Thoughts on construction law from Christopher G. Hill, Virginia construction lawyer, LEED AP, mediator, and member of the Virginia Legal Elite in Construction Law

The Beautiful Mess

Green Builder CoalitionFor this week’s Guest Post Friday here at Musings, we welcome back Mike Collignon. Mike is a co-founder of the Green Builder Coalition. The Green Builder® Coalition is working to improve the sustainable attributes of new and existing buildings through education, information and advocacy.

If you watched any of the World Cup coverage this summer, you may have heard soccer/futbol referred to as “The Beautiful Game”. However, for some Americans (myself not included), the game is 22 players on the same field, with little to no action occurring.

The same might be used to describe the situation surrounding residential green codes. It’s true that the IgCC exists, but the only existing low-rise residential path is the National Green Building Standard, a points-based green building program managed by NAHB. (By the way, the NGBS is only cited because the ICC Board overturned the 2011 vote of the ICC membership. To date, only 3 of the 40,000+ jurisdictions have adopted the NGBS.

And this is really no surprise; one only needs to look at NAHB’s green building policy. There, for all to clearly see, is their support for voluntary green building initiatives. That means they’re not going to push for anything mandatory, opting to let the ostriches keep their heads in the sand ad infinitum.

When we offered our one-page checklist of basic sustainable provisions (GG17-14), the line of opposition was long and ran the gamut from NAHB and BOMA on one end of the spectrum to energy efficiency advocates on the other. Some thought we were going too far, while others said we didn’t go far enough. Some wanted to protect their monopoly within the code; other associations were defending their member companies’ ability to make sustainably inferior products. And, our proposal ran counter to a larger movement to rid the IgCC of residential altogether.

I get the argument that codes should be about health and life safety. However, one’s interpretation of those words pulls the green topic into a gray area. Health: what about the health (thanks to indoor air quality) of the occupants? Life safety: what about the safety of our planet’s resources and atmosphere, or building more resiliently to withstand the next natural disaster?

The IgCC appears to be an utter mess when it comes to this topic. So where would a jurisdiction looking to adopt a green residential code turn for leadership and guidance? (And yes, there are such jurisdictions out there.)

I’m struggling to find an answer to that question. The IgCC would be the most logical place, in my book. After that, I’d think about ASHRAE. However, they recently entered a partnership with ICC and NAHB on the NGBS. While this will bring an additional (and welcome) level of technical expertise to that development process, this move signaled to me that ASHRAE would not be looking to introduce a green code. I guess it doesn’t preclude them from doing so, if the partnership proves unsuitable for their needs. But I’m not going to hold my breath on any new developments.

The recently announced partnership between ICC, ASHRAE and USGBC to coordinate the IgCC, 189.1 and LEED is intriguing but currently unclear. Who will facilitate the various adoption processes? Will jurisdictions be asked to recognize 189.1 or LEED instead of an I-code(s)? Each of the aforementioned documents currently have different modification processes, so we’ll all have to wait for the air to clear (pun intended) before we know if there is a home for a true low-rise residential green code.

There are many great voluntary green building programs out there in addition to the NGBS, including: Energy Star v3, LEED for Homes, Passivhaus, Greenstar, Earthcraft, Austin Energy’s Green Building Program, Living Building Challenge, Well Building Standard, ALA’s Health Home, Enterprise Green Communities, ecoSelect, Masco’s Environments for Living, as well as state-level programs such as Built Green New Mexico or Florida’s Green Home Certification. (If I overlooked any, it was unintentional.) The problem is that, as much as you and I might like to see it, the market isn’t flocking to these programs. I did the research 3 years ago, and since the advent of LEED for Homes and the NGBS, approximately 13% of new homes had been certified. I’m guessing the needle hasn’t moved much since. Even if the total has doubled (and that’s an unlikely if), we’re still talking about 3 out of 4 new homes not building green.

The bigger issue is that none of these programs were designed to be codified. So we’re left with… (chirping crickets). Well, it’s not quite that dire. Jurisdictions have decided to craft their own requirements. Dallas looked to the IgCC but made many amendments for residential structures. Scottsdale, AZ devised their program due to the lack of an ICC option. Some jurisdictions, like two in California, have one-off requirements like solar panels on all new homes. I’m no production builder, but if this maverick trend continues, the dichotomy could prove maddening.

One thing is certain: a widely adopted code would have more impact than all the voluntary programs combined. Some might view me as an optimist, but I believe it’s a matter of when, not if. It sure would help if there was a home for a low-rise residential green code. Until that time comes, it seems we’ll all just exist in the same field and wait for some action.

As always, Mike and I welcome your comments below. Please subscribe to keep up with this and other Guest Post Fridays at Construction Law Musings.

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2 Responses to The Beautiful Mess

  1. Well written and very informative, but I happened to have loved the world cup. Mike Collignon continues to provide posts that keep me coming back for more despite his obvious confusion concerning what constitutes a great game.

  2. Timothy:

    I was fortunate to grow up in an area where soccer was/is taken very seriously. Therefore, I also loved the World Cup; I even watched some non-US matches. But I am acknowledging that (you and) I am in the minority of Americans when it comes to international soccer. The growth in popularity of the MLS is encouraging, though, and I’m glad that ESPN’s app regularly includes scores from major European games.

    I’m glad that you found the column interesting. Feedback, good or bad, is always good to get.

    Take care.

    Mike Collignon
    Green Builder Coalition

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