Moving Forward Together

New streamlining for building code makes it easier to achieve green projects


Building professionals move toward a unified green code by streamlining and simplifying the code enigma.


Spring 2018 | Written by Jeff Harder

In August 2014, the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) and a group of its industry peers decided on a common goal: to work together in service of simplicity.

For years, USGBC; the International Code Council (ICC); the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating, and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE); the American Institute of Architects (AIA); and the Illuminating Engineering Society (IES), had all been working on their own green building standards and regulations. USGBC partnered with ASHRAE and IES to develop ASHRAE Standard 189.1, a document that establishes the minimum standard of care for high-performing green buildings; meanwhile, ICC developed the International Green Construction Code (IgCC), a model code that effectively does the same thing for a different audience. Kindred spirits in principle, the contrasting guidelines baffled the building community because of both their similarities and differences—and things had to change. “Having a standard (in 189.1) and a code (in IgCC) that were doing the same or similar things created confusion in the marketplace,” says Dave Walls, executive director of sustainability programs for ICC. “So a collaboration made sense: Let’s all get together and create something that will be a driving force.”

Just under four years after signing a memorandum of understanding announcing that collaboration, the 2018-IgCC—a new model code that synthesizes both the IgCC and ASHRAE Standard 189.1—arrives this summer. The 2018-IgCC sets forward-thinking minimum standards in enforceable code language, enabling jurisdictions around the globe to adopt a set of credible policies around indoor environmental quality, resource conservation, water safety, land use, site development, and building energy performance beyond energy code baselines. More than simplifying similarly focused green building guidelines, the 2018-IgCC promises to align building code guidelines with LEED credits and prerequisites, creating an on-ramp to LEED certification and incentivizing projects to go beyond code-mandated minimums—an arrangement benefiting all partners involved. “To accomplish our mission of greening all buildings within this generation, we need to have a strong green building code,” says Wes Sullens, director of codes technical development at USGBC. “For the 2018-IgCC, we plan to align portions of our LEED rating system to the model code, thereby hoping to spur more adoptions of the green code and simultaneously making LEED achievement simpler in those adopting jurisdictions.”

The code-plus-LEED concept has a high-profile, successful precedent: California’s eight-year-old Green Building Standards Code, popularly known as CALGreen. In recent years, USGBC has taken steps to recognize the leadership of strong green codes by simplifying documentation of equivalent measures when a project pursues LEED certification.

By applying a similar tongue-and-groove concept to the 2018-IgCC, the partners hope to catalyze the widespread uptake of greener building practice across the country, maybe even the world. And by officially uniting five industry leaders in service of the same goal via the 2018-IgCC, the partnership illuminates the common cause among professions that’s existed all along. “All of us who are working in the green building community are trying to move the industry in the same direction,” says Mara Baum, vice president and sustainable design leader for health and wellness at HOK, who’s based in the design and architecture firm’s San Francisco office. “Ultimately, we share the same goals and the same values, although we sometimes implement them in different ways.”

Wes Sullens, director of codes technical development at USGBC

Dave Walls, executive director of
sustainability programs for the ICC

ASHRAE President Bjarne Olesen

Both ASHRAE 189.1 and the IgCC set requirements for high-performing green buildings that states, cities, or other jurisdictions can use to craft technical and performance standards for buildings within their purview. LEED and other rating systems, meanwhile, are typically (though not always) voluntary, flexible, and adaptable frameworks for building industry leaders to demonstrate leadership, while also outpacing a given jurisdiction’s building code.

And while many codes have adopted and adapted LEED’s guidelines for water conservation, energy efficiency, and recycled materials, LEED has responded to shifts in code too, evidenced by LEED’s reference to volatile organic compound (VOC) standards conceived in California. It’s a positive feedback loop—one that’s pushed both green building standards and codes to become more progressive. “I think of code as the floor and rating systems like LEED as the ceiling,” Baum says. “And as the ceiling has gone up, it’s moved the floor as well.”

