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Game Changer: California's Green Building Code

He’s been called a maverick, a game changer and sometimes just plain crazy for trying to rewrite the California Building Standards Code to greatly increase water and energy efficiency standards, to lower the use of volatile organic compounds (VOC’s) in building materials, and to increase the percentages of construction waste that must be diverted from landfills. But under a directive from the Governor’s office, Dave Walls, executive director of the California Building Standards Commission (CBSC), along with a collaborative team of state agency and industry stakeholders, did just that. The new green building code, now known by its acronym, CALGreen, has officially been adopted.

It is the first-in-the-nation mandatory green building standards code. Voluntary for the time being, it will become mandatory on January 1, 2011. Once a building passes the inspection process, the property can then be labeled as CALGreen compliant.

“This is something no other state in the country has done - integrating green construction practices into the very fabric of the construction code,” said Tom Sheehy, Acting Secretary of the California State and Consumer Services Agency and Chair of the Building Standards Commission. “CALGreen will essentially revolutionize the way we build structures. By implementing a sensible, cost-effective foundation of green practices, our state will usher in a new era of greener communities.”

Among the new requirements under CALGreen, every new building in California will have to reduce water consumption by 20 percent, divert 50 percent of construction waste from landfills and install low VOC materials. Separate indoor and outdoor water meters for nonresidential buildings and moisture-sensing irrigation systems for large landscape projects will be required. There will be mandatory inspections of energy systems, such as furnaces and air conditioners for nonresidential buildings over 10,000 square feet. According to the California Air Resources Board, the mandatory provisions will reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 3,000,000 metric tons by 2020.

The unanimous adoption of CALGreen by the CBSC was announced on January 12. However, leading up to the commission session there was a powerful pushback effort from environmental and green building groups. The USGBC, Sierra Club and the National Resources Defense Council tried to derail it, saying the verification system would be confusing. Hundreds of architects, engineers and builders sent messages to the governor opposing the CALGreen label.

In an interview with Green Technology, Walls addresses these concerns, gives the background of the path to adoption for this groundbreaking work and discusses how it will be implemented.

California has taken leadership in green building for years under Governor Schwarzenegger. How does the new green building code hook up to the Governor’s green prerogatives?

The governor has been taking the lead over the years by signing legislation such as AB32 [California’s Global Warming Act] relating to greenhouse gas emissions. A big part of that, of course, is a focus on buildings and reducing their greenhouse gas emissions. He further directed us to develop and adopt a green building code that would assist in the effort to affect overall climate change. It really fits right in with his whole policy and beliefs given the environmental issues facing our state, our nation, and the world. In 2004 there was also the Governor’s executive order S-20 04, which calls for the greening of all state government buildings. That kind of kicked off everything that is happening now.

Would you give an overview of the California Green Building Standards Code?

The green building code was specifically designed to reduce the impact of all buildings in the state on the environment. To do that, we had to establish a minimum mandatory set of standards that would apply to all buildings - schools, hospitals, residential occupancies, as well as commercial facilities. The ultimate goal is to provide a uniform and consistent code that can be used in coordination with all our other building codes. Our effort was focused on not only helping local building officials and governments, but the building industry as well, to give them something uniform and consistent and a direction they can head in.

What is the meaning of the term “CALGreen”?

CALGreen is the abbreviation for the California Green Building Standards Code, short for California Green Code. It’s what we started calling it, and it stuck.

What are some highlights of the new code?

Commissioning stands out as one of the key components that is not in any other part of our building codes. Construction waste diversion - that’s really not part of our other building codes either. Those are good examples. There are reductions in volatile organic compounds [VOCs] content in materials that are used in the building, also not part of our other building codes.

Our existing codes that deal with water reduction in toilets and water fixtures, but in this code we have combined and ratcheted them down so that the minimum mandatory requirement will be a 20 percent reduction in indoor potable water use and 50 percent in landscape irrigation. Those are just a few of the key elements.

This applies to new buildings and also refurbished buildings?

Our goal now is to focus on new buildings, so it would not apply to existing buildings at this time. Our next step will be to include existing buildings in the green code.

Does the green code apply to all residential, government and commercial buildings in California?

All buildings regulated by state code. Federal buildings are exempt; buildings built on Indian land, or reservations, are exempt. So there are some exceptions. But yes, ninety-nine point nine percent of the buildings built in the state are regulated by these codes.

You have been personally dedicated to developing and implementing CALGreen. In fact, there were those who said you could never get it done, especially with all the challenges facing California now. How did it all come about?

It really came from the administration. They came to us. We update all of our building codes triennially, every three years. Right after we completed it three years ago in January, the administration said okay, now what can you do?  Our building codes were kind of behind the national standards, and once they were updated, immediately the administration came to us and said, “The governor believes in greening the environment. What can you do with your codes to move towards that?”  So we looked around and tried to figure out what we could do and began building from there.

What we couldn’t find was another green code out there, which really surprised me. I’m thinking we’re behind the eight ball and we’re going to have to play catch-up, but it wasn’t that way. There were a lot of guidelines out there such as LEED, Green Globes, Build It Green, Global Green. I think USGBC cites about seventy different guidelines in the United States alone.

Part of the Governor’s direction was to not reinvent the wheel. He told us to take a look at these programs, glean from them what you can, and then create a code. That’s really what we did. We believe that’s the direction we need to go as a state, as a country, and even as a world. We need to really make an impact on the environment.

