CALGreen: California’s Latest Green Building Code

California's newest green building code will push the industry toward a more holistic development approach, but at what additional cost?

California is known for many things, from its dynamic coastline to its diverse cities to its distinctive cuisine. It has also been the bellwether state for environmental regulations for years. In 1978, Title 24, the California Energy Code, was established to meet the mandate to reduce the state’s energy consumption. While those standards have been updated periodically in consideration of new energy efficiencies and methods, continued population growth and concomitant increases in demand for natural resources, especially water, has led to the introduction of new sustainable building regulations.

California’s latest green building code, CALGreen, went into effect on Jan. 1, 2011. Briefly, CALGreen’s mandatory measures encompass a broader array of requirements than earlier codes, including components that have previously been the purview of agencies other than the Building Standards Commission, such as stormwater pollution prevention, for example. Among the newly mandated topics are bicycle parking; designated parking for fuel-efficient vehicles; light-pollution reduction; grading and paving design; water metering, water use and waste water reduction; plumbing fixture requirements; exterior water use; irrigation design; construction waste reduction and disposal; commissioning; reduction in material VOCs and elimination of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and halons. Then there are the voluntary measures—CALGreen Tier 1 and Tier 2—which can be adopted at the discretion of the local jurisdiction.

To say that these measures are challenging to the development community is beyond understatement. There has been criticism of the code from a number of corners, including the USGBC (United States Green Building Council), which questions everything from the stringency of the mandates to the ability of the local authorities to respond. Nonetheless, it is now the law, and for those who understand and respect the beauty and the fragility of California’s environment, it is a critical step toward protecting the future of the state. And it will come as no surprise when other states begin to adopt similar codes.

Understanding the code

California’s multifamily developers learned to build “green” long before it was a buzzword for the industry, keeping current with updates to Title 24, voluntarily adopting Build It Green and USGBC LEED standards, and working with municipalities to meet local expectations for their projects. In fact, many of the practices found in CALGreen are already being put in place in one or more jurisdiction in the state. At this time, there are a number of jurisdictions that are considering adopting more than the minimum mandatory measures of CALGreen, much in keeping with the progressive environmental stance that is characteristic of the state.

The first task for developers and the building team is to identify the jurisdiction and thoroughly research the regulations and the levels of the code (Tier 1 or 2) that are applicable to a particular project in a given community.

The earlier in the project planning and design that the development team understands how the code will impact the project, the better it can plan. Bringing a green building code consultant to the table makes sense, especially now as everyone—city building code and planning departments, architects, engineers and developers—is sorting out the ramifications of CALGreen.

Charles “Russ” Russell, CBO, vice president at VCA Green and a former building official, is the kind of advisor who can make a difference in meeting the new standards.

“It’s not so much the changes in the code that make the change a challenge,” Russell says. “It’s the documentation—the new code is going to make approvals more labor-intensive.

“Communication among all the parties involved is more important than ever. Developers and their designers need to do their homework and have a game plan: ‘Here’s how we comply and here’s the documentation.’ As much as good plans, you need a good attitude.”

For multifamily developers, there are several particular issues that merit attention. While many developments readily meet the regulations for residential construction, CALGreen (under Chapter 3) provides specific guidelines for mixed-use or phased projects. In cases where there are conflicting or overlapping regulations, the new code specifies that the more restrictive provision stands.

On complex projects, such as mixed-use and phased developments, determining applicability for measures on the outside of the building could be difficult to interpret. Among the questions that differ by occupancy use are outdoor water usage, construction waste and light pollution reductions. Such issues will be of critical importance to developers who are seeking increased densities or pursing new hybrid use models (which also rank high on the smart environmental moves list).

Although it is still too early to judge the exact costs of changes related to the CALGreen codes, most knowledgeable sources, including the California Building Industry Association (CBIA), are predicting an increase in per-square-foot costs to meet the documentation and other demands set forth by the legislation. This includes the additional costs related to building commissioning, which has been successful in delivering the improved efficiencies and cost savings on projects, but that introduces another consultant to the building team.

On the other hand, the overarching effect of the legislation pushes toward the adoption of a more holistic approach to development. In order to achieve the goals of CALGreen, building departments will have to develop better communications with planning departments; design teams will have to think beyond the design of the building to the ongoing maintenance of the properties, and developers will become increasingly engaged with communities regarding their environmental challenges and goals.

Today, California cities are scurrying to determine how best to administer the new code; architects, engineers and planners are going to school on the legislation; and the smartest competitors in the development community are assembling the best possible teams to capture the positive dynamic presented by the CALGreen without losing sight of the bottom-line impact.

Dan Withee, a founding partner of Los Angeles-based Withee Malcolm Architects, is actively involved in the development of award-winning multifamily housing in the Western region. To comment, email