What is the code for sustainable homes?

If you're building a green home, it's hard to know where to even start when it comes to codes. See more home construction pictures.
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While there are classes in English as a Second Language and Spanish as a Second Language, there may as well be courses in Building Codes as a Second Language, especially when it comes to sustainable homes. If you're building a green home it's hard to know where to even start when it comes to codes. That's because there are no general guidelines that are widely accepted across the country. And just like standard building codes, the codes are based on the regions where the building occurs.

Full-scale efforts are underway to bring sustainable building codes and practices within national and even international standards, but with planned projects undergoing discussions, amendments and revisions, time will tell how much in the area of green building will become mandatory. Local and regional green initiatives are moving forward throughout the United States and the world, but in the history of green building, it has taken a lot of innovation and more than a little persuasion to push things through the proper channels -- the code inspectors and zoning authorities.

Many green methods and materials are specific to climates and environmental conditions, so even though it would be easier to reach for a single volume to access building requirements, building green often means building in context, and widespread efforts may only go so far, but will eventually be a welcome addition -- rather than a restriction -- to local building practices. Ideally, a common sustainable code might just speed developments because the "rules" won't have to be as subjective or tweaked from traditional building code rules. They will be specific to green materials and methods, increasing safety and broadening usage of successful tools and tips in the trades.

In sifting through the rules and costs and options for sustainable home building, it sounds appealing to walk into a bookstore and ask for "The Code," but there isn't one.

So how can we meet codes for sustainable homes? Let's look at some big moves in the green direction and then narrow them down.

 

LEED and California's Lead

Codes and standards for design and construction are nothing new, and for many decades builders have "worked to code" depending on the location of the project. States and even regions within states have the power to choose which codes will govern projects, so there is a lot of variety from coast to coast. In green building, this has led to a lot of creativity in getting green innovations up to code when the methods and materials aren't even included in traditional standards and code books.

LEED, Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, developed by the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC), is a system for certifying projects that meet high standards in green building and design. Projects focus on "energy savings, water efficiency, CO2 emissions reduction, improved indoor environmental quality, and stewardship of resources and sensitivity to their impacts" [source: USGBC]. Both residential and commercial buildings, as well as entire communities, are eligible for LEED certification, and even building professionals can become LEED certified in their areas of specialization. A stringent review process takes place, and there are fees for applying for certification, but a LEED certificate carries international prestige and recognition in the green arena. A home doesn't have to be LEED certified to be green, but many LEED practices and its high standards set the bar for how far a home can go in the right direction.

California leads the way at the state level with its 2010 California Green Building Standards (CALGreen) Code. With guidelines for applying green building practices, the code applies to all residential and commercial projects from January 2011 onward. As it takes the lead, other states across the nation and other regions of the world can learn by keeping up with building reports from California. With customized codes for the climate and high rate of seismic events, not all specifications will fit all locales, but as a basis for developing similar initiatives, CALGreen is the first of its kind.

International Green

There has been a lot of buzz and controversy surrounding green codes, and with good reason. In more than 40 years of contemporary green construction, green architects, builders and engineers have had few resources for making sure their projects were within code. Many sustainable materials and techniques were out of the books, and property owners and contractors relied on getting through the zoning and building process with understanding on the part of building officials. As time passed, many regions of the United States developed their own councils and plans to speed the green building industry, and their grassroots efforts and local documentations have been very successful.

As the International Green Construction Code (IGCC) is pending revisions and approval in 2011, with planned publication by the International Code Council in 2012, it isn't clear yet which states will adopt the new green rules as mandatory for commercial as well as residential building. Commercial guidelines may roll out as mandatory, but whether the residential portions will be required or optional is uncertain.

If you're looking to build a sustainable home, before entering the maze of code-speak, look into your city, county and state building councils and see what building codes are currently in use. Librarians, college architecture programs and the American Institute of Architects (AIA) directories may be helpful in finding these resources and in taking the next step in locating a certified green building professional. Most builders can find their way around the current baseline local codes, but a specialist in green building will know how to work with what isn't in the codes for green construction.

No more code talk, but more green reads, on the next page.

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Sources

  • City of Boulder, Colorado. "Green Building and Green Points Program." 2010. (Dec. 28, 2010)http://www.bouldercolorado.gov/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=208&Itemid=489
  • City of New York. "NYC Buildings: Sustainability." NYC.gov. 2010. (Dec. 29, 2010)http://www.nyc.gov/html/dob/html/sustainability/sustainability_advisory_board.shtml
  • International Code Council (ICC). "International Green Construction Code, IGCC." 2010. (Dec. 16, 2010)http://www.iccsafe.org/cs/igcc/pages/default.aspx
  • International Code Council and California Building Standards Commission. "2008 California Green Building Standards Code." 2008. (Dec. 16, 2010)
  • Miller, George H. "International Green Construction Code: Game-Changer in Sustainable Building." Reuters. Nov. 23, 2010. (Dec. 16, 2010)http://in.reuters.com/article/idIN183522711520101122
  • National Multi-Housing Council (NMHC). "ICC Green Construction Code." 2009. (Dec. 28, 2010)http://www.thegbi.org/residential/
  • U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. "Region 9: Building and Energy Codes." June 30, 2010. (Dec. 28, 2010)http://www.epa.gov/region9/greenbuilding/building-codes.html
  • U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC). "Intro: What LEED Is?" USGBC.org. 2010. (Dec. 28, 2010)http://www.usgbc.org/DisplayPage.aspx?CMSPageID=1988
  • Wines, James. "Green Architecture." Encyclopaedia Britannica Online. 2008. (Dec. 27, 2010)http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/1008921/green-architecture/280724/Principles-of-building-green