What do you say to people who feel there is doubt about manmade climate change and that there are so many other things to worry about right now, such as getting the state’s economy back on track?

I know there’s a lot of pushback from individuals that don’t believe in climate change, but my argument to that is you can’t say that all the things that are in this code aren’t good. How can you say conserving water is not a good thing?  Conserving wood, steel, all the resources that are out there - how can you say that’s not a good thing?  Conserving energy, making buildings more energy efficient, those are all positive moves regardless of the politics of climate change. I’m saying for those who don’t believe in it, this is still all positive, and that’s how I’m able to keep pushing this through.

People might also say that it’s not good timing, we can’t afford this right now. What do you say to that? 

For all of the mandatory measures we placed in our code, we did a cost benefit study. So everything shows that you’re getting a significant benefit. If it’s indoor air quality improved by reducing volatile organic compounds, for example, you’re going to get a health benefit. Studies have shown that when there’s better air in an office building for example, you’re going to have less sick time and more productivity. That goes for commercial buildings and for schools as well.

The other thing is when you save water and energy, you actually can see that savings in your bill. Ultimately you get a payback on many of these things. We tried to look very carefully and work with industry on identifying those very concerns. We didn’t make it mandatory to install solar panels, for example, because there is a high upfront cost to that. Everything you see in the green code has had a cost benefit ratio developed for it.

There’s voluntary compliance right now. How are people are receiving it? 

We’ve had a lot of positive feedback. In fact there are some cities, such as the city of Irvine and the city of Calabasas that have already adopted it as mandatory. And there’s also an international green construction code under development. I’m on the committee that is developing that code, and they are using the California code as a key resource because we are the only green building code out there right now.

The code is voluntary until 2011, when it becomes mandatory. How will this work?

The way it works is once the Building Standards Commission has actually adopted  the code, which it just has, we then have to formalize and publish it. This is part of our triennial update of the California Building Standards Code, so we have to publish the building, mechanical, plumbing, all the other codes at the same time. Working with our publishers, they tell us it will take until June or July. By state law, it only becomes effective 180 days after publication. The proposed effective date is January 1, 2011.

What happens when it shifts into mandatory compliance?

I don’t think you could ever accomplish any of this without getting some pushback. There’s always someone who’s not going to be happy. We have engaged environmental groups, labor and  industry – architects and engineers also. We’ve tried to get them involved and to help them understand the code, and to see what kind of impact it might have.

Is there somebody who’s not paying attention and a year from now will be saying, “Hey, what happened? What’s going on?” I think there will be. But for the most part, our role is to get the information out, like we did at the Green California Schools Summit, like we will be doing at the Green California Summit in March in Sacramento. We’re trying to get the word out as soon as possible as to what’s coming and to help all stakeholders get prepared for it. Part of that 180 days I’m talking about is to provide manufacturers and builders a chance to gear up and get ready for all the code changes, not just the green code.

Almost as soon as the adoption of CALGreen was announced, there was significant pushback from some environmental groups. Among the concerns voiced were that the code’s implementation is confusing and that it could lower standards already voluntarily in place through certification programs such as the USGBC’s LEED system. How would you respond? 

Our proposals were supported by two organizations that have programs similar to the USGBC’s, California Green Builder and Green Building Initiative/Global Green. However, there were several organizations that expressed concerns that we did not agree with. It’s worth noting that we did have a lot of support for our positions. For example, they stated that the code does not have a verification system, but in fact the code will be subjected to the long-standing, successful enforcement infrastructure that the state has established to enforce its health, safety, fire, energy, and structural building codes. The existing enforcement practices will make verification of the Green Code for local building inspectors a simple transition.

On the inferiority issue, the state has not worked on a comparison, and these organizations did not provide information to substantiate their claims. However, the building industry did state that the residential provisions are at least equal to existing programs. Lastly, many stakeholders have stated that the code will provide clarity to the marketplace and not confusion.

If I’m a small business, a building contractor, for example, how do I get trained on complying with the green building code?

We’re sending out a newsletter pretty quick, and we’ll have it on our website also. We’re getting out to organizations that may already have training facilities and asking how we can work with them to get the word out, to get their members and interested parties trained on building codes issues. We’ve contacted U.C. Davis, and we’re working with community colleges. We’re trying to reach out as much as we can over this next year. Our focus up until now has been to get the code adopted, and that’s taken a lot of our concentration and time. Now we will be able to shift that focus towards getting the education and training out there.

Is the code available on your website?

The 2008 version of the code is online for free on our website right now. Now that the adoption has been done, we are combining all the efforts of the different agencies and will have the final version online for free for anybody that wants to look at it. That could be as soon as the end of January.

What would you say to builders, architects and contractors who are worried about the economy and about what it will cost them in time and money to make these changes?

I was a contractor, too, and still have my contractor’s license. Not only was I a contractor,  I was also a local enforcement official. So I feel their pain, and I try to keep all of that in perspective as we develop and move forward with these codes. I’ve kind of been on several sides of this fence, which helps as we move through the process.

I just believe in our economy. I believe it’s going to turn around, and I believe this is going to be part of the turnaround. A lot of people are saying this will create jobs, that our code is very much a part of the whole green movement. We are hearing that from the commercial industry, the building industry - they believe that this will create jobs and that it’s going to be a good thing ultimately. Every change comes, we adjust and we move on.

Thank you.

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