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Solar News

Efficiency Standards in Building Codes: Does San Francisco Show What the Future Holds


July 30, 2009
By: Daniel Maysick

The fastest way to improve our nation's energy needs is to improve the efficiency of our buildings. By far and large the structures we occupy throughout the country consume the largest percentage of our resources. Perhaps this is why the recent American Clean Energy and Security Act (H.R. 2454) includes a major provision requiring higher efficiencies in new building construction.

The bill narrowly made it out of the House and it still has to win Senate approval and pass by the desk of President Obama before becoming law. If it passes all of the above, new buildings will be 30 percent more efficient in 2012 and increase to 75 percent more efficient by 2029.

Undoubtedly, though, this bill will be buried in the works for awhile. Most of the focus in Congress is concerned with passage of Health Care reform.

Controversy arose early with claims the improved efficiency requirements were going to be mandated to bring older structures up to the new standards. Homes for sale were going to have to be certified and meet these standards. However, this is not true and existing homes are not required to update. refuted the claims made by Rush Limbaugh and Rep. Boehner, who were among the first to state the false claims.  Follow the link for a detailed timeline of the claims made and their errors.   

Organizations and corporations are split with their support. Organizations such as Green Peace objected to the bill and industry organizations such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce opposed the plan while individual corporations such as Ford support the bill. A tougher fight is sure to loom ahead when the Senate begins addressing the climate bill.

While no national law has been put into place, it is important to follow up on local building ordinances and local laws. Some cities and states are pursuing mandates requiring existing businesses and homes to become more energy efficient. Over the past year, San Francisco has passed legislation keeping it among the greenest cities in the country. In August 2008 the San Francisco Chronicle carried the new plans aimed at saving a variety of resources.

"The new codes focus on water and energy conservation, recycling and reduction of carbon emissions. They apply to most buildings in the city, including residential projects of all sizes, new commercial buildings over a certain size, and renovations of large commercial spaces.

"The new codes are to be phased in by 2012. Projects will be evaluated on a point system with credit given for materials used in the building, the location of the building site and water and energy efficiencies.

"Large residential and commercial buildings will be evaluated under the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) rating system. Medium and small residential construction will use the GreenPoint rating system, which is less stringent."

Then this summer the mayor talked about applying some of the same LEED requirements to existing buildings. The San Francisco Examiner mentioned the mayor's pledge to tighten rules for older structures and how he was going to provide funding for these initiatives.

"San Francisco already has some of the strictest environmental building codes in the nation. Legislation passed in 2008 requires most new commercial buildings to be certified by Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design standards created by the U.S. Green Building Council.

"Newsom has already pledged to tighten those rules to apply to existing buildings. This latest green idea may provide a way to finance improvements that could soon become mandatory."

The mayor's plan will have the city pay for the initial costs and allow the property owners to repay the costs through property taxes. This plan is similar to a plan pioneered in nearby Berkeley, California.

Ideally this is a situation to watch. It is a tremendous effort to bring modern standards to older structures. Pay attention to the success and trials that are occurring in San Francisco. It could be a prelude to the future.