Legislative Hurdles to Greening Chicago

By Danielle Wagner

It’s no secret that Mayor Daley has made it his mission to help Chicago earn the title of “greenest city in the nation.” And while some cities across the nation have followed Chicago’s lead in expedited green permitting processes, density bonuses, incentives, greening municipal buildings and fee reductions and waivers, is the City of Broad Shoulders still an innovator of the sustainable movement? Other city governments have begun to take green building to the next level by mandating it and adopting standards into their building codes. But how does Chicago fare on the national stage?

Dallas has taken a very encouraging two-phase approach that was approved in April 2008 and became effective last October. In Phase I, all new residences must exceed Dallas’ base energy code by 15% and meet four out of six high-efficiency water reduction strategies. Commercial projects less than 50,000 square feet need to exceed the base energy code by 15% but must also reduce their use of water required by the plumbing code by 20%, follow Energy Star’s low-slope roof requirements (if applicable), and meet outdoor lighting restrictions. Larger commercial properties must meet 85% of the points required for LEED certification and must include a point for 20% reduction in water consumption and at least two points for exceeding the base energy code by 14%.

For Phase II, these requirements become more stringent. Starting in 2011, new homes must meet requirements for LEED or Green Built North Texas certification with points specifically for 20% water use reduction and 17.5% more energy efficiency than the base energy code, or Energy Star certification for homes with a maximum rating of 83 on the home energy rating HERS Index. All commercial projects must attain LEED certification with specific points as mentioned above.

San Francisco has also adopted a phased-out process. Low-rise residential buildings need to be GreenPoint Rated and must achieve fifty GreenPoints from Build It Green’s rating system, a Berkeley, California based non-profit. By 2012, that rating goes up to seventy-five. Mid-size residential buildings will be held to the higher rating starting next year. Beginning this year, commercial and high-rise residential buildings must achieve LEED Silver or 75 GreenPoints and some specific LEED standards regarding landscaping, water use reduction and waste diversion must be met.

Smaller commercial buildings need not attain LEED certification requirements but must meet LEED standards for building commissioning, landscaping, water use and construction debris management. Beginning in 2012, the buildings must also meet LEED standards for the use of on-site renewable energy or the purchase of renewable energy credits. Currently, large commercial buildings must submit documentation to achieve LEED Silver certification; that will increase to LEED Gold in 2012.

Seattle has taken a different approach. When the Bullitt Foundation’s design team approached the Seattle Department of Planning and Development concerning their new headquarters, the team said they wanted to achieve the Living Building Challenge (LBC) but couldn’t do so without violating the current building code. The LBC, an initiative of the International Living Building Institute is a building standard that aims to make buildings net-zero energy, net-zero water, non-toxic and provide for habitat restoration.

It occurred to the department that they needed to rethink their codes. After many conversations, they came up with a pilot project that will exempt twelve buildings pursuing “innovative onsite water and energy strategies” from certain building code stipulations to allow for some freedom with green elements. The goal of the pilot is to test potential changes to the land use and building codes and remove regulatory barriers for building sustainably.

A bit closer to home, there is a fringe city with a bit of an identity crisis. Evanston, Illinois was once a quiet, suburban, college town. Many residents are surprised to find themselves suddenly living in a minor metropolis with twenty- and thirty-story buildings. But the city government, aware of this new reality, has legislated some sustainability for these larger structures.

Evanston passed an ordinance in October of 2009 that requires new large commercial buildings over 10,000 square feet, multi-family, and municipal buildings to reach LEED Silver certification. The penalty for not abiding by the new regulation is a sliding-scale fine determined by the amount of points the developer is missing in order to achieve certification. Evanston has also formed a special committee to design an addendum to the ordinance that would include the requirement for interior renovations in addition to new construction.

So how can Chicago improve its building code to allow more avenues for developers opting to go green? In a 2003 study by architectural firm OWP/P, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the City of Chicago’s Departments of Environment and Planning and Development, barriers to green building strategies were called out and put into two categories: owner buy-in and restrictive code requirements.

It seems that owner buy-in issues raised by the study have largely been addressed. In exchange for any financial assistance from the city, developers and/or owners must provide some green benefits for their projects. The Green Permit Program further encourages developers with the promise of expedited permits.

One of the biggest hurdles to building green in Chicago is its own building code. Despite an Energy Conservation Code rewrite last year, the old way of doing things persists in some areas. While the Chicago Building Code requires most toilets to abide by a 1.6 gallons per flush maximum, there is a ban on composting toilets, which have the potential to save even more water. Waterless urinals have a sordid past as well. While City Hall and O’Hare International Airport both installed the water-saving devices, all have since been removed. The problem lies with restrictions inherent in the plumbing sections of the code, which require copper piping; waterless urinals are designed to be installed with PVC drainpipes.

With at least part of the work already done, this seems like a great starting point to meeting and surpassing the bar for Chicago. While the City has been a strong proponent and leader for preserving the environment, it can’t stop now. Reconsidering existing building code regulations and the possible addition of new requirements is only a fraction of what Chicago is capable of in the scheme of sustainability but it may just be the direction the City needs to take in staying on top and attaining the title of “greenest city in the nation.”

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