California Adopts America’s First State‐Wide Green Building Code

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Today California enacted the nation’s first state-wide green building code. It sets a solid floor from which to build even stronger standards in the future. The new code could have been stronger, but the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) urged the Building Standards Commission to adopt it because it sets a powerful precedent and presents the opportunity for stronger revisions in the future. NRDC will work with the Commission and partner organizations to ensure that stronger green building standards become reality in California.

The green building standards have been under development for the past 18 months, initiated by a directive from the governor. On July 17, 2008 the Building Standards Commission approved the standards for inclusion in the 2008 edition of Title 24, the California Building Code. The first version of the green building code, Part 11 of Title 24, is a set of voluntary standards, designed to educate the public about green building practices. During the next building code revision cycle (due to be completed in 2010) much of the standards should become mandatory, with the interim years used to test individual measures.

NRDC’s primary concern is that the code must be a floor and not a ceiling. More than 75 local jurisdictions, including cities, counties and towns, have already enacted mandatory green building standards such as the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) green building rating system and GreenPoint Rated. The new code should be a minimum standard for communities that currently have no mandatory code, thus raising the level of quality of green buildings throughout the state. But it is critically important that communities continue to have the legal power to enact more stringent standards. Notwithstanding the commission’s assurance that the new code is a floor and not a ceiling, statutory clarification of jurisdictions’ legal power to enact stronger standards is still important. NRDC believes a bill being considered by the state Legislature (AB 2939) by Assembly Member Hancock is the best way to achieve this goal.

Another concern is the need for appropriate wood certification standards. NRDC and most conservation organizations consider Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certification to be the only credible wood and wood products certification program. Less stringent standards supported by the timber and forest products industry are not strong enough to ensure that the wood in green building projects comes from sustainably managed forests. Due to this disagreement, the commission removed the section pertaining to certified wood products altogether from the initial code, allowing time for more deliberation before the next version is adopted. NRDC will advocate strongly for FSC certification as the only wood certification permitted in the code.

The hardest work is yet to come. In its current form the new code is a fairly low and easy to achieve green building standard. Many substantive changes are still needed to make it stronger. The Building Standards Commission has been receptive to NRDC’s concerns, and we are confident that over the next two years we can raise the bar to create a truly robust green building code that will save energy and water and reduce global warming pollution for the benefit of all Californians. It will be a crucial tool in achieving our goals under the Global Warming Solutions Act (AB 32) and a powerful precedent for the rest of the nation.

Nick Zigelbaum currently works at the Natural Resource Defense Council as a legislative and regulatory advocate for state and federal building energy codes and green building codes for multiple US states and China. More generally, he works to advance the energy efficiency and reduce environmental impacts of the built environment. He lives and works in San Francisco.

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