As the year 2030 approaches, the target for many countries, states, and cities to cut their greenhouse gas emissions, the term “sustainability” is evolving from being a popular catchphrase to an immediate call for action. Among the various sectors, commercial real estate stands as a priority in this movement, emphasizing the need for decarbonization.
Building codes are a tricky subject to write about since they can vary wildly from one jurisdiction to another. After all, they are designed to address the specific needs and conditions of the community in which they are enforced, so they are often at the mercy of the building techniques, economic factors, and political attitudes of the area. They can vary wildly from one state to another. When it comes to adopting green building codes, some areas may be gung-ho, while other areas may be resistant to government regulation and may view green building codes as an infringement on property rights and individual freedoms.
But when it comes to green building regulations, local codes can create a ripple effect that leads to national change. This has been demonstrated in the past, where local initiatives on issues such as minimum wage increases or plastic bag bans have eventually led to national policy changes. As more cities and counties adopt green building codes, the pressure on national policymakers to follow suit increases. And three cities are out to set such an example:
The city of Boston is implementing some dramatic green building codes, and it’s easy to see why when you look at the carbon stats. Seventy percent of Boston’s greenhouse gas emissions come from its building sector, making it the single largest individual contributor for the city. It’s safe to say that the city has a lot of work to meet their 2030 decarbonization goals, but a hefty ordinance signed by Boston Mayor Michelle Wu last month that discourages the use of fossil fuels in new construction projects should help.
Under the ordinance, buildings that rely on the use of fossil fuels must install on-site solar panels and additional wiring for eventual conversion to an all-electric system. Developers and other builders will have eight months to get proposed projects approved and into construction if they wish to continue operating under the previous energy code after the new rules take effect on January 1 of next year.
Wu’s ordinance comes after Massachusetts lawmakers adopted a pilot program which bans fossil fuels from most new construction projects for the expressed purpose of reducing greenhouse gas emissions from the building sector. The program, which is included in the state’s energy law, allows 10 cities and towns in the state to fully prohibit fossil fuels from new construction and major renovations as long as each community first meets the 10 percent affordable housing target set by state law and also exempts life sciences labs and health care facilities from the all-electric requirements. This means that buildings constructed or renovated under this program would be powered solely by electricity from renewable sources, such as solar or wind power, instead of using fossil fuels like oil or natural gas for heating or electricity generation.
Kansas City, Missouri
Unlike Boston, Kansas City is not able to outright ban fossil fuels in most buildings thanks to the state legislature’s passage of Bill HB734 in 2021 (which is basically a preemption law that prohibits cities and municipalities from removing access to a utility service based on the type of energy it provides). That’s not the only decarbonization hurdle the city faces. When it comes to passing energy efficiency legislation in Kansas, it’s truly a challenge thanks to a variety of factors. One of the primary challenges is the state’s strong ties to the fossil fuel industry, which has a significant influence on the state’s politics and economy. The state also has a conservative political climate, with many lawmakers and residents skeptical of government regulation and intervention in the free market. Additionally, the state’s relatively low energy costs have led some to believe that energy efficiency measures are not necessary, despite evidence that such measures can lead to long-term cost savings and environmental benefits. These factors, among others, have made it difficult to build political will for energy efficiency legislation in Kansas.
Even so, Kansas City is making strides to adjust their building codes in order to tamp down on emissions, and those changes will be in effect later this summer. Starting July 1, building codes in Kansas City will be updated to reflect the International Energy Conservation Code (IECC). The changes include progress in building insulation, electric vehicle-readiness, and flexibility in design and construction.
The Kansas City website states that all of these changes are aimed at improving efficiency by 9.4 percent and reducing greenhouse gasses by 8.7 percent over the 2018 IECC. As of now, Kansas City currently uses the IECC code from 2012, which doesn’t sound like that much of a difference until you find out that the IECC code gets reviewed and updated every three years (the latest version was updated in 2021, which is effectively 9 percent more efficient than 2018 code). Still, the 2018 IECC has far more stringent energy efficiency requirements compared to the 2012 IECC, and an ordinance fact sheet from last summer suggests that the council intends to update to the 2018 IECC with the intention of bringing Kansas City to the 2021 IECC. Hopefully it won’t take the city another half-decade to do so, but hey, progress is progress right?
Just like Kansas City’s green building code, Scottsdale’s new codes will also take effect on July 1. At the end of last year, Scottsdale City Council adopted the 2021 suite of building codes, which includes the International Green Construction Code (IGCC) as a mandatory code, effective from July 1, 2023. Until then, the 2015 IgCC will remain mandatory where specified as part of the planning approval process for zoning bonuses, including floor area, building height, and density. The IgCC addresses various issues, making it easier for developers of commercial and multi-family projects to be green designated.
The code addresses issues such as the mitigation of heat island effect by incorporating site shading and low-emitting hardscape surfaces. The IGCC also covers transportation impact mitigation, including electric vehicle charging capacity, biodiversity with certified lumber for building projects that use wood framing, sheathing, and flooring. It also promotes construction waste reduction by diverting waste from the landfill and occupant waste reduction with multifamily recycling chutes, dwelling unit kitchen pull-out recycling/trash bins, and recycling containers in mailrooms and clubhouse kitchenette areas.
Furthermore, the code focuses on reduced energy consumption/greenhouse gases through energy-efficient building envelopes, mechanical systems, lighting, and renewable energy. It also includes measures to improve indoor air quality with low-VOC interior paints, coatings, adhesives, sealants, and flooring, as well as enhanced indoor environmental quality with minimum daylighting measures based on use and occupancy. Lastly, building commissioning with verification and documentation of the installation, testing, and operation of building systems in accordance with the basis of design and project requirements is also covered under the IGCC.
Architect Florian Idenburg once said, “Good buildings are important for a good society.” The green building movement builds on this idea, suggesting it’s key to creating sustainable, beneficial environments. The real estate industry’s efforts to reduce carbon emissions positions green practices as a necessary response. Practices like energy reduction and sustainable design promise benefits beyond environmental health. As more professionals back these initiatives, the future seems to lean towards making “good” buildings standard.