It’s also led to confusion. USGBC, ASHRAE, and IES began their efforts to develop Standard 189.1 in 2005; ICC independently developed the IgCC four years later; and certain jurisdictions continued using LEED as a fill-in for a green building policy—something, Sullens notes, it was never designed to do. There’s a degree of fluidity to these classifications: Since 2002, when the city of Normal, Illinois, first required LEED certification for certain private development, LEED has been adopted on a few dozen occasions as a de facto building code. (The City of San Francisco, for instance, requires LEED Gold for municipal buildings.) More than 400 local jurisdictions have referenced LEED in public law in some fashion, although most commonly as a leadership commitment for civic structures.

Ultimately only a handful of jurisdictions adopted the early versions of the IgCC, and however well intentioned, the clashing frameworks puzzled even the most well-versed building professionals. “As a [designer], it can be frustrating to have to understand and remember the small differences between two sets of requirements that are otherwise the same or similar,” Baum says. “…Once you get into the minutiae of code language, the devil is in the details, and understanding those details is important to having a successful project.”

Above: The HOK-designed San Francisco Public Safety Campus achieved LEED Gold in collaboration with Mark Cavagnero Associates. The adjacent 1920s masonry fire station was rehabilitated for community use.
Photo: Tim Griffith

To overcome those differences, the 2018-IgCC seeks points of connection, melding the technical provisions of ASHRAE Standard 189.1 with the administrative packaging of the IgCC. The new provisions in Standard 189.1-2017, which serves as the technical content for the 2018-IgCC, incorporate 75 updates, large and small, from the 2014 iteration of the standard. Some of the most substantive changes involve adding resilience to the scope of 189.1, requiring projects to incorporate electric infrastructure for electrical vehicles, and real-time display of energy use, among other measures, says Andrew Persily of the National Institute of Standards and Technology, who chairs the 189.1 project committee.

Changes were all approved using the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) consensus process and delivered to ICC in late 2017. “Most of the changes are incremental,” Persily says. “Ideally, now that there is one document instead of two, it will reduce confusion and increase adoption.”

Meanwhile, the 2018-IgCC—one of a suite of 15 model codes that ICC develops and administers—retains ICC’s instructions for issuing permits, requirements for construction documents, administrative charging language, and the responsibility of creating support materials like user manuals and commentaries. Aside from ironing out outside reference standards, reconciling 189.1 and IgCC was straightforward, Walls says. “Both the standard and the code are essentially addressing all the same issues—just differently. It was a matter of bringing all of those together and figuring out how they could work as one.”

ASHRAE President Bjarne Olesen expects the new iteration of IgCC to shed light on the holistic nature of green building practices. “By having this code, I hope people will understand that you cannot focus on only one issue to get a sustainable, high-performance building,” says Olesen. “… It’s so important to have a document that looks at the broad range of issues, from the indoor environment to energy efficiency, indoor illumination, water consumption, the use of building materials, and so on. And it’s important for the user that you don’t have to look at several different documents to look at these many different issues: You have them combined into one, and I think that will increase its usability as well as the chances for it to be used more and more in the U.S.”

A key feature of the 2018-IgCC is the degree to which fundamental concepts of LEED are reflected into the code’s foundations. Meeting 2018-IgCC requirements for measures like “allowable sites” and “prohibited development activity,” for example, closely matches the criteria to earn LEED points for the Sensitive Land Protection credit; the requirements for “water consumption measurement” line up with the LEED prerequisite for Building-Level Water Metering. That alignment incentivizes design-build teams to seek LEED certification by ensuring that an IgCC-compliant project, by definition, meets criteria for several LEED credits and prerequisites, and reduces redundancies in documentation. By transposing the benefits of LEED to a model code, it also broadens the audience for sustainable building beyond the usual cast of professionals—architects, designers—to building departments, city planners, and city councils. It could also fill a void of innovation in building codes and enforcement that’s materialized in the last half-century. “Things like water conservation, energy efficiency, and selecting low-emitting products—things that are readily available and cost-effective everywhere—can and should be normal parts of the building code now,” Sullens says.

