Should Building Codes Be Flexible for Sustainable Buildings? 15

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Thursday, December 11th, 2014
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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.

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Discussions
15
  1. Jay C. White Cloud

    Especially for the natural/traditional design builder or DIYer that are trying so hard to do the best thing they can for a more sustainable planet. CODE in general is a "minimum practice,"…not "best practice." CODE as many see it (and try to enforce it) is a mandate of how to do it…which is not only unfair, it is not sustainable…

  2. Max

    I do not know what area of the Building Code that you want more flexability. The Building Code of Australia sets minimum levels of performance that buildings are to meet. It is there to eliminate bad practice, therefore if a building just meets the standards set out in the Code, it is the worst building that you are legally allowed to build.
    With the Thermal Performance requirements in the BCA, most States have adopted 6 Star Thermal Performance. In NSW they use BASIX as the tool to determine a certain performance that covers Thermal Performance, water efficiency, and energy efficiency.
    The requirements set out in the BCA are usually "deemed to satisfy" and are therefore just one method that can be used to comply. There is always other methods that can be used, i.e.engineered solutions or simulated solutions, where compliance can be met.
    The BCA "deemed to satisfy" option is a bit like a cake recipe for making one type of cake. It does not stop you from using different ingredients to make a different type of cake, the important result is that you end up with a cake.

  3. Hans Gutscher

    It surely should be adopted more widely. But as apparently it was done in Seattle, the deviations should influence afterwards the standard building codes which anyway should constantly be reviewed so to follow as rapidly as possible the important evolutions in sustainability.

  4. Yalamanchili

    Building is code is nothing but a codified content of wisdom acquired till that point. As the wisdom keeps on evolving and for it to get into practice the building codes necessarily have to be flexible. Flexible thinking itself paves the way for expanded wisdom.

  5. Toby Murdoch

    I'd say in principle, a big yes! However, finding building certifiers with the ability and willingness to think laterally, and thorough practical understanding of the background of the code to be highly circumspect in its application, would be the main challenge in my opinion

  6. Eran Spiro

    Yes, Flexibility of Building Codes is necessary due to technological and building materials advancement. A building code should be a process rather then a dogma !

    • JIT KUMAR GUPTA

      Thanks Eran, Building codes can never be static , rigid and once defined document. They have to be flexible, dynamic and promoters of state of art and quality buildings providing for minimizing energy/ non-renewable/water resources and generators of least waste. In fact fast changing and innovative technologies/materials/building construction technologies/ innovations should be the underline drivers of redefining the building codes.

  7. Matthew Cutler-Welsh

    Great idea. Anything to encourage good, regionally appropriate design has got to be a good thing

  8. JIT KUMAR GUPTA

    My close association with planning profession and building regulations for 45 years have shown that Building codes in most of the cases are prepared without any concern with the sustainability and green buildings. People who are involved in framing codes , in developing countries,have little background of buildings , materials, construction technologies and services and that is the major cause for codes being insensitive to sustainable buildings. I can assure that this cause is being taken by me in all forums to create awareness among the authorities about making buildings green and that should be made as a mission by all professionals.

  9. Ted V

    I think like electrical, it should be up to the local official. In an entire building, an option should be to show/explain/demonstrate as many components of the design as desired to a building department and where there is additional expense for the building department, that be born by the applicant. Let the building owner re invent the wheel, why hold new design back. But don't make others pay for it.

    Of course the building department should file each allowed deviation and make that information public. The building owner would then be able to incorporate a previously approved deviation and not incur additional expense. That's been done by the first designer.

    If you leave the buzzwords out, you'll advance the cause faster. A building deviation doesn't need to save the planet and has nothing to do with what a building department does.

  10. Allison Friedman

    We absolutely need to allow regional flexibility. I agree that code represents the minimal acceptable requirements for a building and not the best we can do for occupants and the environment. One concern: sometimes it's the local folks who aren't exactly excited about change. We need an "all-of-the-above" approach with code improvements as a moving-target minimum, and savings and cultural change (changing expectations) as carrots to incentivize us to build more efficiently, environmentally friendly, and healthy for humans. We need to aim for the best we can do, and the approaches that will work best of course vary in different areas.

  11. Ian Cleland

    Although I find that regulation is always playing catch up with better ways of doing things.

  12. Doug Pollard

    So much depends on exactly what these deviations are! The code is there as a MINIMUM standard to ensure basic safety and health and the stuff in the code is there as a result of considerable research and testing and sometimes in reaction to disasters such as dance hall fires etc. Allowing ad hoc adjustments or allowing a single building official to make asessments can be dangerous in many ways

    There are already performance based codes which do not dictate specific solutions but set targets for related issues and allow the building team to demonstrate how they will achieve it…this permits creative and regional based solutions without a lowering of the health and safety bar is this what you are suggesting?
    Most codes hardly produce what might be called a sustainable building anyway and in general you would have to exceed them in order to claim such a status (no matter how you define it) and thus you would not normally need or want an adjustment to the lowest standard but would automatically aim higher anyway. Even the lowest LEED rating necessitates exceeding the basic code and LEED standards do not produce what could rightfully be called a sustainable building just an improvedone

    • Patricia Chawla

      Doug is correct. Code is the the minimum standard to produce a safe building. The definition of safe is evolving within code updates and in above code programs. Traditionally safe is meant that the building shouldn't collapse, explode, flood, etc. now safety expands to include the well being of the occupants. This includes the indoor air quality, energy security, water security, and environmental security. Building officials do have the flexibility to interpret Code now. However, the definitions that once were set in stone are now evolving.

      It is best to be a proactive player with cities by working together, ensuring any proposed changes are thoroughly supported with facts, and demonstrating the widespread benefits of the proposed change.

  13. Samuel Thomson

    I agree that there is a large amount of flexibility built into the BCA, with Alternative Solutions, but the reality is that the engineering that is required to make these work for small to medium sized developments often makes them unviable. It would be good to be able to achieve more flexibility on smaller projects, without compromising the overall sustainability outcomes.

    For example, Solar PV generation definitely offsets the carbon emissions of the project, but isn't allowed as a specific tradeoff against other areas where it is not practicable to meet the DTS provisions. The project might have a 300mm rammed earth wall that has high thermal mass but not a high enough R-value to satisfy the DTS provisions of BCA 3.12.1. In this instance it would be great to be able to avoid the need to add an internal wall lining and insulation (which would also deactivate the thermal mass surface of the wall) by adding a substantial Solar PV system which is over and above the requirements of the BCA.