California’s New Green Building Code

January 24th, 2011

California has been leading in the areas of energy efficiency, energy conservation and environmental protection. Striving to implement improved codes and standards in support of this effort, the state approved a new eco-friendly green building code in 2010. The so-called “CALGreen” is the first state-adopted green code; it will go into effect this month.

Together with changes proposed by other organizations, an increase of up to 30 percent in efficiency is expected for commercial buildings – a major improvement when compared to today’s standards. The new building regulations and standards are part of the green movement that encourages recycling of building materials and waste, water conservation, and a reduction in greenhouse-gas emissions.


CALGreen regulations effective on January 1, 2011, require all projects submitted on or after that date to comply with the new codes. In addition many municipalities are planning to or already have implemented local amendments to this new code.

What Are Some Of The Code Changes?

The new green building code prescribes eco-friendly requirements for newly constructed buildings. The code itself is divided into three parts with mandatory measures that all projects must comply with and voluntary measures, that are grouped into two tiers. In addition to the mandatory measures, local jurisdictions can adopt these voluntary measures to make their local codes more or less stringent.

CALGreen regulations set forth

  • Builders to install plumbing that cuts indoor water use by as much as 20 percent
    (CALGreen Section: 5.303.4 Wastewater reduction)
  • To divert 50 percent of non-hazardous construction waste from landfills to recycling
    (CALGreen Section: 5.408.3 Construction waste reduction)
  • To use low-pollutant paints, carpets, and floors
    (CALGreen Section: 5.504.4 Finish material pollutant control)
  • Mandating inspection of energy systems in non-residential buildings over 10,000 square feet to ensure that heaters, air conditioners, and other mechanical equipment are working at maximum efficiency
  • Mandating installation of water meters for different uses in non-residential buildings
  • Allowing local jurisdictions to retain stricter green building standards, either already existing ones or in adopting stricter versions of the state code

CALGreen versus LEED

The California green building code seems to directly compete with the standards defined in LEED, (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, published by the nonprofit U.S. Green Building Council, USGBC). Not necessarily, some argue that the difference between “CALGreen” and “LEED” is that the latter is a rating system to assess the eco-performance of a building, whereas the Green Building Code of California is a mandatory standard that new buildings will have to comply to.

However, there will be a “CALGreen” label available that certifies compliance to CALGreen code, as there will be the well-known LEED labels (basic, silver, gold, platinum). Environmentalists have opposed the CALGreen label as it may compete against the stricter LEED standards, which they expect to cause confusion in the market.

In fact several organizations including the Sierra Club, the Natural Resources Defense Council and Global Green, the Green Building Council have called the adoption of the new codes “a setback for California’s leadership on green building.” Yet they agree that the new codes’ mandatory rules represent a baseline minimum standard.

The New Path Of Green Codes

California’s green building code, CALGreen, has been modeled after the International Green Construction Code (IGCC), which was published in 2010 by the ICC (International Code Council). The IGCC was developed through a collaboration of ICC, USGBC, and ASHRAE (American Society of Heating Refrigeration and Air-Conditioning Engineers). All three groups consider LEED levels to go above and beyond in many cases what the IGCC is prescribing, and therefore they do not see any conflicts.

Without a doubt, the new green building codes may impose additional burdens and requirements on building owners, which are not currently imposed. In particular the adoption of new eco-friendly technology, such as solar panels, wind turbines, industrial fuel cells to enable energy independence, batteries used to store energy from renewable energy sources, application and use of gray water, energy efficient air conditioning systems, and others will certainly impact fire codes and present potential for additional burdens to property owners.

But like in any emerging field of building design and construction, engineers, architects, regulators, and building owners will work together to further performances with respect to economic efficiencies, environmental protection and public safety. The International Code Council (ICC) has already released Public Version 2.0 of the International Green Construction Code (IGCC). The document is available as a free download at

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