CALGreenx351Developers, architects and builders in California are preparing for the state’s first-in-the-nation green building code, and its launch in January is viewed both as a controversial addition to green building standards and as a possible model for other states to eventually follow.

The California Green Building Standards Code – better known as CALGreen – will be the first state-level code to set mandatory green-building requirements. It is intended to help the state reach its 2020 greenhouse gas reduction targets by, among other things, cutting water usage in buildings, reusing construction waste, requiring low-polluting interior paints and generally making the construction process more eco-friendly.

A national ULI leader had a hand in its creation. Judi Schweitzer, president of her own sustainable development consultancy outside Los Angeles and a vice chair of ULI’s Sustainable Development Council, served on a CALGreen advisory committee for the California Building Standards Commission.

“The idea was to set a precedent that was practical and cost-effective,” Schweitzer says. “We’re hoping this provides more opportunity to participate in green building and that other states will adopt this approach.”

CALGreen was first adopted in 2008, but only with voluntary benchmarks. Earlier this year, the state set a January 1 timetable for some provisions to become mandatory. The code applies to both commercial and low-rise (three stories or less) residential buildings and both public- and private-sector developments. The mandatory provisions are minimum standards, such a low-flow plumbing fixtures and salvaging half of all construction debris. These will be enforced through building inspections at the local city or county level. Then there are two additional tiers of voluntary standards that are more stringent than the mandatory provisions and cover more topics, such as landscaping and roofs. 

“CALGreen simplifies the green building process by having one standard, and the development community appreciates a one-size-fits-all approach that applies across the board, so there’s less guesswork in knowing and understanding the requirements,” says Madeline Stone, an environmental land-use attorney with Holland & Knight in San Francisco who co-wrote a short guide to CALGreen in September.

Still, the new state green code has been controversial – especially within the green building industry. Some industry professionals and organizations such as the U.S. Green Building Council, which developed the LEED rating system, and Built It Green, which has a GreenPoint rating system for homes, have criticized CALGreen for creating an extra layer of green regulations and undermining tougher green building ordinances adopted by some larger cities. After all, California already requires new state government buildings to meet a LEED Silver rating.

“There’s some trepidation and fear in the green building community that this will create more confusion,” says Peter Saucerman, LEED AP, a partner at Dreyfuss & Blackford Architects in Sacramento and chairman of the Sustainability Council for ULI Sacramento.

Actually, there’s little overlap between CALGreen and third-party requirements, and California has positioned CALGreen as a standard that circumvents the so-called third-party ratings. The new code, according to official state publications, will mainstream green design by offering a minimum standard that doesn’t compel builders or property owners to pay “thousands of dollars” for LEED or GreenPoint features or certifications.

So, many industry professionals in the state have been attending educational training courses presented by state agencies and industry associations about the new code. “Given the current lull in private commercial development and residential new construction due to the economy, much of the practical impacts of CALGreen will be vetted initially through public projects,” says Mark Whitfield, executive vice president of shopping center developer Donahue Schriber, whose president, Lawrence Casey, is one chair of ULI’s Commercial & Retail Development Council.

The costs of complying with CALGreen are expected to be “relatively inexpensive,” according to a report by Paul, Hastings, Janofsky & Walker LLP law firm. A state training presentation this past summer offered tips on complying with residential mandates, including:

  • For 20% indoor water savings, use bathroom faucets with flows less than 1.5 gallons per minute, and water closets (toilets) with flush rates less than 1.3 gallons.
  • Install vapor barriers in slab foundations to avoid potential moisture and mold issues.
  • Test the moisture content of insulation prior to installation, as part of efforts to ensure building materials are kept dry.

These provisions are likely to be just the beginning of CALGreen. The code is designed to continually add additional measures – such as some of its current voluntary standards – in future iterations. “Our expectation is that CALGreen will be the first of several programs to be developed throughout the country,” says Stephen Dominiak, executive vice president of apartment developer BRE Properties, whose president, Constance Moore, is a vice chair of ULI’s Multi-Family Council. “Environmental regulation will only get more stringent, so builders and developers also need to start thinking how they can push the envelope.”