Washington DC’s new Green Construction Codes have been held up as a leading example of why DC is considered one of the most sustainable cities in the country.

With the addition of the new green building codes to the existing Green Building Act (GBA), the city’s storm water regulations and required IgCC Energy Codes compliance, DC has set a high bar for building owners and developers not only in DC, but everywhere.

For the development community, this shift towards sustainability is a welcome change as it reflects market trends and helps formalize what industry leaders have been championing. However, as the list of various regulations suggest, there is a lot of confusion about what the DC Green Codes really mean for new projects. The perception of added red tape and lack of clarity is one of the major hurdles to the wholehearted acceptance of the codes.

In order to mitigate this misconception, we must first understand why we should care about the Green Codes, how it may impact different players in the development industry and how to understand the codes.

In a series of blog posts, I’ll delve into the implications of DC’s Green Codes for all developers. In this post, I’ll discuss why green building codes are an important driver of high performance building.

Benefits of Green Building Codes

The DC Green Codes are not only among the most stringent in terms of sustainability requirements, but also among the most comprehensive codes in the country. Developers in DC are going to be affected, whatever the type of building they build, whatever the size and whichever zone they fall under.

Codes have historically been instrumental in driving energy performance. This infographic shows how energy codes have made homes more efficient. These benefits can also apply to other building types.

Taking energy as one parameter, how a building is designed and built has a major impact on its overall energy consumption. A significant portion of a building’s energy usage is decided during design and construction, through factors like building orientation, material choices, HVAC systems, lighting and energy control technologies. Thus, when governments are implementing regulations for building design they need to include standards for energy consumption in order to achieve maximum impact for a building’s sustainability.

The DC Green Building Act, which was first passed in 2006 and went fully into effect in 2012, used existing green standards and codes (such as LEED) as the baseline for compliance. Over this period of time, the kinks were worked out and stakeholders were engaged to ensure that everyone affected by the GBA understood the requirements as well as the consequences for failing to follow them.

Over this period, DC studied changes in its properties and related emissions. Nonresidential properties, the largest producers of carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide, reduced their output by one million tons, or 16.5 percent, in five years. Residential-related emissions are down nine percent, transit by 14.5 percent and federal properties 18.2 percent, according to DDOE’s 2011 greenhouse gas emission’s inventory.

With the new codes, D.C. officials expect additional emissions reductions and as much as a 30 percent energy-use reduction per building project.

Engaging Developers to Comply

Green building codes make buildings more efficient, but these codes are only as good as they are understood, applied and enforced. While some building departments have the resources in-house, many defer to a third party to enforce compliance.

In DC, officials have tried to make the code as accessible as possible, moving away from the single compliance path to providing many options based on what fits the developers’ needs. The Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs (DCRA), which manages the Green Codes, has offered guidance including technical sessions and green building design review sessions where developers receive pre-emptive guidance on how to navigate the codes as well as design reviews specific to their project.

However, many developers have chosen to follow tried-and-tested ways of achieving sustainability certifications such as LEED instead of using the DCRA compliance path to meet the DC Green Codes requirements.

It remains to be seen how the resources offered by the DC government meet developers’ needs and timelines. The use of third party review organizations has also been discussed to help this process along.

The private sector community has played a significant role in the development of the codes, and needs to continue its involvement to make the codes more navigable and raise the bar to achieve even higher levels of sustainable design and development.

In our next post, we will outline exactly what the new green codes means to different development projects and how to be in compliance.

Divya Natarajan is Associate Consultant, LEED® AP ID+C

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