By Sean Howell
Homeowners, contractors, developers and environmentalists, take note: Mountain View's building code is about to get a bit more "green."
The city plans to amend sections of the already adopted California Green Building Code that apply to new construction, residential additions and non-residential tenant improvements, following a split (5-2) vote of the City Council at its March 22 meeting. City management and the council members who support the amended code say it's a middle-of-the-road approach that will chip away at the city's electricity and water use without harming business, putting the city in line with the rest of Santa Clara County when it comes to regulating energy efficiency in buildings.
The amended code must be approved by the state before becoming law. It mandates stricter standards than the state currently requires in water and electricity use in any new building (including home construction), home additions of at least 1,000 square feet, and major tenant improvements in commercial and industrial buildings.
The code would also require that new large residential, commercial and industrial buildings meet certain standards laid out by one of two companies that rate energy efficiency in buildings. The highest bar would apply to new commercial and industrial buildings of greater than 25,000 square feet, which would be required to meet the Silver standard on the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) scale.
Too strict? Not enough?
The city will not, however, require developers to complete the costly certification process to ensure that buildings do in fact meet those standards. Rather, developers will be required to "meet the intent" of the rating systems.
City management argued that requiring certification would put too much of a burden on developers. Some members of an advisory group that helped the city draft the amended code, however, worried that allowing developers to forego certification would make it easier for them to cut corners, or ignore the new requirements.
"My concern is that the language is a little bit wishy-washy," said John Eckstein, a professional rater of energy efficiency in buildings who served on the city's advisory group.
Council member Laura Macias said she'd rather see the city require certification than not. But she voted in favor of the amended code anyway, saying she hopes the city will beef it up later.
"As Americans, as Mountain View residents, we continue to need to waste less and conserve our resources more, and this is one small step," she said.
In dissenting, Councilmen John Inks and Tom Means said they fear the city doesn't have a good grasp on how effective the amended code would be, or on how it would affect developers and businesses.
"I don't see how having a lot more paperwork is really being green," Councilman Inks said. "At this point, it's just kind of hard to endorse 25 pages of building code amendments that I don't completely understand or know the real impact (of)."
Councilman Means said he's not convinced that certain techniques aimed at reducing energy and water consumption are as effective as people think they are. Though the new city code doesn't mandate any technique in particular, Means argued that the code isn't "flexible" enough.
"The individuals that are more equipped to make these decisions are those that are actually doing the building, and those that are actually doing the remodeling," he said. Leave it up to the economy to drive down energy and water consumption, he said.
The city discussed the proposed amendments to the code with contractors and developers, and didn't get any complaints, according to city management.
Mayor Jac Siegel acknowledged that the new code isn't perfect, but said he's happy that Mountain View is taking part in the worldwide effort to curb greenhouse gas emissions.
"Do we have all the answers? No," he said. "But if you wait 'til you have all the answers to do something, you'll never get there. You have to start somewhere."
Cost of complying
How much more expensive will it be for developers to comply with the stricter building code? City management applied the code to two sample development projects, a large office building and a large condominium, and determined that construction costs for both buildings would be about 1 percent higher under the amended code than under the regulations currently in place.
On most projects, developers would recoup those costs within 15 years in the form of energy and water savings, according to city management. For developers of small retail and mid-sized office buildings, it'd take a bit longer.
Fifteen years is too long, Inks said: "For most people in business, the paybacks are much shorter than that."