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Green Building Update

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Green ConstructionConvincing every city in Santa Clara County to adopt green building standards turned out to be easy. But agreement on how to ensure a green building is indeed green and not just “green-ish” is proving tough.

“It’s a much more difficult question,” said Shiloh Ballard, who, on behalf of the Silicon Valley Leadership Group, shepherded the two-year effort alongside the Santa Clara County Cities Association. “How do you determine whether an applicant has met green building requirements?”

The guidelines adopted by all 15 cities do not mandate green building standards, but they do set the process in motion by requiring all municipal buildings to achieve Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, or LEED, standards. For commercial buildings there are LEED guidelines for commercial buildings and builders are required to fill out “green” checklists to become educated about the process.

Green building is not a hard sell in the environmentally conscious Bay Area. But another reason to adopt the same set of standards countywide is that it’s better for builders if all cities follow the same consistent guidelines.

“We hear that having different flavors of green standards is not helpful,” said Joe Horwedel, head of San Jose’s Planning Department. “We adopted LEED for commercial and Build It Green criteria for residential and decided not to come up with our own San Jose standards.”

Whereas policymakers are comfortable with the idea of adopting green building standards, they are wary of pushing the building industry too far. As Ballard pointed out, there is a “lot of trepidation” on the part of builders.

“The entitlement process is already complicated enough,” she said. “Now we’re overlaying another set of rules that staff is not necessarily trained to do. We advocated that cities be flexible and understanding.”

Verification controversy

Many, but not all, cities support independent verification of a structure’s green building features.

Breene Kerr, a Los Altos Hills councilman and environmental consultant, has created a Web site featuring a central database illustrating each city’s requirements. As a green point rater, certified by Build It Green, he’s a believer in third-party verification.

“I object to watering down (the requirements) and letting the homeowner or builder check it off,” Kerr said.

Yet those who support submitting certification to the U. S. Green Building Council, which created the LEED guidelines, know it can take months for the council to process the documents and issue the coveted certificate. The backlog is reportedly into the thousands. That plays havoc if a city decides to require LEED certification before issuing an occupancy permit.

“There is tension between different folks,” Ballard said.

But if cities decide their planning departments must verify, they must have the resources to train staff, tough during an era of extreme budget cuts. Horwedel said he still has some funds for training, but recently lost half of his environmentally trained staff during three rounds of layoffs this year.

The third option — allowing builders to check a list — was dismissed by Ballard as akin to “the fox guarding the henhouse.”

Carrot over stick

Tony Mirenda, president of TBI Construction Inc., said he believes builders would be more likely to support incentives to build green than they would mandates. He supports requiring a minimum level of green features, but to encourage builders to aim higher, offer a carrot, he said.

“It is very interesting to see that nearly all of the cities offer no sort of incentive,” he said in an e-mail.

Ballard agrees that such suggestions are worth exploring, adding that now that everyone is moving in the “same direction,” it’s time to “raise the bar.”

In the meantime, she is working to expand the project to all cities in San Mateo County and eventually to the entire Bay Area. Yet she is realistic about the actual impact of everyone’s efforts given the fact that building is currently at a standstill.

“Even if all the cities adopt (the next phase) tomorrow — that’s great, but there’s very little to evaluate,” she said. “There’s not a whole lot of building going on.”

Green building by the numbers:

• 40 percent: Amount of all carbon dioxide emissions in the country from buildings, according to the Environmental Protection Agency

• 2 percent: Extra cost to builders to incorporate environmental standards, or about $3 to $5 a square foot

• 20 percent: Amount saved in operating costs over the life cycle of the building

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