Seattle’s Deep Green Pilot Program allows deviation from the standard building codes in order to build more sustainably. If we want more sustainable buildings is this an approach that should be adopted more widely?

Seattle’s Living Building Challenge, says the city’s Department of Planning and Development “is a green building certification program that defines the most advanced measure of sustainability for buildings and landscapes possible today.”

The Challenge is comprised of seven performance categories known as “petals.” The categories are Place, Water, Energy, Health & Happiness, Materials, Equity and Beauty, and buildings aim to achieve at least three of the petals, at least one of energy, water or materials and all of the following:

  • Reduce total energy usage by 25 per cent
  • Reduce total building water usage by 75 per cent
  • Capture and use at least 50 per cent of stormwater on site

One of the buildings made possible by this is the Bullitt Centre. Bullitt Foundation CEO Denis Hayes, calls it “the most efficient office building in the world, and likely the most efficient building in the world, period.”

Bullitt-029The much ballyhooed building features a canopy of solar panels that generates all of the electricity used on site; a green roof seeded with micro-organisms that captures and cleans rainwater; giant floor-to-ceiling windows that open and close automatically to regulate the temperature; and a fleet of composting toilets in the basement.

To get these sustainable initiatives to work and be viable, the development was allowed flexibility when it came to the local building codes. For example, Bullitt was allowed to add two to three feet to the height of each floor to allow more sunlight in, reducing the need for electrical lighting and mechanical heating. The additional 10 feet in overall building height was not popular among the neighbours.

Some of those deviations have since been incorporated into the city building code.

“We need codes and regulations that don’t just require the minimum, but also expect the best. Green building codes – that are starting to catch on in the US – embrace not only the sustainability imperative but also the inherent flexibility needed in regulations to prioritize energy, health, and environmental goals above and beyond the safeguards that codes already require.,” said US Green Building Council (USGBC) technical policy director Jeremy Sigmon.

“Since codes also set the context for building product manufacturing, it’s important to have green codes that can standardize many of the sustainability expectations while also leaving room for much-needed innovation. LEED is a rigorous, flexible and widely adopted green building certification program that is largely responsible for the emergence of a multi-billion dollar green building industry.”

A new USGBC partnership with building code allies seeks to leverage the strengths of both codes and rating systems to give policymakers and the building industry the tools they need to foster growth in green building business and sustainability outcomes.

The unprecedented cooperation, which includes the International Code Council (ICC), ASHRAE, the American Institute of Architects (AIA), and the Illuminating Engineering Society of North America (IES), aims to create a comprehensive framework for jurisdictions looking to implement and adopt green building regulations and codes and/or provide incentives for voluntary leadership programs such as LEED.

The agreement endeavours to align the LEED program with the new code to ensure a streamlined, effective set of regulatory and above-code options for jurisdictions across the country.

In Australia, the creation of innovative and sustainable buildings is guided by the Building Code of Australia.

“While the Code in itself is not stopping anyone creating better buildings, it can inadvertently encourage people to accept the minimum standard, rather than what might be optimal,” said Adrian Piani of Engineers Australia. “We would hope people adopt a greater standard for their own benefit, but this is not always the case. At the end of the day, innovation must be desired by the building owner and the benefits understood.”

“An innovative design may cost more to build, but it can reduce total cost over the life of the property. In the future, we would like to see the Code take greater consideration of whole of life costs like these so owners and occupiers can benefit from overall reductions in costs.”

Piani also suggested governments had a major role to play in providing policy settings which increase awareness of the value of energy efficient buildings, and encourage adoption.

“This could include ‘green door’ development processes where developers can get fast-tracked approvals for adopting sustainable designs, facilitating performance based standards as much as possible to foster innovation and new approaches, and creating tax incentives for energy efficient buildings,” he said.

Incentives are an area in particular The Green Building Council of Australia (GBCA) encourages governments to provide.

“We encourage local governments to ‘think outside the box’ and provide both financial and non-financial incentives for developers that agree to achieve a certain outcome beyond what is mandated,” said GBCA chief operating officer Robin Mellon. “Incentives come in many forms. Height, floorspace or plot ratio bonuses have all been used effectively to improve sustainability outcomes.”

The Gold Coast City Council, for example, has introduced a planning scheme policy which includes urban design bonus provisions. Similarly, the City of Canada Bay in Sydney has undertaken Voluntary Planning Agreements with a number of development companies, allowing for towers up to 25 storeys to be built, with the provision of additional open space, such as new pathways, cycle way connections and community centres. Likewise, Ku-ring-gai Council’s building and sustainable design policy mandates that buildings with more than 2,000 square metres of gross floor area (GFA) must achieve a 4 Star Green Star rating, and those above 5,000 square metres of GFA must achieve a 5 Star Green Star rating.

“Examples in the US indicate that a contractual or financial penalty may be needed where benchmarks are not met,” Mellon said.

Another type of incentive is expedited planning approvals (sometimes known as ‘Green Door’ policies), where projects committing to achieve higher benchmarks can benefits from a streamlined DA process, but Mellon says there are no known examples operating in Australia at the moment.

Some councils offer provision of technical support, such as Renewal SA’s program for the Bowden project. Training, education or marketing opportunities can also benefit developers, the community and the council, with councils offering training initiatives or marketing benefits for ‘greener’ projects at minimal expense which would maximise the developers’ capabilities and promoting skills within the area.

Finally, incentives include cash rebates.

From 2009 to 2010, Brisbane City Council offered a sustainable development incentives program which provided $9 million in rebates for commercial building developments that achieved a 6 Star Green Star – As Built rating. These cash rebates were provided on each building’s floor area and were capped at $1 million each.