Finally, New Green Standards to Update Local Building Codes

Commercial Buildings Need To Be Green, Too
Commercial Buildings Need To Be Green, Too

The National Real Estate Investor recently gave a rundown of the existing and new green building standards that local governments are starting to mandate. Of course, LEED led the list, along with the new ANSI National Green Building Standard, GBI 01-200XP from the Green Building Institute, expected this summer, and “Standard 189” a commercial building green standard under development by a consortium including ASHRAE and the USGBC (creator of the LEED standards).

Driving all of the new guidelines is the desire to assist property owners and managers in meeting a groundswell of statutes and ordinances regulating energy consumption. At the same time, the standards will help local and state governments tap a common set of benchmarks to measure compliance with the construction and renovation goals that they adopt.

The article goes on to describe some of the differences between these standards, pointing out for example that while the LEED standard has been called out in many municipalities as the mandate for green building, its original goal was to recognize the top 25% of buildings, not serve as a minimum target.

On the other hand, the National Green Building Standard is designed from the outset to be minimally prescriptive, and to conform to local building codes. Paula Cino, director of energy and environmental policy at the National Multi Housing Council (NMHC), one of the organizations that collaborated to create the NGBS, says:

The standard is written in mandatory language that’s easily verifiable. You don’t need that LEED Accredited Professional or consultant looking over your shoulder, telling you what you need to do. At the first level, the standard is designed to be achievable by 100% of the buildings out there, and was designed so that we were not requiring technologies that are untested or not commercially available. We made sure … there wouldn’t be issues with product availability, technical feasibility or things like that.

Along with all these standards comes the question of how to get builders to meet them – should they be mandated or incentivized?
Some proponents of sustainable design argue that tax breaks, assistance grants and other incentives are more effective than mandates for achieving meaningful reductions in energy consumption and deterring harmful effects on the environment. Standards tend to encourage minimal compliance, while rewards spur property owners to seek higher degrees of performance.
The battle amongst the standards is going to be interesting. The article doesn’t even mention the Green Point Rating system from Build It Green or the Passive House standard. Of course, those are both more traditionally focused on single family residential buildings than the larger commercial buildings that primarily concern the National Real Estate Investor. It does seem, though, that this proliferation of standards, while exciting, will eventually have to result in a shakeout, leaving one or two “winners” that everyone can learn and build to.

Individual Action Is Not Enough

Someone entered this topic in an online forum to which I subscribe:

The main problem with lowering the carbon level is down to individuals, to behaviour, to good citizenship and that is the biggest challenge of all… how many times to you see careless behaviours? how do you change that?

I just had to respond. I think this attitude is the best way to make sure that end in the end, nothing good happens. I’m reprinting my comment on the topic below, unedited (even though you all know about passive houses already).

My response

Individual action will not solve the problem. For example, my hobby horse is highly energy efficient buildings such as the Passive House approach. They use 80-90% less energy than a conventional house, at typically 5-10% higher cost to build. Simply building only passive houses and remodeling to the passive house standard for the next ten years would reduce the U.S.’s carbon footprint by at least 20%. In fact, because the energy use is so low, there will be lots of excess solar electricity generated, so our carbon footprint might even go lower due to the compounding effects.

But people won’t build them without a) a large-scale education campaign for both builders and home buyers, b) incentives for builders and owners from cities, counties, and states, and c) a compelling business case for the suppliers of the highly efficient windows and mechanical systems required.

Passive Houses “tunnel through” the efficiency cost barrier to achieve their benefits at a relatively low additional cost. But even though they have a great cost/benefit ratio, they’re not going to take off without those structural changes. That’s why, instead of becoming a builder of passive houses, I’m becoming a lobbyist for passive houses. Builders can make a difference of 2-5 houses a year. As a lobbyist, I can make a difference of 100-1000 houses a year, or more.

Individuals weatherstripping their houses, and taking shorter showers, can slow down CO2 growth a bit, but turning it around takes large structural changes. Yes, those are driven by individuals, but they are not individual changes.

I use passive houses as an example, but there are lots more in other areas. Same is true for car use – it will take structural changes for people to be able to live nearer where they work. Or for food energy use – most people are not going to be able to garden enough to make a difference in the U.S.’s agricultural energy footprint – that’s going to take big changes in commercial ag. Some of those changes are happening, and that’s awesome, but it’s not going to happen by you putting in a garden, no matter how good and useful a step that is.