I recently got links posted on this blog for websites containing residential green building standards required by various governmental entities. I have found two ways that governments go about requiring green building standards. One is by passing ordinances that require certain standards like the minimum R-value on pipe insulation or energy star rated appliances (Santa Monica, CA). Another is by implementing a full green building code where each green standard is giving a point value and each new home is rated according to how many points it scored. The higher the rating, the more green the house. (Santa Fe, New Mexico)
I prefer the second model because of its greater flexibility. The codes are divided into sections like site design, materials waste reduction, indoor air quality, water use, etc. Each standard within each section is weighted so that those that conserve more energy or water or materials, receive more points. There is a minimum requirement that must be met in each section. So, you may have a very energy efficient home but if it is not water conserving as well, you are not given a high rating.
I’m not keen on the creation of ordinances as the primary regulator of green building because the laws seem too specific about what kind of materials or techniques are required and stifles creativity. There is no reward and possibly, no provision, for going beyond the requirement. This discourages experimentation with new technologies and innovative natural building techniques that meet the spirit but not the requirements of the ordinance. For instance, if there is a requirement for a certain R-value of insulation, a yurt using reflective heat may not be approved even though it may be as energy efficient as a home of similar size with traditional insulation. Also, if a rating system becomes obsolete, for instance ordinances that require energy star rated appliances, it takes a change of law to get that updated. Furthermore, ordinances seem to run on a punitive system. If you don’t comply, you are penalized. Fear of negative consequences is a creativity buster. One is compelled to recreate what has been proven to be safely within the ordinance as to decrease the possibilities of hassles. Going beyond the required minimum requirements risks inadvertently triggering penalties. Conversely, the point rated system gives many choices on how to design a sustainable home and opens up an array of possibilities. The motivation then is to incorporate as many as possible to maximize the rating.
What I do like is regulations that require specific outcomes rather than material standards. For instance, Santa Fe green code states as a standard to “create an efficient home floor plan smaller than the national average”. This leaves flexibility in the design and, by offering a significant point value if incorporated, encourages people to build small.
Here in Madison County, I’d like to see a point rated, green building code that rewards developers for achieving higher ratings. Perhaps they would get exemptions from particular regulations. Of course, I am biased in this because our intentional community would like to be exempt from subdivision regulations that require fire hydrants, street lamps, sidewalks and 20 foot wide, paved streets.These requirements run counter to our sustainability goals to minimize land disturbance and storm water run off, protect and restore natural habitats, and minimize light pollution. We’d like to expand the idea of what health, safety and comfort for a community can include and to reward those who are not merely trying to avoid the negative consequences of violating codes but are invested in improving our community’s quality of life.