Environmental groups try to block parts of California’s green building code

Environmental groups are mounting a last-ditch effort to derail key elements of the state’s first-in-the-nation green building code -- a major initiative of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s administration.

The proposed code, likely to be adopted Tuesday, would slash water use, mandate the recycling of construction waste, cut back on polluting materials and step up enforcement of energy efficiency in new homes, schools, hospitals and commercial buildings statewide.

“It is going to change the whole fabric of how buildings are built by integrating green practices into our everyday building code,” said David Walls, executive director of the California Building Standards Commission. “The rest of the nation will be looking at what we have done.”

But critics say the rules fall short of rigorous standards adopted by Los Angeles, San Francisco and more than 50 California jurisdictions in league with the U.S. Green Building Council, a national nonprofit group of architects, engineers and construction companies.

The council’s voluntary Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design standards have become an industry norm in recent years, with architects and construction firms competing on four levels -- LEED basic, silver, gold or platinum -- to market their buildings as green.

In 2004, Schwarzenegger ordered that all new state buildings meet at least a LEED silver level.

But parts of the state’s new code, which would take effect in January 2011, would amount to “a setback for California’s leadership on green building,” according to a Dec. 22 letter from six groups. They included the Sierra Club, the Natural Resources Defense Council and Global Green, along with two nonprofit certification groups, the Green Building Council and Berkeley-based Build It Green.

The groups largely applaud the code’s mandatory rules as a baseline minimum standard.

But they take issue with its two-tier labeling system for stricter voluntary measures, CalGreen, saying it would be open to conflicting interpretations and be unenforceable by local building inspectors.

“The tiers cause confusion in the marketplace and the potential for builders to label their buildings green without substantiating their claims,” said Elizabeth Echols, director of the Green Building Council’s Northern California chapter. Many local officials who would be responsible for verifying builder claims do not have the technical expertise that LEED and other third-party verifiers provide, she added.

More than 200 architects, engineers and builders have e-mailed Schwarznegger in the last three days to oppose the CalGreen label.

“The last thing we need is a new government rating system,” said Phil Williams, vice president of Webcor, the state’s biggest contractor.

But Dan Pellissier, a deputy cabinet official who met with critics last week, alleged that the Green Building Council is leading opposition to CalGreen because it does not want competition to its own private-sector LEED brand.

Meanwhile, many builders want an alternative to LEED. “The cost for owners to go through this rating system is astronomical -- in a very challenging commercial real estate market,” contended Sandra Boyle, an executive vice president of Glenborough, a San Mateo developer.

Mary Nichols, chairwoman of the California Air Resources Board, said the building commission had tightened its proposal based on the board’s requests, but she acknowledged it might not be as rigorous as third-party systems.

Still, she added, “it is a heck of a lot better than anything we have now.”

The new code would require developers to slash water use in their buildings by 20%, using more efficient toilets, shower heads and faucets.

The code would divert half of all construction waste away from landfills by requiring recycling. And it would allow buildings to be occupied only after strict energy standards were verified.