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.

First Shot, or Swan Song?

A commercial real estate development (image by MK Media Productions, CC 2.0 licensed)

The NAIOP, also known as the Commercial Real Estate Development Association, released a report last week “showing” that building green is not a winner in terms of payback. Apparently timed to coincide with a Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee hearing on improving building energy code standards, the report found, according to a New York Times/ClimateWire article, that:

A 50 percent energy improvement beyond federal standards is technically impossible. A 30 percent target is achievable, but only by adding a million-dollar solar system that could take up to 100 years to pay for itself

In the same article, several energy efficiency experts raised questions:

Jeffrey Harris, a vice president at the pro-efficiency group Alliance to Save Energy, said these claims have a sturdy foundation in laboratories and in the real world. He pointed to the Energy Department’s data on high-performance buildings, as well as other databases containing information on existing buildings. Engineers and green-building leaders, he said, “are not breaking a huge amount of sweat in getting beyond 30 percent in code.”

Throughout the green building blogosphere numerous rebuttals started flying. On the news site for Costar, a commercial real estate information site, Andrew Burr wrote:

The study overlooked a number of highly cost-effective energy efficiency measures that are common in new buildings, such as light occupancy sensors and louvers that affect shading and heat gain, several people in the industry said, while integrated design strategies were not implemented in the models at all.

On the Yudelson blog, Jerry wrote:

In what is currently the world’s largest LEED Platinum building, the Center for Health and Healing in Portland, Oregon, engineers and architects were able to find savings measures that led to a 60% decrease in energy costs while spending 10% less overall money; this is not some computer-based study, it’s a realized project that was occupied in 2006.

Edward Mazria of Architecture 2030 was particiularly scathing:

In other words, NAIOP intentionally kept out of the analysis all the readily available low-cost, no-cost and cost-saving options to reduce a building’s energy consumption. This deliberate omission is glaringly apparent in their press release and in the NY Times article. In fact, they take so many inexpensive, energy-saving options off the table that it is impossible for the imaginary building to reach commonly achievable energy-consumption-reduction targets.

In one regard, you could say the NAIOP’s conclusions, when interpreted narrowly, are meaningful – if you build an energy hog building without considering the site, without performing integrated design, and using simplistic efficiency measures, you’re not going to get a good payback. What’s amazing about this, though, is that there are so many real-world counterexamples to the claims this report makes. It’s surprising NAIOP was willing to go public with it. And you have to ask “Why?” – in what way is this report in the long-term interest of NAIOP? Given the Federal, state and local juggernaut of energy efficiency regulations, isn’t it in their interest to figure out how to achieve on a mass scale what individual builders are achieving on a smaller scale? That’s the approach that keeps their constituents competitive, that creates jobs, and creates wealth.