Policy Collaboratives: Drivers of Green Building and Energy Efficiency in California

Despite the best efforts of governments, builders and developers are often left in the dark about changes to local building codes and initiatives. There are ways to turn the light on.

September 03, 2010
September/October 2010
A version of this article appears in the September/October 2010 issue of Home Energy Magazine.
Click here to read more articles about Codes and Standards

Have you ever stepped into your city’s permit office, building plans in hand, only to discover that the city has passed a new green-building code or ordinance that you knew nothing about? You have no choice but to change your project, which causes delays, and since time is money, lost profits. You walk away thinking that green building is a big nuisance. Unfortunately, this scenario happens more often than most cities would like to admit.

HERCC meeting (Jennifer Green)

Despite the best efforts of governments, builders and developers are often left in the dark about changes to local building codes and initiatives. More confusion ensues when adjoining cities and counties pass dissimilar local codes. As the government relations manager of Build It Green—a nonprofit that promotes green building in California—I have attended countless public outreach meetings where the government presenters outnumber the audience. I cannot guess the reasons or place blame for these deserted assemblies, but I do know that something is broken.

Fortunately, this trend is changing, and some local governments are starting to corral neighboring cities and builders into dedicated groups to form green-building policy, giving more people a stake and a slice of ownership while creating regional consistency. These policy collaboratives are quickly spreading in the green-building world, a heartening pattern that is bringing about change that can be at once daring and widely accepted.

Green Building Collaborative

A wildly successful collaborative in Santa Clara County resulted in every single city adopting the same green building policy, a win for the building community and the environment. The newly formed policy valued rigor, third-party verification, and well-known labels that perform in the real estate market: GreenPoint Rated for homes and LEED for commercial buildings. The Silicon Valley Leadership Group (SVLG), a business development organization, began meeting with city mayors in early 2007 to gauge support for a coordinated policy change. With the green light from elected officials, SVLG enlisted endorsement from the Santa Clara County Cities Association. Representatives from each city started meeting regularly, calling themselves the Green Building Collaborative. The newly formed group sought the essential feedback from builders through one-on-one interviews and through associations of builders, such as the Building Owners and Managers Association (BOMA). By the time city councils met to pass the green policy, so much public and private support had been mounted that the cities passed the new ordinances like a line of falling dominoes.

Since then, the Green Building Collaborative has expanded its goal to get every city in the San Francisco Bay Area to pass consistent green-building programs. I became a cochair of the group in 2009. “These partnerships help ensure that policies are aligned and regionally compatible, primarily by applying the same reference standards—GreenPoint Rated and the LEED rating system,” says my colleague Barry Hooper of the San Francisco Department of the Environment, fellow Green Building Collaborative cochair. (For more on GreenPoint Rated new and existing homes programs, see “California’s Green Rating System,” HE Sept/Oct ’07, p. 28; and “New Houses are So Last Year,” HE Jan/Feb ’09, p. 28.)

Marin County’s BERST

A few miles to the north, the progressive Marin County forged ahead to create its own green-building policy collaborative. Inspired by the progress in Santa Clara County and tired of hearing complaints from builders about the patchwork of policies in Marin County, San Rafael Mayor Al Boro and Planning Director Bob Brown set out to court neighboring cities to accept the idea. By the spring of 2009, they had built a task force comprised of elected officials from every city in Marin County, a group that would become the crucial political backbone for the new policy’s success. The task force mined its networks for technical experts, and soon the Building, Energy, Retrofit, and Solar Transformation (BERST) technical advisory committee was formed. Like Santa Clara County, Brown and the task force approached frequent permit pullers, green-savvy designers, and builders associations to represent the building community’s interests as part of BERST.

All the BERST members took time out of their already-crammed work schedules to meet once a week and work toward the lofty goal of developing and finalizing a new green-building policy on which all the cities could agree by the winter. Brown dedicated nearly half his work hours to convening and facilitating BERST, and agreeing to a final date and deliverable was the only way he could justify doing so. Reaching consensus was often a struggle, says Brown, since the technical advisors came from differing backgrounds and sometimes opposing interests. Still, the group retained a sense of goodwill, since they all believed in the effectiveness of an inclusive method. Word of this unique collaborative spread throughout the townships, and the initial group of 30 had more than doubled by the end of the process. What’s more, BERST strengthened ties between environmentalists and developers, builders and regulators, and other unlikely combinations of stakeholders.

