Green building code cometh

State is on the leading edge; now, if only builders knew how far …

WHIMS OF NATURE<br>The new requirement for low-moisture wood raised an eyebrow of Shastan Homes’ Holli Anderson, braving the rain soaking the frame of a new house in the Glenwood Avenue neighborhood on the west side of Chico.

The new requirement for low-moisture wood raised an eyebrow of Shastan Homes’ Holli Anderson, braving the rain soaking the frame of a new house in the Glenwood Avenue neighborhood on the west side of Chico.

Photo By Evan Tuchinsky

Christmas Eve morning, Holli Anderson sat in the dining room of a house recently completed by her construction firm, Shastan Homes. Rain fell steadily outside, as it had for hours. She scanned a sheet of paper listing requirements she and every other builder in California will have to meet in a year’s time, and her reactions were telling.


“I tell ya …”

“There’re builders that don’t hand you the manual?”

“Wow—all the plywood has to be low-formaldehyde?”

She finished reading and looked up. “We do most of this,” she said, “and the rest I’m not sure how they’ll implement, like checking the moisture of wood before it’s enclosed [by walls and roofing]. Today it’s pouring down rain …”

She didn’t need to finish the sentence to make her point. An inspector coming on this day, or in the next couple days, would find framing wetter than if he or she had come a day or two earlier. So, at least when it comes to dry-wood rules, satisfying the code designed to benefit Mother Earth could come down to the whims of Mother Nature.

That afternoon, Pat Conroy had a similar reaction. He looked over the same list, found most of it basic, but shook his head at a few lines, including the wood-moisture standard.

“I think it’s a great thing,” Conroy, owner of Conroy Construction in Chico, said of California taking the lead in environmentally conscious building. The specifics, though, were news to him, which is particularly surprising in light of his experience with LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) standards. Ditto for Anderson, whose Glenwood Avenue homes are solar-powered and eco-oriented.

Not only that, neither knew of a fee taking effect Jan. 1, 2009, for the Building Standards Administration Special Revolving Fund—money they’ll be paying for the completion of the code.

“Sure, why not, tack on another [fee],” Anderson said, shaking her head. “They’re going to charge us more to be better builders?”

Fortunately, this charge isn’t too much more: $1 for each $25,000 of permit valuation (the value affixed to projects by city/county governments) for new construction and renovation.

With that, the California Building Standards Commission will expand on revisions made this past July to the 2007 California Green Building Standards Code. Also known as Title 24, Part 11, the first wave of new rules will take effect in 2010.

INSPECTOR’S PERSPECTIVE<br>Yvonne Christopher, formerly Butte County’s top building official and now an instructor at Butte College, calls the set of green-building standards “a good, strong first step.”

Photo By Evan Tuchinsky

This might take some contractors by surprise, but not Yvonne Christopher. Formerly the head of Butte County’s Developmental Services Department, she’s a Building Inspection Technology instructor at Butte College—training the people who’ll make sure the standards get met.

“Through a lot of meetings,” she explained, “[the commission] threw everything that’s green into one checklist but only made a few things mandatory initially. They didn’t make a point system like LEED or Build It Green—they set up provisions and parameters to meet.”

Some of those already exist in state and federal guidelines (see chart, this page). Others are new. Taken together, they make California the first state in the nation with green-building standards as part of its building code.

“I think this is a big first step, to manage and monitor this many items as mandatory,” Christopher said. “It will make significant changes in waste and VOC [volatile organic compound] emissions.”

Waste in several senses—material in landfills and squandered resources. The code calls for diverting at least 50 percent of trash from construction sites to recycling or salvage operations. Conservation provisions include:

• Reducing the use of water inside the house by 20 percent;
• Not allowing showers with multiple showerheads to use more water than showers with one;
• Sealing all joints and openings;
• Providing manuals for every appliance and system (e.g. outdoor irrigation).

For a more healthful home environment, the state is requiring:

• Low-formaldehyde plywood and particle board (used in cabinetry as well as construction);
• No/low-VOC paints, stains, glues and carpeting;
• Exhaust fans in every bathroom (even ones with windows);
• Filters for central air and heating to have MERV ratings of 6 or higher.

What does this mean for new residential and commercial construction? For the most part, nothing too radical.

Green adhesives and decorative materials are widely available, Conroy said, and do not add significant expense. Showerheads already have low flow rates, so he doesn’t see how enough reduction could be made to allow for two or more in a shower, but bathroom fans have become normal features.

What concerns him (and Anderson, too) is wood. After reading them, Conroy called Meek’s Lumber; the requirements for dry beams and low-formaldehyde plywood was news there, too.

The risk of emissions from particle-board adhesives seems clear enough. Less obvious is the rationale for checking the moisture in structural wood before it’s encased. (Christopher explained the concern is “indoor air quality potentially being compromised by mold and algae growth inside walls, ceiling and underfloor framing.")

The moisture content of commercial stock tends to run 25 percent or 30 percent; the new standard calls for 19 percent. That, according to Meek’s, will require kiln- or air-drying, which comes at a premium—around a 50 percent higher price.

“I don’t see what you’re getting,” Conroy said. “It’s not making your house greener; in fact, it’s making it less green, because it’ll take a lot of energy [to dry wood].”

And don’t forget the rain.

Know the code:
California’s green-building standards will roll out in phases. Some measures are in place already. Here’s the upcoming group of rules, broken down by Butte College’s Yvonne Christopher.

Measure New or existing? When code
Storm water drainage existing 2010
Energy standards existing 2010
Seal joints/openings existing 2010
Lower indoor water use 20% existing 2011
Multiple showerheads flow limit new 2011
Divert 50% construction waste existing 2010
Manuals for all devices both 2010
Cover ducts during construction new 2010
No/low-VOC paint/glue/carpet new 2010
Low-formaldehyde plywood new 2010
Vapor barrier for slab new 2010
Low-moisture wood: 19% max. new 2010
Fans in every bathroom new 2010
HVAC filters: MERV 6 min. new 2010