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Code green: (may be) coming to you in 2012

Code green: (may be) coming to you in 2012

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By Jim Schneider, LEED AP

For several years, those who design and construct buildings have been working with numerous sustainable rating systems, energy efficiency standards, and competing claims of “green” products and systems. The overall approach to building has changed worldwide and continues to evolve. As we get better at building efficient, sustainable structures, the next phase is to move green practices from optional rating systems to codified standards and requirements.

The International Green Construction Code (IgCC) intends to be the first step in a direction that would solidify best practices as standard practices. Originated by the Washington, D.C.-based International Code Council (ICC) in collaboration with numerous organizations, including the Washington-based U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC), Washington-based American Institute of Architects (AIA), West Conshohocken, Pa.-based ASTM International, and Atlanta-based American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers Inc. (ASHRAE), the proposed code represents many things to many people.

To some it's a series of benchmarks that will encourage improvements in efficiency and technique and drive a sustainable construction revolution. Others fear it could become an onerous set of regulations that will make construction tougher and more expensive.

As often is the case, reality likely will not match either extreme as the code seeks to occupy the space between.

Usable and adaptable

Development of the code began in 2009. With numerous competing sustainability certification programs in the market, the idea was to create consistency and to approach green building using prescriptive, rather than aspirational, language.

“Other systems and standards didn't appear to be well-coordinated with the language used in the I-Codes,” says ICC Senior Staff Architect Allan Bilka, referring to the organization's family of building and maintenance codes (see list at right). “That makes them difficult for members to enforce and apply.

I-CODES

When published in March 2012, the International Green Construction Code (IgCC) will become the 14th official member of the International Code Council's family:

  • International Building Code
  • International Energy Conservation Code
  • International Existing Building Code
  • International Fire Code
  • International Fuel and Gas Code
  • International Mechanical Code
  • International Performance Code
  • International Plumbing Code
  • International Private Sewage Disposal Code
  • International Property Maintenance Code
  • International Residential Code
  • International Swimming Pool and Spa Code (anticipated in 2012)
  • International Wildland – Urban Interface Code
  • International Zoning Code

“Code officials and inspectors already are in the field and familiar with construction documents. Once they're familiar with green requirements — if they're well-written and coordinated with the requirements of the I-Codes — it should be much more effective to review plans and do inspections. Coordinating with other I-Codes reduces some of the administrative costs involved with green building.”

The council's goal is to create a standard framework for designing, building, and operating sustainable structures. Instead of a rating system, the code establishes higher performance and material thresholds and incorporates the concept of project electives to offer incentives for owners and designers to exceed the minimum environmental and energy requirements.

“The only way to affect widespread change is through mandatory requirements,” Bilka says. “You can create iconic examples of green building, but those may not be within the economic reach of every owner.

“If we raise the floor without being excessive, we can bring about real change. The trick is having something that's usable and adaptable by jurisdictions. The code has some flexibility that other documents don't have. It's much more customizable because green isn't a one-size-fits-all strategy.”

Comments and hearings

Like any proposed model code, this one must undergo a series of drafts, public comment periods, and hearings to gather input, suggestions, and concerns.

Public Version 1 was released in March 2010, with hearings that year in June and August. Public Version 2 was posted in November 2010 and a public hearing was held this May. Further comments were accepted until Aug. 12. Final action hearings are scheduled for Oct. 31 through Nov. 6 in Phoenix.

The completed model code is expected to be published in March 2012.

Something as broad and potentially controversial as green building was bound to generate feedback from parties ranging from manufacturers and trade associations to architects, contractors, and building officials. Based on their comments, notable changes were made between Public Versions 1 and 2; still more changes will come after the recently completed comment period. The May hearing alone dealt with 1,400 change proposals.

As at least one metal-industry company discovered, getting involved in the development process pays dividends.

“We expressed concern over the definition of regional content,” says Bob Zabcik, technical director with NCI Group Inc., a Houston-based manufacturer of coil-coating solutions, components, and custom building systems for the non-residential construction market. Version 1 required manufacturing and natural resource extraction to occur within 500 miles of a project. This is very prohibitive for the metal industry because iron ore is extracted only in certain places and recycled material can be difficult to trace.

“The wording in Version 2 states that either the manufacturing or extraction process has to happen within 500 miles, but not necessarily both,” Zabcik says. “The metal industry does a good job of manufacturing components within 500 miles.”

Requirements and electives

Like USGBC's Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) rating system, IgCC requirements are broken down into sections covering different aspects of design, construction, and operation:

  • Site development and land use
  • Material resource conservation and efficiency
  • Energy conservation, efficiency, and atmospheric quality
  • Water resource conservation and efficiency
  • Indoor environmental quality and comfort
  • Commissioning, operations, and maintenance.

The model code also contains two additional elements.

Jurisdictional requirements are strategies that make sense in one area and not another.

For example, a metropolitan area could decide to add a jurisdictional requirement that buildings be constructed close to public transit, while a more rural area wouldn't because there's no public transit in the area.

Project electives are more ambitious and wouldn't be appropriate as mandatory requirements.

For example, a project may receive a point for building on a brownfield site. It wouldn't make sense to require all buildings to be built on brownfields; but because remediating polluted land and bringing it back to positive use should be encouraged, an elective credit is designed to provide incentive.

A common question is how the model code will impact or possibly compete with certification programs like LEED or Green Globes from the Jessup, Md.-based Green Building Institute (GBI). In fact, such organizations have been actively involved in IgCC's development.

“One might think USGBC would feel threatened by this kind of activity, but the opposite is true,” the ICC's Bilka says. “They're fully in support and see it as a push/pull arrangement: USGBC tries to keep ahead of the codes; when the codes start to catch up and even surpass some of the requirements in LEED for various criteria, the next edition of LEED will take another leap forward.”