Code+LEED: Proof of Concept in California

In fact, they already are in California, where Green Business Certification Inc. (GBCI)—the third-party reviewer that conducts LEED certification—is now recognizing compliance with statewide standards, including the CALGreen code, as sufficient for all 12 prerequisites and up to 6 points in LEED v4 for Building Design and Construction (BD+C). The IgCC could spread minimum green code requirements far and wide, and opportunities for deeper greening along with it. Walls, who headed the California Building Standards Commission during the rollout of CALGreen in 2010, says despite initial pushback, the code has since become widely and enthusiastically accepted throughout the state. “One of our main goals was to make sure we had a significant code that provided significant provisions toward eliminating some of the negative environmental impacts from buildings, but also to provide practical things that builders could implement into their systems,” he says. “For the most part, everyone I talk to now thinks it’s a great code, from builders to the enforcement community.”

It’s also a guiding light for ambitious projects like a redevelopment underway at San Francisco International Airport (SFO). Roughly five years ago, the airport began planning the rebuilding of the airport’s Terminal 1 (which comprises Terminal 1 Center and Boarding Area B), a $2.4 billion, 1.18 million-sq-ft project that sees some 17 million passengers annually. Anthony Bernheim, currently SFO’s healthy and resilient buildings program manager, developed a computer program that set minimum standards and confirmed the airport’s high-level sustainability goals for the project by consolidating a batch of regulations: CALGreen 2016, the San Francisco Environment Code, LEED v4, and the airport’s own additional sustainable planning and design guidelines. The project also incorporated a series of stretch goals—among them net-zero energy, zero waste, and zero carbon by 2022—all with an eye toward constructing a new airport terminal that could last for 30 years or more. Teams used Autocase software to do a triple-bottom-line cost-benefit analysis on the various systems under consideration, and also pursued the LEED pilot credit for informing design using triple bottom line analysis.”

Above: Mara Baum, vice president and sustainable design leader for health and wellness at HOK.

The Terminal 1 redevelopment is slated for completion by 2022. Despite the project site’s functional constraints, it incorporates an astonishing range of innovative sustainability features, from vast rooftop solar arrays to radiant heating and cooling in hold rooms—the areas where passengers and other occupants wait for their flight departures—and dynamic window glazing to reduce glare while also affording views of the hills and mountains beyond. The Terminal 1 projects were designed to connect to the airport’s planned future central heat recovery chiller plant that when completed will significantly reduce the airport’s natural gas usage, resulting in reduced GHG emissions. Other important features include an energy efficiency monitoring system, a new plant to recycle wastewater to use for irrigation and toilet flushing, a baggage and handling system estimated to be 50 percent more energy efficient than conventional systems, and interior and exterior building products selected to meet LEED v4 and CALGreen requirements for reduced volatile organic compounds (VOCs), environmental product declarations, health product declarations, and other third-party sustainable material certifications. A typical terminal at SFO, Bernheim says, has an energy use intensity (EUI) of 179; projections for the new terminal place it at 60 to 70 EUI. Both Terminal 1 and Boarding Area B are aiming to achieve LEED Gold.

The airport opted to build in accordance with a LEED Campus Master Site program. “For LEED BD+C, [Interior Design and Construction] ID+C, and Core and Shell, this [Master Site] program allows the multiple design-build teams, architects, and engineers working at the airport to reduce the amount of work they do to qualify and submit for LEED on our projects,” Bernheim says. With the recent alignments between LEED and CALGreen, the airport began discussions with USGBC to enable the campus to take advantage of the new streamlining that builds off the project’s careful efforts to comply with, and go well beyond, CALGreen. “Every project here goes through our code authority and has to produce documentation to verify compliance with CALGreen—therefore, why would they also have to prove they meet LEED requirements given that relationship?” Bernheim says. “That [streamlining] makes it much easier for the airport, the design-build teams, and the consultants to comply with those requirements.”

“At the end of the day,” Bernheim continues, “[the streamlining] is going to help code officials verify better buildings, and it’s going to make jobs easier in all jurisdictions. That alignment is really important and helps pull everything together.”