As the weeks went by, BERST formed a GreenPoint Rated- and LEED-based green building policy similar to Santa Clara County’s Green Building Collaborative. The green requirements escalate as buildings increase in size—a policy that acknowledges the greater resource demands of larger buildings and compels developers to optimize space (see Table 1). In fact, BERST requires that all homes with an area of over 7,000 square feet must be net zero energy! When the policy recommendations were completed, in October 2009, San Rafael planners took them to the city council, which passed the first BERST ordinance in November. Since then, three more cities have followed suit, and even more will pass the ordinance this fall. Brown credits the successful passages to the original task force members, who served on city councils and shepherded the BERST model through debate and doubt. “They are our local champions,” says Brown.

As regional policies formed around new construction, the nation began to look at the retrofit potential of existing buildings. According to the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB), the national mortgage crisis caused housing starts to plummet nearly 60% between 2007 and 2009, and construction-related jobs suffered accordingly, with the construction unemployment rate climbing to 17% at the end of 2009. Energy retrofits to existing homes emerged as a strategy to create jobs, help homeowners save money on utility bills, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. President Obama listed home energy retrofits as one of his three key areas for accelerating job growth; DOE allocated billions for retrofits through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (the stimulus package); and Congress may soon pass Home Star, a landmark bill that would offer direct rebates to homeowners to do energy retrofits.

That strategy is working. At the beginning of this year, the Sonoma County Energy Independence program in Northern California, a residential energy efficiency financing program tied to property taxes, reported an 8.4% increase in construction jobs and $14 million in total home retrofit contracts over one year, when all neighboring counties still showed a downturn in construction work. This early success is surely a harbinger of the exciting progress to come, both in the rise of the home energy and green building markets, and in new trends in inclusive policy development.


HERCC Recommendations for Clean-Energy Municipal Projects

The Home Energy Retrofit Coordinating Committee (HERCC) developed two options for clean energy municipal projects: an advanced package and a basic package. The advanced package duplicates the requirements of California Home Performance with Energy Star. It consists of a full home energy audit with comprehensive recommendations for improving energy efficiency, comfort, and indoor air quality. The basic package can achieve more-modest improvements in energy efficiency through basic air sealing and insulation of the building shell. If the measures in the basic package are implemented, they will support future implementation of the advanced package.

The Advanced Package
A HERS Phase II-compliant audit and rating shall be performed. It shall include a HERS whole-house home energy rating with test-in and test-out and combustion safety testing. A report shall be written that includes a list of recommended cost-effective measures.

Each project financed shall achieve a minimum of 20% reduction in HERS rating without renewables through energy efficiency measures before any renewable-energy projects are financed, or the home shall achieve a score of 100 or less on the HERS Phase II Index.

The Basic Package
Each of the following measures must be performed (or have already been performed adequately, based on verification by a HERS rater) in order for the project to be eligible for financing:
Air sealing shall be performed as follows:

  • Blower door tests shall be performed before and after air sealing. The results of these tests must show that air sealing achieves a minimum 20% reduction in CFM50. It is recommended that reductions of greater than 20% be achieved whenever possible, keeping in mind the California Community Services and Development (CSD) minimum ventilation standards, which include number of occupants and size of house.
  • Blower door test-in and test-out numbers must be recorded.
  • Air sealing must also be observable for verification. For example, it must be possible to verify by observation that all major penetrations and gaps in the attic, top plate, and so on, have been sealed.
  • Air sealing shall include weather-stripping of doors and windows.
  • Air sealing shall include repair of broken or unconnected ducts, and minor sealing of major leakage areas at connections—for example, plenum, boots, and platform returns in garages. A Duct Blaster test is not required.
  • Major duct sealing or duct system replacement will not be performed; these can be performed only as part of the advanced package described above.
  • Attic insulation shall be installed, but only after air sealing is completed as described above. Attic insulation must meet current Title 24 code. If code cannot be met, the project must meet the requirements of the Advanced Package.
  • The hot-water system shall be insulated, including the hot-water tank, and all accessible hot-water pipes; insulating the first 5 feet of cold water pipes (if space permits) from gas vents is adequate.
  • Combustion appliance safety testing shall meet BPI, CSD, or California Public Utility Commission low-income energy efficiency (LIEE) standards for combustion appliance safety checks.
  • A combined CO and smoke alarm shall be installed.
The following measures are optional and are eligible for financing:
  • installation of a programmable thermostat;
  • installation of an energy-efficient pool pump and a solar pool water heater, when replacing a pool water heater that uses conventional fuels;
  • installation of Title 24-compliant lighting fixtures and/or Energy Star-rated fixtures and controls;
  • installation of an on-demand water circulation control pump (continuous recirculating water pumps are not allowed); and
  • installation of an Energy Star bathroom fan vented to the outside.

