The fight against climate change must in some way involve changes in the energy performance of buildings. Addressing the basic rules that govern how buildings are designed and constructed is an important first step in the process. These basic rules, referred to more commonly as building codes, are updated by a group called the International Code Council (ICC). The ICC is currently at work on updates to model energy codes for release in 2012 and three national organizations, New Buildings Institute (NBI), the American Institute of Architects (AIA), and the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), have jointly proposed comprehensive changes that would result in commercial buildings that are up to 30 percent more efficient than those built to today’s standards.
On January 12, 2010, California approved the most stringent, eco-friendly statewide building code in the United States. The new building code standard called “CALGreen” will take effect next January and lays out specific constraints for newly constructed buildings. The code was supported by California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and the state Chamber of Commerce, as well as many builders and realtors, who argued it would only slightly increase initial construction costs. Private groups with green rating programs, including the U.S. Green Building Council, argued that it could lead to myriad standards and confusion.
The difference between this program in California and green building rating systems like LEED, in my estimation, is that “codes” are mandatory, whereas the LEED system was originally designed and intended to be a voluntary program. Though many cities have mandated LEED for new construction projects of a certain size, having a mandatory code with a tier structure in place will allow California’s builders to build to a certifiable green standard without having to pay costly fees for third party programs. The new code also allows local jurisdictions, such as San Francisco, to retain their stricter existing green building standards, or adopt more stringent versions of the state code if they choose.
CALGreen will require large, non-residential buildings to have inspections of energy systems including furnaces, heat pumps and air conditioners to ensure that systems are operating to their maximum efficiency. Specifically, the new code requires builders to install plumbing that cuts indoor water use by at least 20 percent, divert 50 percent of construction waste from landfills to recycling and use low-pollutant paint, carpet and flooring.
CALGreen will also include a number of voluntary provisions designed to make buildings more energy efficient and to conserve natural resources. The California Air Resources Board estimates that the new code will reduce greenhouse gas emissions by an equivalent of 3 million metric tons of carbon dioxide by 2020.