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California's Building Code Turns a Deeper Shade of Green

California's Green Building Standards Code, the first of its kind when placed on the books 18 months ago, moved toward a new phase this week with the adoption of mandatory measures that are aimed at curbing greenhouse gas emissions, energy consumption, water use and other environmental impacts of new construction.
On a unanimous vote, the California Building Standards Commission approved provisions on Tuesday that revise the code adopted in July 2008. That rules package was a set of voluntary green building measures for new construction and took effect in August 2009 with a timetable for transitioning to mandatory standards.

Starting January 1, 2011, adherence to the rules adopted this week becomes a requirement for all new construction. Dubbed CALGreen, the code:

  • Sets a threshold of a 20 percent reduction in indoor water use and includes voluntary goals for reductions of 30 percent, 35 percent and 40 percent.
  • Requires separate meters for indoor and outdoor water use at nonresidential buildings; and at those sites, irrigation systems for larger landscaped areas must be moisture-sensing.
  • Calls for 50 percent of construction waste to be diverted from the landfills and lists higher, voluntary diversion amounts of 65 percent to 75 percent for new homes, and 80 percent for commercial construction.
  • Mandates inspections of energy systems -- such as heating, air conditioning and mechanical equipment -- for nonresidential buildings that are larger than 10,000 square feet to  "ensure that all are working at their maximum capacity according to design efficiencies."
  • Requires that paint, carpet, vinyl flooring, particle board and other interior finish materials be low-emitting in terms of pollutants.

"With this first-in-the nation mandatory green building standards code, California continues to pave the way in energy efficiency and environmental protection," Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger said in his announcement about the adoption of the code revisions.

Under the measures, after a new structure passes its building inspection, property owners can label their building as having complied with code.

As proposed, the labeling system drew criticism from the Northern California Chapter of the U.S. Green Building Council, the organization that has developed the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design standard and its rating system, Build It Green, Global Green, the Natural Resources Defense Council, Environmental Defense Fund, the Sierra Club California,, Environment California, and the Planning and Conservation League.

The organizations, which lauded several of the mandatory and voluntary provisions in the code, raised concerns that the provisions also create a "quasi rating system," which -- albeit voluntary -- would likely create confusion in the marketplace and undermine tough green building ordinances adopted by cities. The groups said the system also does not provide for adequate verification.

The groups launched a letter-writing campaign to urge that the building standards commission adopt the code without the CALGreen labeling element and the provisions supporting the quasi rating system that the organizations described.

In releasing material summarizing the building standard commission's actions this week, the state disputed the criticism and said the code requires builders to meet a green standard and enables them to do so "without having to pay costly fees for third-party programs."

The USGBC's LEED rating system, that of Build It Green and other recognized organizations offering green building certification in the U.S. and abroad base their assessments on third-party verification, considered an industry best practice.

And notwithstanding the statement about third-party programs, Calfornia requires its own new and existing buildings to conform to LEED, the dominant green building standard in the U.S. market.

Making buildings more environmentally friendly is a key component of the governor's "Green California" campaign for state facilities and operations, and in the broader efforts to achieve the targets for greenhouse gas emissions reduction that are required by the state's landmark legislation, AB 32. The 3-year-old law mandates reduction of California's GHG emissions to 1990 levels by 2020 and calls for an 80 percent reduction from 1990 levels by 2050.

The California Air Resources Board has estimated that the mandatory measures of CALGreen will reduce GHG emissions by a CO2 equivalent of 3 million metric tons in 2020.

Image CC licensed by Flickr user stevendamron

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