Optional Green-Building Measures

The following green-building measures are a subset of Build It Green’s GreenPoint Rated Existing Homes rating system. With the implementation of these additional measures, the home could qualify for a GreenPoint Rated Elements label, enabling home-owners to obtain a third-party-verified consumer label for their home.

Implementation of the following measures is recommended during either a basic or an advanced home energy retrofit, but these measures are not eligible for financing:
  • Energy efficiency
  • Install energy-efficient lighting (lamps, bulbs) and refrigerator.
  • Install energy- and water-efficient dishwasher and clothes washer.
  • Install smart power strips.
  • Water efficiency
  • Fix plumbing leaks.
  • Install water-efficient fixtures (toilets, sinks, showers).
  • Install high-efficiency irrigation systems.
  • Resource conservation
  • Divert all cardboard, concrete, asphalt, and metals from retrofit process to recycling.
  • Use insulation with 75% recycled content.
  • Indoor air quality
  • Use low-emitting insulation.
  • Use low-emitting composite woods (plywood, medium density fiberboard, and particleboard).
  • Test for radon in high-risk areas.


Five Ways to Influence Green Policy Development in Your Community
  1. Reach out to elected officials, planners, building officials, and other local government representatives and propose a communitywide policy collaborative with a designated facilitator.
  2. Contact nonprofits that focus on green building, smart growth, or transportation and form a partnership to jointly approach local governments.
  3. Research neighboring green policies and present your findings to your network. Create a consensus on best practices—what works and what doesn’t. Use this context to create policy within your community.
  4. Create a coalition within your local builders or developers association to develop positions on proposed policies.
  5. Attend public workshops on proposed policy changes and voice your opinions.

California’s HERCC

Leif Magnuson, Pollution Prevention Coordinator at the San Francisco office of EPA, had been keeping his finger on the pulse of energy efficiency and green-building trends in California for years. When home energy retrofits began attracting the attention of the federal government in early 2009, Magnuson worked with the ACI to pull together California policymakers, builders, and representatives of local governments to figure out how best to get home energy retrofit funds to flow into California. In order to get the perspective of builders, Magnuson and his government colleagues contacted home energy contractors who frequently attend state-level policy hearings. Magnuson recognizes that it is difficult for builders to sacrifice valuable work hours for policy development, so he recommends that they “find out which person or organization represents your viewpoint and is keeping up-to-date with what’s going on. Find an efficient way to stay in touch with him or her to get a periodic download on the major issues affecting you, and to give him your input. Ask him what key meetings you should attend to voice your opinions directly.” (See “Five Ways to Influence Green Policy Development in Your Community.)

The group—called the Home Energy Retrofit Coordinating Committee (HERCC)—began by formulating a set of principles to guide its activities. They included (1) consistent consumer messaging and (2) building an infrastructure that would outlast the stimulus package to create a permanent demand for energy retrofits. Magnuson stresses the importance of guiding principles, saying that they provided a metric to evaluate new ideas and ensured that the group would not veer too far off course.

Many members first sought to promote deep retrofits that would provide dramatic energy savings. However, this strategy soon met political resistance on the part of others in the group who insisted that a much more effective approach would be to offer a cheaper, basic retrofit pathway, to attract homeowners who were not quite sold on the idea of an energy retrofit. The HERCC finally decided that a dual strategy would attract both the ambitious and the cautious, and eventually developed a basic retrofit pathway as well as an advanced pathway for deeper savings (see “HERCC Recommendations for Clean-Energy Municipal Projects”).

Since many state agencies came to these meetings, including the California Energy Commission and the California Public Utility Commission, the HERCC recommendations directly influenced the state’s guidelines for using stimulus funds. Magnuson explains that the HERCC provided a neutral and nonbinding setting where policy debates could thrive, away from the formal, intimidating, tape-recorded public proceedings. At the end of 2009, the HERCC saw its recommendations reflected in the California Energy Commission’s State Energy program, and new rebates offered by the investor-owned utilities that broker power to most of California. Magnuson credits this early victory with keeping the group engaged and dedicated, despite the fact that all participants volunteered time away from their paying jobs.

Now in mid-2010, retrofit programs are emerging in the San Francisco Bay Area, Los Angeles, San Diego, and Sacramento, all adhering to the same structure. These programs will present
homeowners with a consistent and powerful message—rather than a confusing potpourri of rebates and requirements. With any luck, this new trend in inclusive policy development will usher the meteoric rise of the home energy and green building market.

Elise Hunter recently served as the government relations manager at Build It Green (www.builditgreen.org). She is currently pursuing an MBA/MS degree in sustainable enterprise at the University of Michigan.

For more information:

To view the entire HERCC recommendations and supporting documents, go to www.builditgreen.org/home-energy-retrofit/.

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