Above: Despite the San Francisco Airport’s functional constraints, it incorporates an astonishing range of innovative sustainability features, from vast rooftop solar arrays to radiant heating and cooling in hold rooms.

Prior to the most recent effort to streamline LEED with CALGreen, which was announced in April 2018, some 25 projects had signed up for LEED alternative compliance paths through CALGreen—a development that emphasizes code and LEED as complements to each other, not substitutes. While feedback is still coming in from the relatively new program, Baum says it’s been beneficial thus far. “In my experience, no building in California can be permitted without basic energy, water, construction-waste management, and other types of requirements—things that have been implemented here for a very long time,” Baum says. “It’s a relief to get credit for that and not have to create double documentation… The new alternative compliance paths make it very clear what we get, what we don’t get, and where there’s general alignment between LEED v4 and CALGreen. The benefit extends beyond the notion of getting ‘free’ points and prerequisites: It also provides a sense of what additional value LEED brings to the process by indicating where LEED goes above and beyond code minimum.”

California is also a case study in how codes can transform a marketplace. Walls recalls low-VOC paints and water-efficient plumbing fixtures as early targets of grievances; now, he notes, those are the only such materials on the shelves at Home Depot and Lowe’s. The precedent in California helps Baum make the case for the viability of these materials to clients outside the Golden State. “Sometimes I get funny looks from clients in other parts of the country—like, ‘Of course you do that in California, but that doesn’t make it mainstream,’” she says. “But now I can say, ‘This has been code in California for years. You can’t buy anything else, and it’s gone fine,’ and our clients in other parts of the country have become more accepting.”

In time, expect jurisdictions to overcome their trepidation over the 2018-IgCC and embrace the long-term cost savings of minimizing buildings’ resource consumption. “When adopted by jurisdictions, the IgCC will help significantly reduce water and energy use and help reduce the impact buildings have on our environment,” Walls says. “By integrating the provisions of the IgCC into building construction regulations, local governments can help meet their specific environmental goals while at the same time increasing property values and reducing operational costs for building owners.”

Bringing so many standard-bearers together can help bring new perspective to building codes, which, Sullens notes, are ripe for updates. “When you pull a building permit, the county or state isn’t typically recording your energy performance numbers or water conservation numbers, but we collect that data through LEED,” Sullens says. “So the question is: Are there things we can put into building codes to enable cities and jurisdictions to track these metrics better than they do right now? That’s the sort of innovation we hope to see as part of this partnership.”

Above: Anthony Bernheim is the program manager for the Healthy & Resilient Buildings Program at San Francisco International Airport.

In locales that have never enjoyed a LEED plaque ceremony, a sustainability-centered code can help green building make inroads in new territory. It also sends a message to the rest of the world. “People outside the U.S. see that its federal government may not be so supportive of these kinds of activities,” Olesen says. “Therefore, I think it’s even more important that a private initiative from these different societies and industries are really doing something to save our planet, reduce energy use in buildings, improve the indoor environment, and reduce use of our resources.”

As the 2018-IgCC makes its introduction and CALGreen pushes ever forward—California has set net-zero energy targets for all manner of buildings to be reached by 2030—it’s worth remembering that even a forward-thinking building code represents a bare minimum set of standards. “Building codes are the formal way we say, ‘Here are my community’s minimum expectations for buildings,” says Jeremy Sigmon, director of technical policy at USGBC. “And one of LEED’s major successes is just how much it has evolved everyday expectations for all kinds of buildings.” As broad and as important as the benefits of a green building code are, this essential role of LEED remains the same.

“The reason [to pursue LEED] is no different than it’s always been: to demonstrate leadership, to push above and beyond code minimum, to achieve higher thresholds of sustainability than we would otherwise,” Baum says. “It’s the same conversation we’ve been having around LEED for 20 years and the answer isn’t any different. But the standards and thresholds are higher than they were just a few years ago, which is great. We’re having these conversations, and we’re moving forward together.”

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