question is whether this combination of market transparency, incentives and mandates would be as effective in reaching environmental goals as a drafting and implementing a new green building code.

Have any Question or Comment?

4 comments on “Are Green Building Codes The Only Answer?

It’s important to point out that building codes play a strong role in the overall safety of structures. While energy audits and measures to reduce energy use and increase efficiency are to be applauded, there is a significant place for safety measures outside of energy components. The International Code Council has developed the International Green Construction Code with it’s partners the USGBC, AIA, IES, ASHRAE and ASTM to ensure safety and sustainability are integrated.

Lewis Perelman

It is easy to say “ensure safety and sustainability are integrated.” In practice, however, their requirements are often in conflict with each other and also with financial/economic limits. For further discussion, see

Very important information that is necessary for professionals, which is The national consent standard for outside air ventilation is ASHRAE Standard 62.1-200, Ventilation for adequate Indoor Air Quality and its in print Addenda. This standard is over and over again incorporated into state and local building codes, and specifies the amounts of outside air that must be made available by natural or mechanical ventilation systems to a variety of areas of the industrial areas, school, including classrooms, gymnasiums, kitchens and other special use areas.


Lewis Perelman

I think Shari Shapiro’s argument here is on the right track. One key problem with creating ‘green’ building codes is that ‘green’ metrics like LEED are graduated (also, continually shifting), aimed toward multi-hued levels of bragging rights. But building codes traditionally focus on requiring minimum standards of safety and/or durability. While it possible to monitor whether a building is using more or less energy, or more or less water, it is much harder to say whether a particular architecture is saving more or fewer lives. So such standards tend to be binary: a given design either satisfies code requirements or it doesn’t.

There is some opportunity for safety/security gradation when addressing hazards that are graduated, such as hurricanes or earthquakes. So a builder could demonstrate that a building is capable of surviving a category 5 hurricane even though the code may only require a minimum standard of category 3. As homeland security agencies continue to encourage voluntary private-sector standards for infrastructure resilience, scaled metrics of building safety/security/resilience comparable to LEED valuation may become more common. That would not alleviate the inherent conflicts between ‘blue’ and ‘green’ demands, but could put them on a more equal footing.

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