October 16, 2009
  International Green Construction Code Effort Tackles Building Commissioning and Adoptability
Unified yet flexible, local yet national, stringent yet adoptable, the SBTC prepare for their balancing act

By Zach Mortice
Associate Editor

Summary: With their third meeting in Philadelphia last week, building industry experts are zeroing in on the critical issues that will determine the International Green Construction Code (IGCC), both in terms of technical policy and adoptability by states and municipalities. Now in the middle of its first phase of draft development, the multidisciplinary team of architects, sustainability experts, civic officials, standards writers, and code officials headlining the effort to craft a green construction code are focusing on adoptability issues for parts of the building process previously untouched by codes—namely post-occupancy building commissioning. The International Green Construction Code Safe and Sustainable by the Book initiative will determine what parties will verify building’s performance according to code, what their roles will be, and what the commissioning timeline will be. “We’re going to boldly go where we haven’t gone before [within the existing I-Codes],” says Christopher Green, AIA, the Sustainable Building Technology Committee (SBTC) vice chair. “The codes up to this point have basically stopped their function at the certificate of occupancy.”

There are 12 AIA members in the 28-member SBTC and its working groups, and other members include code officials from the International Code Council [http://www.iccsafe.org/] (who convened the green code effort) and experts from the standards writing organization ASTM International. The SBTC’s goal is to create the nation’s first comprehensive green construction code as a portion of the existing I-Codes covering all commercial building types that address sustainable design and construction practices. The effort is a vital part of the AIA’s 2030 goals for carbon neutral buildings.

The committee plans to have a completed draft by the spring of 2010. Then, once vetted through the I-code process, the IGCC can be used as a tool for jurisdictions that want to develop their own code. After public hearings collect initial public feedback, the code will undergo final hearings. The final version will be published in late 2011, and jurisdictions will be able to adopt the code in 2012.

Performance tested
In order to verify that buildings constructed in accordance with this code perform sustainably and consume less energy, the SBTC is establishing building commissioning protocols that will define how this performance is measured, when it’s measured, who measures it, and who’s responsible for the building’s performance if it does not meet its goals. Green, principal of Ago Studios in Avon, Colo., says that the architects that have designed the building originally should have the first opportunity to be involved in commissioning the building because they are most familiar with the building’s program, systems, overall design, and owner’s objectives. The committee is also investigating commissioning timelines by discussing when the original commissioning action will be performed (One week after a building is complete? One month? One year?), how often it will be repeated and at what intervals, and who will be responsible for the building’s performance as time goes on.

Ravi Shah, Assoc. AIA, SBTC chair and an ICC board member, says he envisions a possible scenario where, for the first 18 months of a building constructed under this code’s life, the local municipality and the designer might be responsible. From 18 months to five years, the designer and the building owner might be responsible. After five years, the owner might be responsible.

Maureen Guttman, AIA, a committee member and executive director of the Pennsylvania Governor’s Green Government Council, says that these kinds commissioning issues are best addressed by policy guidelines in the code, not as direct, enforceable code language.

The committee is thus trying to come to consensus on various definitions and visions of building commissioning, as well as the code’s definition of what “green” and sustainability are. “When we get outside this bubble we’re going to be pelted by exactly that question, and I do believe we need to come to some kind of recommendation on that,” Guttman says.

An economic development tool
Because construction codes haven’t typically dealt with commissioning issues, they are a key adoptability factor that must be made palpable for municipalities, Green says. “We’ve got to make it so people aren’t afraid of it.”

Such civic officials are well represented in the SBTC. Ten members work for local and state jurisdictions that would be part of the code adoption process, including Shah, who is the director of urban development for Carrollton, Texas. But municipal building officials are not the only group the SBTC must gain the support of to advance the adoption of the green codes. Perhaps just as important, Shah says, is the developer community. The costs of complying with the code has to be limited for them, he says, and they must be comfortable with the face that any upfront costs will be offset by back-end returns-on-investment gained from reduced energy costs and higher performance. “Is a developer now going to have to spend 10 percent, 20 percent, 30 percent more on building construction?” Shah says. “To me, that’s the bottom line—economic development. We can speak as much as we want, but our jurisdictions rely on economic development. We want smart growth, but we’re competing for tax base between jurisdictions.”

Guttman says developers, municipalities, and states should look at the green construction code as an opportunity to raise more revenue, not spend more. “A good building code is a great economic development tool,” she says, because rigorous codes keep the overall quality of construction high.

The committee is also dealing with administrative adoptability issues. “Every building department is organized somewhat differently, but [the code] has to be flexible enough in order to adapt to the administrative organizational framework of various cities,” says SBTC member Anthony Floyd, AIA, manager of the Scottsdale, Ariz. Green Building Program.

The participants also narrowed in on discussions of plug load’s role in energy performance, power delivery energy efficiency costs, and refined the distinction between total carbon footprint and energy consumed on site. The extent to which the code will consider site materials and embodied energy (another new area for construction codes) is also a key adoptability issue. Green looks for future iterations of the code to be more comprehensive on these issues.

The balancing act
Another challenge the committee is facing is how to formulate a code that is broadly applicable to all states and municipalities in the nation, yet is still able to address specific local climate and site conditions. “It’s a balancing act,” says Floyd, who is the chair of the committee’s site and land use working group. Many site issues are “beyond the scope of the traditional building code,” he says.

The IGCC does plan on creating code guidance for heat island effect, water runoff, and transit connection site issues that are broadly applicable. For instance, once building teams select a site, the construction code could delineate how to do deal with certain conditions (brownfields, greenfields, various levels of density, etc.) Moreover, the code could tell building teams what materials to use to reduce urban heat island effect, but it can’t require all building projects to happen near mass transit rail stations or on an industrial brownfield. Because it’s written in legally enforceable language, it can’t reward projects that in this way, unlike a voluntary rating system. “The ICC will only address aspects of the building after the site has been selected,” says Floyd.

This balancing act embodies what Shah says has been the biggest challenge of the IGCC initiative: turning sustainable ideals and philosophy into legislative code language that is enforceable.

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 various local climates. But, Shah says that if the SBTC fulfills their mission, the code won’t have to change from jurisdiction to jurisdiction drastically.

Municipalities and states will be able to use the compliance electives to demonstrate increasingly progressive levels of sustainability. “My hope is that we set a bare minimum level with a lot of options for exceedances,” Guttman says. “I suspect in California you’ll see the full gamut of exceedances get adopted, and maybe in Pennsylvania you’ll have the bare minimum.”

Making the case
Shah is calling for all three sponsoring organizations to rally their members to participate with the IGCC effort, and he says there’s a specific need for additional technical expertise in the water use, indoor air quality, and materials areas. There’s a limited amount of time to incorporate this expertise. The penultimate SBTC meeting will take place from Dec. 15-17 in Fort Meyers, Fla., and Shah says he’d like to see a construction code draft that is at least 80 percent complete by then.

“We’re making some decisions that really have the potential to substantially change the profession of architecture,” Guttman says.

One way Guttman sees the profession changing in the wake of this code is a potential expansion of architects’ basic responsibilities. “Sustainability is a dimension of health, safety, and welfare that we’ve not acknowledged in the past,” she says. This is the point of view, Guttman says, that can win the public’s support and demonstrate to designers that the code is an opportunity for new professional esteem and responsibility, and not a bureaucratic restriction. “Making that case is a quantum leap,” she says.

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