In January, the California Business Standards Commission unanimously adopted Calgreeen, a mandatory green building standards code. The code requires all new buildings in the state of California to be more energy efficient and environmentally reponsible and the comprehensive regulations will take effect Jan. 1, 2011. Marc J. Cohen, director of sustainability at MVE Institutional, offers his thoughts on the new regulations.

With the adoption of “Calgreen” by the California State Building Standards Commission have come predictable outcries from some environmentalists as well as building, development, and architecture professionals that either not enough or too much is mandated.

The criticisms of both sides, while containing many valid arguments, are expectedly overstated.

As the first state-adopted sustainable-building code in the nation, in general Calgreen will require developers to undertake measures that exceed common practice of today: recycle construction waste, use more sustainable and healthier building materials, and design buildings that use substantially less water and energy.

Free markets work best to improve living standards, but it must be accepted that the immediate dollar cost of a building does not always reflect the true cost to economy, society, and country. Sometimes, only codes and regulation can protect the larger society. But it also must be conceded that not every green idea is applicable to every building—people do have to make a living, projects have to get built.

Calgreen is a reasonable base from which to work, a good first draft in the rough-and-tumble that is democracy and bureaucracy. As pointed out by the American Institute of Architects California Council in its recent informational releases, building codes are evolving documents. Calgreen can, and will, be adjusted going forward, as better and more economical green materials and technologies are developed, or as some provisions prove financially unwieldy, unworkable, or are replaced by updated methods.

For developers, the actual requirements of Calgreen are not overly onerous, and in many ways are less demanding than the already existing green standards adopted by many California cities, such as Los Angeles and San Francisco. It is the record-keeping and compliance certification that admittedly may be challenging for both project teams and already overburdened code officials. However, builders have endured innumerable code changes in the past, and, after a while, what was initially perceived as an impediment became a standard of practice, fit into the building process neatly by experience, software developments and creative innovation.

For example, seismic and fire safety building codes have been repeatedly bolstered, incurring little adverse political sentiment, and usually only mute, if begrudging, compliance. It is important to remember that the benefits of seismic and fire safety code changes are oblique—when people do not die in a fire or building collapse, headlines are not made, but lives are saved nonetheless. There are real social and economic benefits of code upgrades not captured by any price signal. So it is with Calgreen. There will be less pollution and waste, healthier environments, and more water and power left over for Californians. This benefits everybody in the state and will set a positive example for those outside of our borders.

The good news for the green set is that Calgreen does not crimp the higher standards of any local government, and any particular developer is still free, and encouraged, to pursue even greener projects. Calgreen, like so many building code changes before it, will spur the free market to generate solutions, and competition will help drive down the price of those solutions. In general, the green movement will benefit from Calgreen.

I share a concern of many in the sustainability community that Calgreen may inadvertently provide a Good Housekeeping-like Seal of Sustainability, even when only minimum performance requirements are met.

Perhaps Calgreen could better be presented, both for political and practical reasons, by striking off the “green” label. It might make more sense if the state merely indicated that the mission of the California Building Code is to provide a baseline standard for compliance in the sustainable performance of building projects.

The state building code should not be used to define green, but should be used to raise the bar and challenge the building industry to continue developing building projects that use resources more wisely, perform more efficiently, and provide healthy environments for occupants and their surrounding communities.

The Calgreen code requirements should not be viewed as a substitute for more-ambitious third-party sustainable building rating systems, such as the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED Rating System; rather it should be viewed as a standard that will help set projects up for success within those more advanced green-rating systems.

Calgreen suffers from the misfortune of being introduced just as California suffers from the worst recession of the postwar era, and as many are deeply concerned about the health of the global climate. It is a polarizing time.

The needs of the market and the needs of the environment at times clash. But I am confident that architects, builders and developers can work together, as we have so many times in the past when confronting other building-code changes, to achieve success on all levels. The future will be more prosperous and greener, too.


Marc J. Cohen is director of sustainability at MVE Institutional in Orange County, Calif., an affiliate of MVE & Partners, a national planning, architecture and interiors firm.

Read Eco-Structure's coverage of the passage of Calgreen here.