What to Know About Green Building

Environmentally sensitive home designs and construction methods have been valued for generations. My own father considered naming his fledgling construction company Here Comes the Sun in hopes of focusing on solar energy back in 1977. But the degree to which local jurisdictions are incorporating these principles into code is a new phenomenon, and the specific requirements are continuing to adapt and improve with the passage of time.

Energy and green building codes exist, to varying degrees, in every U.S. building jurisdiction. Just as the main purpose of traditional building code is to ensure homeowner safety, green building and energy codes protect and nourish our environment and the world we share together. Here’s what to know about these codes and why we have them.

What to Know About Green Building

The Purpose of Green Building Codes

Green building codes reduce negative environmental impacts and encourage sustainable construction practices in our communities. In doing so they improve public health, safety and general welfare. If your project requires a permit, it will need to adhere to the standards adopted by your community. These requirements will be understood by your design and building professionals, or can be explained to you by inspectors and plan checkers during the submittal process.


Green Building Code Overview

Green building codes set minimum standards for water consumption, air quality, toxicity of materials, building efficiency, general waste reduction and stormwater management related to your project. Here in highly populated California, residents face droughts, smog, flooding and water pollution issues. These issues are shared by communities throughout the world. As our communities grow, these ever-evolving codes ensure the sustainability of that growth.


Water Conservation

Water conservation measures include specific requirements for landscape designs and plumbing fixtures. In the landscape shown here, synthetic grass creates a lush green surface with zero water usage. Note how the flagstones are cut into the path, helping give the turf a natural and organic appearance. Some homeowner’s associations prohibit artificial turf. I used to roll my eyes at synthetic grass installations myself. But that sort of policy is difficult to justify today, with falling water tables, droughts and the improved look and durability of synthetic turf options.

An assortment of landscape requirements might be required for your project. Rain sensors connected to landscape irrigation in order to automatically shut off sprinklers in case of rain are a standard guideline. Plant selections prioritizing native plants, and square footage parameters for the landscaping area, are also usually regulated in some manner. These rules might feel restrictive at times, but jurisdictions must find ways to serve the water needs of growing populations while the water supply is stagnant, or in some cases, diminishing.


Stormwater Management

Stormwater management lessens pollution and flooding dangers in our communities. In the area seen here, pervious pavers assist with runoff. Surfaces that are impervious, such as concrete patios, driveways and roofs, direct water to storm drains almost immediately, in contrast with natural landscapes, which typically serve as filtering sponges, absorbing much of the runoff and filtering the water before it joins streams and tributaries.

You might be affected by rules regulating the percentage of your property area that can utilize impervious surfaces as well as by requirements that water draining from those surfaces must be treated (naturally filtered) before being released to your community storm drain system.

In Finding Nemo, everyone’s favorite little clownfish reminds us that all drains lead to the ocean. Here in Northern California, our runoff hits the San Francisco Bay first, and the effects on our bay’s ecosystem from the poor stormwater management of past generations are well documented. Today we know better, and new stormwater management requirements exist to protect natural habitats. This is not only for the sake of those habitats but for the children who will rely on those habitats in the future.


Environmental Impact

Green building requirements regulate an assortment of potentially negative environmental impacts. The architect of the home in the photo shown here did a beautiful job of minimizing the home’s physical interaction with its natural sloping habitat. Rarely would a unique, thoughtful design like this be required, but there are circumstances in which it could be. Heritage trees and groves are sometimes protected by jurisdictions, and you can see how this minimized foundation alleviates a potentially devastating impact on the oak’s sensitive root structure.

You will have no choice but to follow some requirements, such as those related to the early demolition stages of a project. Any existing, potentially hazardous materials will need to be tested and mitigated. Specific conditions regulate air quality for workers, neighbors and future inhabitants. These relate to bath-fan air movement requirements, fireplace EPA ratings, heating and cooling system design rules, and regulations for various material characteristics (such as paint and carpet) commonly used throughout a home.

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