August 14, 2009

ICC, AIA, ASTM Begin Work on International Green Construction Code
Architects make sure the practice and process of architecture is built into the code

by Zach Mortice
Associate Editor

Summary: In what’s been called one of the most far-reaching construction code initiatives in the I-Codes family in a decade, a multidisciplinary team of architects, sustainability experts, civic officials, standards writers, and code officials met in Chicago in the last week of July to begin drafting the nation’s first comprehensive green construction code for commercial buildings as a companion to the International Building Code (IBC).

When passed by the International Code Council (ICC) through its consensus process and adopted by code jurisdictions, such a code would make sustainable design a mandatory practice, not a suggested alternative and also would be a vital step along the path to meeting the AIA’s goal of carbon neutrality by 2030. The diverse group undertaking this task, called the Sustainable Building Technology Committee and convened by the ICC, is largely made up of individuals representing the ICC, the AIA, and the standards writing organization ASTM International.

The initiative, called the International Green Construction Code: Safe and Sustainable by the Book, will create a portion of the I-Codes covering all building types that addresses sustainable design and construction practices. When states and local municipalities adopt codes, they address local conditions, such as climate zone and existing building stock.

The committee plans to have a completed draft by the spring of 2010. Then, the International Green Construction Code (IGCC) can be used as a tool for jurisdictions that want to develop their own code based on the ICC process. After hearings collect initial public feedback, the code will undergo a final hearing. The final version will be published in late 2011, and jurisdictions will be able to adopt the code in 2012.

Defining green
For their first meeting in Chicago, the committee identified issues and distributed them to smaller working groups to be addressed in time for upcoming meetings, the next of which takes place in Denver, August 27–29. Over the three days in July, a survey of sustainable design topics was discussed and the committee identified critical topics that would travel with them through the entire process.

To increase the positive environmental impacts of buildings and decrease their negative impacts, the code will draw on the sustainable design experience of industry experts and established sustainable design canon to mandate energy efficiency, material selection, and site strategies. “We are excited and thrilled to be involved in such an important endeavor,” says Ravi Shah, Assoc. AIA, committee chair and an ICC Board member.

Maureen Guttman, AIA, a committee member and executive director of the Governor’s Green Government Council in Pennsylvania, says the code itself could become the functional definition of what is green, sustainable, and high-performance. “I think those definitions will be embedded in the values of what we adopt,” she says.

Prescriptive or performance-based?
The committee is also weighing the relative merits and drawbacks of prescriptive and performance-based sustainability metrics. The final product likely will contain both, but the committee has yet to decide the relative proportion of each. The advantage of more progressive performance-based measures is that they offer a better opportunity—through life-cycle assessment and other methods of measurement—to create buildings that perform to a level that matches sustainable design intent. Committee members say some prescriptive guidelines that set specific, uniform requirements should be included because they are easier to apply and are a way to make the green code attractive and user friendly for those municipalities and design professionals relatively unschooled in sustainability.

Guttman says she prefers performance-based codes, but she recognizes that whatever the committee drafts, it must be “understandable and un-scary” to a range of people, including policy makers, code officials, and sometimes architects. But eventually, she says: “I’d like to see the code designed to phase out prescriptive measures.”

The green code must be viable for the future, and inflexible prescriptive metrics stand less of a chance of keeping pace with technological change, says Committee Vice Chair Christopher Green, AIA. “The prescriptive path we might design today might be totally inappropriate in three years,” he says.

Flexibility and unity
The green code will address sustainability renovations and retrofits for existing buildings, an especially vital point considering that new buildings are a relatively small amount of the total building stock.

The committee also is considering including “compliance electives” that would allow municipalities to adopt higher levels of sustainability and specify eco-friendly features suited for their local climate. These have the advantage of giving designers more “explorative and performance-based” freedom, says committee member Dennis Andrejko, FAIA, a professor at the University of Buffalo, national COTE C-Chair, and practicing architect.

Through the working document, the Sustainable Building Technology Committee (SBTC) and participants have been looking at codes and rating systems in Europe, Australia, and the United States. “The strength of the finished code will be in its unity,” Green says. “It will give architects, states, and municipalities one single tool in the I-Codes they need to guide sustainable development.”

Guttman points out another reason for the code’s aggressive development schedule: As time passes, more and more states and localities are going to create their own narrowly focused sustainable construction codes. The sooner the IGCC is finished, the more comprehensive yet readily focused this area of knowledge becomes.

Cause or effect
The committee will design the IGCC to be compatible with existing sustainability rating systems and not to privilege any particular system. However, many expect that it will have a dramatic effect on the entire sustainability codification landscape. “What’s more important is that this code will create a fundamental base on which we will predicate architectural design for the future,” says Green.

“The function and value of what the ratings systems do will change,” Guttman says. “They will not necessarily be the driver towards green or high performance, but they will still have a significant role in pushing the envelope and pushing the green construction code further and further.”

The Green Building Initiative and the USGBC, purveyors of the Green Globes and LEED rating systems respectively, have signed on as supporters of the IGCC.

The success of the code will likely be measured by the subsequent success of the AIA 2030 goals to have all buildings be carbon neutral by the year 2030. Many say that without such a code, the 2030 goals slip out of reach. “Without the code, this won’t happen,” says Guttman.

Green says the IGCC initiative is a result of the 2030 goals, not so much a pre-requisite to meet it. “The code is a natural progression in getting there,” he says. “Once we made the commitment as a profession, the code had to grow naturally out of it.”

Role of the architect
There are 12 AIA members in the 28-member committee and working groups, making it clear that the expertise architects bring is fundamental to the code drafting process. ICC Board member Shah praises architects’ holistic design expertise as being specifically applicable to code writing—working beyond the building, onto the site, and into the community.

Guttman says no one else is as beholden to code requirements as design professionals. “It’s our rulebook,” she says.

As such, codes must reflect how architects practice and encourage the freedom of design innovation. That’s Green’s top concern: “The perspective I bring to it is—how am I going to use it? I want to make sure the way in which architects practice is honored in this process.”

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