Credit: Elizabeth Charrow

A game-changing juggernaut is steadily making its way through the building code development and approval process. The International Green Construction Code (IGCC)—some call it the “Green Code”—promises to bring considerable change to the design and construction industry when adopted as early as 2012. Over the next several months, this code will evolve through public comment, making now a critical time for the profession to get involved.

In 2009, the International Code Council (ICC) began developing a code with the goal of addressing green building design and performance in new and existing commercial buildings. This code will formalize performance by creating mandatory frameworks for both minimum and advanced green building. IGCC is being designed as an overlay to the existing ICC codes, with local, state, and federal laws in mind.

The American Institute of Architects (AIA) teamed up with the ICC at the outset to make sure that the final code is the right tool for the profession at a time of unprecedented change and economic challenges. The ICC has, among other things, embraced the AIA’s commitment to a 2030 carbon neutrality goal as a part of the code’s goals.

In addition to helping develop a code that advances sustainability and accurately reflects the role of architects in the building process, the AIA is in the midst of a major effort over the next two years to educate the profession about the IGCC and all its ramifications. And for good reason. For the first time, sustainable design will be codified. As currently envisioned, the IGCC will finally mainstream a design philosophy that has often been viewed as aspirational.

As with any major development, the IGCC has both advocates and detractors. Those in favor of codifying green design believe it will place architects at the forefront of the nation’s efforts to conserve energy, enabling them to initiate a new era of sustainability. Tom Liebel, AIA, LEED AP, principal of Baltimore-based Marks, Thomas Architects, sees the IGCC as a major asset to the profession’s efforts to develop an approach to sustainable design. Liebel says the IGCC acts as a baseline upon which other sustainable building design certifications, such as the United States Green Building Council’s LEED rating, can complement. IGCC will permit architects to add another layer of expertise to the fundamentals of health, safety, and welfare.

“Overall, I think the IGCC has the potential to be a great tool,” Liebel says. “A lot of jurisdictions want to mandate green, but so far the tools are rating systems like LEED that take what is a voluntary checklist and try to make a code out of it. LEED is not written in the imperative, while building codes are.

“What LEED has forced people to do is to think about sustainable design,” Liebel adds. “One of its greatest strengths is that it breaks down a complex set of decisions into smaller, comprehensible pieces. I see the IGCC doing the same thing. What the IGCC will hopefully be able to do is what jurisdictions want LEED to do: Define a minimum green building standard, and make that the de facto standard.”

The IGCC mandates specific responsibilities and liabilities, something LEED certification does not entail. And unlike LEED, the green code is enforceable. If a design doesn’t meet the specifications of the state where the IGCC has been adopted, the architect could be liable for failure to comply. Enforceability means increased responsibility and the associated risk-management issues await architects, who must now add energy efficiency to the list of health, safety, and welfare responsibilities.

The IGCC’s critics say that’s just their concern. They contend that architects shouldn’t be the ones exposed and bearing the responsibility for whether a building saves energy. “The biggest problem with the green code today is that it should be directed toward owners of buildings, not the design professional,” says Jim Sealy, FAIA, owner of Dallas-based Jim Sealy Architect and a 45-year industry veteran.

Sealy argues that mandating building performances—and making the architect responsible for achieving that performance—is misguided. He believes that existing building codes already include sustainability requirements that will make a building energy-efficient. “The owner should be determining what they need in the building, not the designer,” he says. “Putting this off on the design professional is not where this belongs.”

Several professional practice issues will be subject to closer examination as the IGCC moves through the approval process. Developing a deeper understanding of the standard of care is one issue the IGCC—as drafted—could affect. The architect’s professional standard of care has established legal parameters well understood nationwide, and is rooted in an assumption about the delivery of architectural services. Once the IGCC is adopted, determining the standard of care is predicated on a critical mass of architects having adopted sustainable design as everyday practice.

If the IGCC calls for additional responsibility, opportunity, and potential liability for architects, do these new expectations require an enhanced standard of care? Can practitioners look forward to uncompensated risk and higher professional liability premiums? The AIA has initiated a discussion with liability insurance carriers.

The comment period for the second draft of the IGCC—issued in November 2010—ended in January. The second draft includes changes incorporated from the first public hearing. Hundreds of interested organizations and parties are engaged in the code development process, from architects to building-product manufacturers to building owners. A code development hearing will take place in May. A final comment period and public hearings will take place in November. The new code should be finalized and published by March 2012. After that, it’s up to each state to choose to adopt the final version.

Jessyca Henderson, AIA, resource architect and director of AIA Sustainability Advocacy, oversees AIA’s participation in the develop­ment of the IGCC. As the AIA point of contact for codes- and standards-related activities, Henderson urges practitioners to become active in this final phase of the code-approval process. “It’s imperative that our profession makes its views known as often and as many times as possible,” she says. “We have a great deal of work ahead of us.” AIA

Stay on top of developments with the IGCC and learn how to become involved through the AIA by visiting www.aia.org.