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Green Building in 2012: Who’s Driving?

This year is shaping up to be a monumental one in the development of both voluntary and mandatory green building standards. The U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) is hard at work developing the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) 2012 program, and the International Code Council (ICC) has just released the 2012 International Green Construction Code (IgCC).

Over the next year, architects, building owners, and contractors will be challenged with decoding the new acronyms and navigating new and modified green guidelines. Understanding the facility owner’s expectations and the green building requirements required at both state and local levels will be more important than ever.

Understanding the voluntary drivers

Until recently, green building initiatives have been based on voluntary programs driven by numerous goals, including the reduction of energy and operational costs. This driver was set in motion in 2000 when USGBC introduced its first LEED green building rating program.

Today, all eyes are on USGBC as they plan to launch the LEED 2012 program following June’s ballot period. The new version will have a higher level of complexity compared to previous ones, resulting in additional drafts and longer comment periods. It is expected the ballot vote on the final draft may not take place until August 2012.

Indications show LEED 2012 contains new credits, weighting assessment, and other differentiating additions to the program. For example, the Materials and Resources (MR) category—which outlines preferred practices regarding recycling, product recycled content, rapidly renewable content, and building material transport and disposal—has been modified to take into account a more holistic approach to environmentally responsible products and practices.

The proposed changes in the MR category will evaluate multiple material attributes rather than simply establishing minimum criteria for a given type of substance .The traditional credits for recycled content, regional materials, and equipment reuse have been eliminated in the most recent drafts. In their place, there has been a renewed emphasis on life cycle assessment (LCA) of product evaluations, which has been continuously discussed since the program’s inception.

The new LEED drafts indicate the program is getting more technical, sophisticated, and focused on the greater environmental impacts of products and building assemblies. As the green codes become stringent, LEED will have to maintain its position on pushing the upper boundaries of sustainable construction practices. This will serve to set a new upper limit for sustainable structures commonly referred to as the ‘ceiling,’ while mandatory code adoption will create the minimum requirements for green building that are now being referred to as the ‘floor.’

Understanding the mandatory drivers

As LEED continues to be at the forefront of the voluntary movement pushing the ‘ceiling’ of green building to new heights, ICC recently passed the 2012 IgCC. This code was formally adopted in March, creating the first broad-reaching ‘floor’ for mandatory sustainable building practices. Now that the code was officially unveiled in March, it will be up to local jurisdictions to add this extra requirement to existing state and local codes, making it enforceable.

Once adopted by a jurisdiction, IgCC will apply to all new and existing commercial buildings (and all residential ones taller than three stories) within that jurisdiction. In addition to the mandatory requirements covered in the code, jurisdictions may include their own qualifications above and beyond the scope of IgCC. These may include added light pollution control or increased stormwater management based on a local municipality’s capacity restrictions.

Making it even more complex, local jurisdictions can, in some cases, make exceptions to the code and require individual projects to implement one to 14 ‘electives’ outlined in IgCC. Ranging from whole-building LCA and site restoration to more stringent recycled content options, these electives become enforceable requirements for the building once selected.

The IgCC that serves as the first platform for standardizing enforceable sustainable building practices had already found its first home prior to implementation in March. Maryland passed House Bill 972 “Building Codes – International Green Construction Code” in May 2011.  The passing of this bill authorized the use of the code as a voluntary compliance alternative in 2012 and was enacted on March 1st coinciding with the release of the IgCC.

It comes as no surprise Maryland efficiently adopted the code. It is the logical location for the switch from voluntary to mandatory since the state has more LEED projects than any other relative to its population. Maryland is also home to the first certified LEED Platinum building and, in 2001, became one of the first states to offer a green building tax credit. One of the reasons the state found the transition to IgCC relatively easy is the LEED rating systems and the associated American Society of Heating, Refrigerating, and Air-conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) standards cover much of the same territory. In fact, ASHRAE 189.1, Standard for the Design of High-performance Green Buildings, is referenced within the code as a possible compliance path.

Using land and space

The IgCC language clearly discourages expansion on undeveloped land for new construction. However, there are exceptions based on existing infrastructure development. The code also provides clear guidelines for:

● site disturbance;

● irrigation;

● erosion control;

● transportation;

● heat island mitigation;

● greywater systems;

● habitat protection; and

● site restoration.

Materials and product selection

At least half of construction waste must be diverted from landfills, and a minimum 55 percent of materials must be salvaged, recycled content, recyclable, bio-based, or indigenous. In addition to the mandates on building products, structures must be designed for at least 60 years of life and must include a justifiable service plan to achieve the longevity requirement.

Energy conservation and efficiency

Total efficiency must be “51 percent of the energy allowable in the 2000 International Energy Conservation Code (IECC).” Building envelope performance must exceed that by 10 percent. The code also sets minimum standards for lighting and mechanical systems and requires certain levels of sub-metering and demand-response automation.

Water use and efficiency

The code establishes maximum consumption of fixtures and appliances and sets standards for rainwater storage and greywater systems.

Indoor air quality (IAQ)

The code addresses radon, asbestos, volatile organic compounds (VOCs), sound transmission, and daylighting.

Commissioning and operations

The code requires extensive pre- and post-occupancy commissioning and education for building owners and maintenance employees.

Living between the floor and the ceiling

As the adoption and development of green building guidelines unfold throughout 2012, building projects will begin to fall somewhere between the mandatory and voluntary requirements. This will force owners, architects, and contractors to understand both the project expectations and the jurisdiction requirements based on code applicability.

The complexity of these heightened requirements will drive design, product selection, and construction practices to a level needing an unprecedented understanding of the environmental impacts of building design and construction. Once the owners and designers clearly define the expectations of the project based on floor and ceiling goals, the practical application will transition to the contractors. This entails contractors to develop techniques to meet the performance requirements while being under higher levels of restrictions on waste disposal techniques, product selection, and installation techniques. These challenges will drive creativity levels higher and broaden the industry’s understanding of green building materials and their compatibility with traditional technologies.

Ideally, the developments through 2012 will not overwhelm the industry, but rather help clarify drivers of the green building movement while impacting how we look at the construction and performance of our buildings in the future. In the end, only time will tell whether it is the floor or ceiling that will drive our structures to the next level of performance—in either case, the green building movement will continue to evolve.

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