Building momentum

Three Assembly members have introduced a suite of new bills that would make “green building” the law in California. If they are successful, all new homes, commercial buildings and state buildings would be required to meet much more stringent energy-efficiency and environmental standards within the next five years.

Buildings, because they use so much energy and water, account for up to 40 percent of greenhouse gases emitted in the state.

“After passing the global-warming act, we need to do everything we can to implement it,” said Assembly member Ira Ruskin, D-Los Altos.

And with 220,000 new homes needed every year to keep up with population growth, lawmakers see a big opportunity to cut down on global-warming pollution.
“We have a very long way to go,” said Assemblyman John Laird, D-Santa Cruz. Laird has introduced AB 1058, co-authored by Ted Lieu, D-El Segundo, which would impose mandatory “best practices” for residential home construction by 2013. To get there, the new law would create a working group comprised of officials from the state Air Resources Board, the Building Standards Commission, the Integrated Waste Management Board and other state agencies–all under the lead of the California Environmental Protection Agency–to begin with a set of “voluntary” standards, which would be in place by 2009. After four years of review and tinkering, the standards would become mandatory. AB 1058 is opposed by the California Building Industry Association.

Lieu’s AB 888, co-authored by Laird, would set similar standards for commercial buildings that are larger than 50,000 square feet. Its mandates would kick in 2012. Smaller commercial buildings could be exempted from the green-building standards, but would have to seek a special waiver from the state. His bill is opposed by the American Forest and Paper Association, the California Forestry Association and the Lumber Association of California and Nevada.

Ruskin’s AB 35 would do the same for state buildings. It requires all new state buildings to meet the new green-building standards by 2010. Ruskin’s bill is not only opposed by the building and timber industries, but also by the Office of the Chancellor of California State University.

There are no shortages of green-building standards out there for California to borrow from. But the most well-known is called “Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design,” or LEED. The standards offer a sort of menu of options for using the most environmentally friendly technology, materials and practices in a new building project. You can get points for incorporating solar technology in to your project, for example. Using recycled building materials can earn points, and taking maximum advantage of natural light or building close to public transit are some other ways to earn more points.

Lieu said that green building represents some of the “low-hanging fruit” of reducing greenhouse-gas emissions.

“I support alternative fuels, all of those things. But this is much easier,” Lieu said.

Unlike major changes in transportation policy or alternative vehicles, “green building doesn’t really require people to change their behavior in a major way,” Lieu reasoned.

It’s not only the fight against global warming that gives green building its appeal for Lieu, but also the reality that climate change is already happening.
Many experts believe that California summers are already hotter, and that snowfall in the Sierras is already diminishing because of climate change. “If we went ‘carbon neutral’ today, we’d still have to deal with 40 or 50 years of the effects of global warming,” Lieu said.

One surprising opponent of the legislation is the California State University. CSU is opposing Ruskin’s bill, AB 35, because the university fears that it would add significantly to the costs of their capital projects. But Ruskin points out that the University of California system has already adopted its own green-building standards, based on LEED.

“If the UC can envision that this is good for the institution, we think the CSU should be able to, as well,” said Ruskin.

And the bills have run into opposition from building and timber industry.
“The concern with LEED is that it discriminates against wood,” said Brian White, vice president of legislative affairs for the California Forestry Association.
White explained that LEED only recognizes wood that meets one type of “forest certification” as being environmentally sustainable. If LEED becomes the standard, that could preclude many of the wood products grown in California. “It would be a huge impact to our industry. We’re talking about not being able to compete,” said White. The CFA is pushing to have other standards included in the legislation.

Lieu said he’s listening, but that, “At some point you can’t use just any wood.”
The California Building Industry Association is also arguing that the proposed green-building rules would put the wrong agency in charge of the writing the new standards. While each calls for a contribution from several agencies, AB 888 (commercial building) and AB 1058 (residential construction) make Cal-EPA the lead agency.

“Cal-EPA has no background in building standards whatsoever,” argued Bob Raymer with the CBIA. The CBIA wants the California Building Standards Commission to be the lead agency on writing the rules, because green-building
standards are, after all, building standards, just like earthquake standards or fire-safety standards. “We already have an agency that has 30 years experience and expertise in this. Why have a podiatrist working on your head, or vice versa?”

Laird said that he thinks Cal EPA ought to be in charge of green-building standards because they represent major environmental policy. “I worry that if it’s solely a building-standards issue, it loses the ability to make environmental progress,” said Laird.

The builders are also concerned that the bills include short timelines for the voluntary standards to become mandatory.

“It’s way too quick. To mandate these things overnight, over one or two years, just doesn’t make any sense. You need to get this stuff into the field and get the bugs out first,” said Raymer.

But Lieu said the time for voluntary measures has passed
. “AB 32 is one of the most far-reaching mandates I’ve ever seen. It changed the environment on the environment significantly,” Lieu explained. “You can’t do a bunch of voluntary things and expect to meet a mandate.”

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