Rhode Island Advances Green Building Policy

Rhode Island Advances Green Building Policy

Winter 2018   PDF   Written by Kiley Jacques

The Ocean State takes steps toward expanding its green infrastructure.

For a decade Rhode Island has pioneered sustainable design in the public sector. It was the first state in the nation to adopt the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) rating system, and the International Green Construction Code (IGCC). At their outset, however, those systems did not address real public property, which belongs to the state—that real public property became the domain of the 2006 Green Buildings Act, a policy requiring nonresidential public buildings to certify under the appropriate version of LEED.

The recent passage of bill S-0952A/H-5427A, which amends the Green Buildings Act, is in keeping with the state’s long-standing commitment to sustainable building. The legislation has been in the works since 2014, when the Environmental Council of Rhode Island and the Green Infrastructure Coalition started talking more deeply about green infrastructure in the public sphere. (As the Ocean State, Rhode Island has a heightened appreciation for the need to protect its coastlines and waterways.) In late 2015, it was decided that there should be legislation in place to encourage the inclusion of green infrastructure in public projects. That idea resulted in an amendment to the Green Buildings Act that included the Sustainable SITES Initiative (SITES) and LEED for Neighborhood Development (LEED ND) as applicable standards for the construction of green infrastructure. After continual support from USGBC and USGBC Rhode Island Chapter, Governor Gina M. Raimondo signed the bill into law, making Rhode Island the first state to include SITES for the design and development of land that falls under the domain of public real property.

The updated legislation adheres to prior commitments while broadening sustainability and resilience measures to go beyond buildings. State and local governments taking on new public facilities projects that add public parks or landscapes that address the space between buildings will now apply SITES and/or LEED ND. “The Ocean State has taken a big step toward embracing sustainable development and landscapes,” says Jeremy Sigmon, USGBC’s Director of Technical Policy. “By using these rating systems for public projects, Rhode Island is creating healthier, more sustainable, and more resilient places for its residents.”

The Save The Bay Center provides classrooms for their Explore The Bay educational programs, Save The Bay’s administrative offices, and community meeting space. The building itself represents Save The Bay’s approach to brownfields redevelopment and environmentally friendly shoreline development. The 15,042-sq-ft building is located on a 6.07-acre site in Providence, Rhode Island, on Narragansett Bay. Photos courtesy of Save The Bay

Kenneth J. Filarski is the USGBC Rhode Island Chapter chair and co-founder.

Kenneth J. Filarski is the USGBC Rhode Island Chapter chair and co-founder.

“I am enthusiastic not only for the legislation becoming law, but also for how the law can leverage and catapult a greater realm of sustainability,” adds architect and USGBC Rhode Island Chapter chair and co-founder Kenneth J. Filarski, who drafted the bill.

Meg Kerr, senior director of policy at Audubon Society of Rhode Island and a member of the Green Infrastructure Coalition, concurs: “We are excited for the opportunity to have state and public investment in . . . green infrastructure as a way to demonstrate its importance and the benefits it provides to the community.”

 Meg Kerr is senior director of policy at Audubon Society of Rhode Island.

Meg Kerr is senior director of policy at Audubon Society of Rhode Island.

The Law at Work in the Age of Climate Change

SITES and LEED ND are two more tools for building resilience into the state’s fabric. SITES-certified projects create regenerative systems that not only help reduce water consumption, energy needs, and air pollution but also better bear catastrophic flooding events and sea level rise. The adoption of LEED ND will also play a role in addressing climate change. The state’s small size coupled with the principles of New Urbanism make it well poised to significantly cut carbon emissions. “There are major areas including the Pastore Complex in Cranston, the Port of Galilee, and Quonset Business Park where LEED ND is applicable,” Filarski explains. “It [can] be used as a guiding framework for sustainable hazard mitigation, communities’ comprehensive plans, zoning works, subdivision works, and conservation development works.”

Among the law’s allies is the Rhode Island Builders Association, a 72-year-old nonprofit organization whose mission is to address the state’s housing needs. Its unanimous support is something of which president Dave Caldwell is quite proud. He values the coming together of the building sector with the environmental community, and notes that it hasn’t always been the case. Their capacity to do so, he feels, is something politicians respond well to, making the passing of advantageous bills like this one more likely. “This is a win-win piece of legislation. It saves money and is good for the environment in terms of energy and water resources, [which is important] in an estuary like Narragansett Bay,” says Caldwell, who advocates for expanding the realm of green infrastructure. “This legislation is a step toward increasing our awareness of our environment—it’s another piece. It’s not the end, and it’s not a standalone element. But as we think about sea level rise and water quality, [it’s vital] to build and adapt to a changing environment. . . . [This new law] is another brick in the foundation of how we learn to build better.”

Governor Raimondo sees the big picture, too, noting Rhode Island’s position on the front lines of the fight against climate change. As part of its commitment to environmental leadership, the state has introduced net metering to make it easier for residents to invest in clean energy resources; it has partnered with other states to cut greenhouse gas emissions; and it is the only state in the nation with an offshore wind farm. “Thanks to this new legislation, we can build on these accomplishments to extend our building sustainability efforts to public lands,” says Governor Raimondo.

Broadening the Scope

According to Filarski, SITES has wider repercussions as well: “I think sustainable landscapes are more accessible and understandable than buildings are to the layperson. People have an intrinsic connection to any well-done landscape, but when it is a sustainable landscape, there is an affinity, a sort of sisterhood and brotherhood among people of all walks of life. SITES can bring in a whole new audience that will feel comfortable entering the notion of sustainability.”

Filarski sees the two rating systems working in tandem, noting that even if a SITES project doesn’t qualify for LEED ND, there is no reason some of its principles can’t be applied. “Our job is to nudge [the state] to incorporate as many elements as possible,” he says.

For Kerr, it’s a matter of demonstrating that SITES metrics add value to projects—and that they are a positive for the state. “[We want to show] there are more benefits than costs, so that people managing these projects moving forward are excited, and we see more applications of SITES.”

In addition to diversifying the audience supporting sustainable design and resiliency planning; building community structures, landscapes, and neighborhoods that improve environmental and human health; and addressing climate change, it also makes Rhode Island a fiscal steward of public funds while evidencing its commitment to sustainability in the built environment, which furthers its commendable reputation on the national stage.

Governor Gina M. Raimondo of Rhode Island.

The Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (DEM) will use a federal grant administered by the U.S. Economic Development Administration (EDA), to continue rehabilitation of critical infrastructure in the Port of Galilee. The improvements will enhance the long-term viability of the regional commercial fishing industry and the local businesses they support.

The Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (DEM) will use a federal grant administered by the U.S. Economic Development Administration (EDA), to continue rehabilitation of critical infrastructure in the Port of Galilee. The improvements will enhance the long-term viability of the regional commercial fishing industry and the local businesses they support.

Moving Forward

“Getting the bill passed is fabulous but the rubber hits the road with its implementation. I would like to see enthusiastic participation by state agencies,” says Kerr, adding that state stakeholders have expressed concern that the law’s implementation will require extra work for which they don’t have resources. However, Green Infrastructure Coalition affiliates intend to make themselves available to help with technical expertise and support.

Next up is a meeting of all agencies to determine which of the state’s upcoming projects would best be suited to pilot the newly amended Act. “We want to see this move from pilot to full implementation to standard practice,” says Kerr, who anticipates Rhode Island ultimately serving as a model for other states and communities around the country.

“I don’t want to do something that is easy just to make it look good,” Filarski concludes. “I want to have high-profile, high-impact projects that really prove the point—particularly pertaining to climate change.”

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