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August/September 2016

Building a Higher Standard: The Environmental Upside of CALGreen

When it comes to energy use, bulb choice should not be taken lightly. Photo by Alec MacDonald.

By Leslie Stewart

Sometimes it’s the little things that do really count, especially when they are done by many people many times. One classic example is replacing an incandescent lightbulb with an energy-efficient one. Do that in your living room, and you probably won’t notice a difference on your electric bill, but if a million other households follow suit, the collective drop in energy use will be significant.

This is the principle behind CALGreen, California’s groundbreaking set of additions to the California Building Standards Code. Applied to the construction and operation of both residential and nonresidential buildings, CALGreen has been prompting many small changes — and some larger ones — which affect energy use, health, and the environment for everyone. The first version of CALGreen was developed in 2010 and went into effect in 2011, with revisions following in 2013 and 2016. The 2016 version will take effect on January 1, 2017.

CALGreen requirements govern how new buildings can be constructed and, in some cases, how they can be remodeled, covering aspects such as lighting choices, air conditioning, and insulation. The latest version will designate instantaneous water heaters as the preferred installation, and require “high-performance” attics, with insulation to keep air conditioning ducts cool. Elevators will need to cut power and lights if they are inactive for more than 15 minutes, and escalators in places like hotels, airports, and BART stations will need a slow mode when not carrying passengers.

Codes must be cost-effective and technically feasible, according to Javier Perez from the California Energy Commission. Speaking at a recent Bay Area forum on energy efficiency standards, he estimated that new provisions in the next code update will cost the buyer of a new home $11 per year, but save $31 per year. The goal is to get to net-zero buildings by 2020, so that every new home generates as much power as it uses — something which is already being tested in the Contra Costa city of Brentwood.

Writing a new specification into the code — such as automatic switches that turn off lights in empty rooms — isn’t a magic wand, of course. The actual changes are in plans by architects and designers, in purchases of materials and products, and in checking and oversight by plan reviewers and building inspectors. Without consistent and careful compliance at all stages, the codes are toothless.

Adequate oversight is not always assured, according to Wes Sullens from StopWaste, a public agency responsible for reducing the waste stream in Alameda County. He explained, “For example, there’s what I call the limitations of mechanics — an inspector has a clipboard in one hand, a pen in the other hand, and then juggling a code manual makes things difficult. Or an inspector isn’t there while the space is being painted, but he says, ‘I’m not going to go check on paint cans in the dumpster’ to verify VOC content,” Sullens said, referring to the volatile organic compounds that are found in some household products and that can be environmentally harmful.
“Tools and tips are needed on how to check more effectively and efficiently,” he declared.

One way to enforce CALGreen is to check the VOC content of paint. Photo by Alec MacDonald.

One way to enforce CALGreen is to check the VOC content of paint. Photo by Alec MacDonald.

An additional challenge for compliance and enforcement is the three-year cycle of code upgrades and changes, meaning that everyone involved — planners, builders, manufacturers, and regulators — needs to stay current on the latest versions.

Further complications arise from the fact that CALGreen contains tiers of recommended “beyond code” regulations which may be adopted by local jurisdictions to move further toward “green buildings.” Often these incorporate additional features which have been evaluated by national or state rating checklists (such as LEED, a certification program administered by the nonprofit U.S. Green Building Council) but are not yet required by CALGreen. While local codes based on the CALGreen tiers may improve local communities, their lack of uniformity can also create confusion and inconsistency in implementing the code.

The Local Government Sustainable Energy Coalition voiced concerns about the challenges with implementing the CALGreen codes in 2010, and in 2012 the California Public Utilities Commission addressed the problem by approving funding for two regional groups to assist local governments. In the Bay Area, the Association of Bay Area Governments receives funding to administer the Bay Area Regional Energy Network. Known as BayREN for short, the program provides guidance, trainings, and networking for public agencies representing all nine counties in the region. It covers requirements for upgrading single-family buildings, constructing multi-family and nonresidential buildings, and enforcing codes and standards.

BayREN also coordinates policy feedback for the next CALGreen cycle. StopWaste’s Sullens, a member of the BayREN Codes and Standards subcommittee, explained how that process works. “When something is as complicated as the energy code, industry councils and peer networks come up with some of the solutions and tools, like checklists, to enable compliance. Then the challenge is to get those solutions back to the state to incorporate into the code. That’s where BayREN can help.”

Quarterly BayREN forums bring together local government policymakers and sustainability staff, building department staff, city planners, and energy consultants. The most recent forum in June covered the 2016 changes that will go into effect this January. Martin Bond, executive director of Berkeley-based Community Energy Services, had mixed news for attendees: “Compliance is still incredibly complex; however, flexibility has been added.” Fortunately, the BayREN team makes visits to local building departments to assist with compliance improvement.

CALGreen differs from other parts of the building codes in a key respect — the primary emphasis isn’t structural safety. “Green codes are different from [traditional] energy codes, for example,” said Sullens. “These aren’t things that have usually been done by officials like building inspectors and it’s taken some time for them to realize that [climate] is a health issue.” He added, “It’s the difference between acute health threats and chronic health issues, and making that connection that says ‘sick building syndrome is a serious issue’.” However, he feels that most Bay Area building departments have good environmental awareness and are supportive of the green building concept.

Green building codes help to address climate change, and there are multiple benefits to regional air quality from reductions in energy use. The Bay Area Air Quality Management District’s new Regional Climate Protection Strategy, included in the agency’s draft Clean Air Plan, commits it to assisting local jurisdictions in identifying barriers to more complete implementation of CALGreen. And toward that end, the 2015 U.S. Green Building Council report Green Codes for California put forth some recommendations, including more consistency in using tiers, model codes, and the kind of training and forums being provided by BayREN. Sullens, who helped author the report, noted that progress has already been made in the 2016 code and “generally, it’s on track” — but with constant changes, the recommendation for “continuous improvement” will be an important measure.

Leslie Stewart covers air quality and energy for the Monitor.

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