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Seeing Red Over Green Buildings in Washington

Washington D.C. could take “green building” mandates to new levels under a proposal that the District is considering. If approved, any new construction or renovation involving 20,000 sq. ft. or more would have to meet green-building energy-efficiency standards, posing added construction costs for developers and landlords alike.

Green-building ordinances are nothing new – at least 43 cities and 14 states have adopted measures to encourage energy efficiency and use of environmentally-friendly materials and construction methods, according to the U.S. Green Building Council. What is new about the District of Columbia’s Green Building Act--and worrisome to some developers-- is that the plan extends green building requirements to non-government projects.

As currently proposed, even refinishing the interior of a 20,000 sq. ft. space in an aging office building would require compliance with the latest green building standards, potentially involving the replacement of heating and cooling ventilation systems, hot water systems and other high-dollar items.

Nearly all green-building measures in place now are limited either to government-owned buildings, or offer incentives such as waived or reduced permitting fees to encourage commercial developers to meet standards for Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design (LEED) ratings on new properties. The Green Building Council maintains the LEED Green Building Rating System, which enables building projects to earn credits for meeting specified green building criteria. Based on credits, projects can earn Certified, Silver, Gold, or Platinum LEED Awards.

Applying the standards so broadly and extending them to renovation—in a city where developers are doing a huge business in conversion as well as new construction—could have widespread effects. “When you’re dealing with a renovation, or even the development of an interior space, those standards made no sense,” says David Briggs, an attorney in the land-use and government practice group of Holland & Knight in Washington. Briggs serves on a working group that is attempting to convince District leaders to adjust provisions of the bill.

Another alarming feature of the bill, say some developers, is that it would use the District’s own inspectors to ensure compliance with the new rules, rather than deferring to the existing LEED system.

“Bill 16-515 reaches well beyond the practice of other green jurisdictions by establishing a green building compliance officer for pre-permitting plan reviews and on-site inspections, with threats of stop-work orders and certificates of occupancy denials,” developer Robert Braunohler told members of the District’s Committee on Consumer and Regulatory Affairs during a hearing Feb. 10. Braunohler is regional vice president of Louis Dreyfus Property Group and spoke on behalf of the District of Columbia Building Industry Association.

Dozens of other speakers at the hearing joined Braunohler in praising the council’s intentions with the proposal, but most called for refinement of the bill to avoid stifling renovations and development. Several suggested that incentives would encourage energy-efficient construction more effectively than a mandatory compliance program.

Implementation of the District of Columbia’s green building policy is on hold while a working group formed by the Committee on Consumer and Regulatory Affairs tries to fine tune the bill’s requirements, enforcement language and incentives program.

While Washington is trying to push the envelope, other cities have already adopted more aggressive green building codes. Late last year, the city council in Pasadena, Calif., adopted an ordinance requiring all new commercial and residential construction to meet at least the minimum LEED level of certification. Cities that have adopted similar measures include Normal, Ill., and Calabasas and Pleasanton, Calif. The legislation is driven both by environmentalism and the prospect that, without conservation, power grids will not be able to keep up with growth.

“Today’s rising energy costs and the alarming rate at which we’re depleting our energy reserves make green building especially relevant,” says Rick Fedrizzi, President, CEO and founding chair of the U.S. Green Building Council. “Buildings consume 40% of the available energy in the United States. We have the power, and the responsibility, to reduce our energy consumption through high-performance green building.”

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