What's a Green Building? California's 2011 Building Codes & LEED

By Dan Geiger, Executive Director, USGBC-NCC

California’s new building codes took effect January 1, 2011, and policy makers and the industry continue to explore its implications and impact. Referred to as CalGreen, the codes have raised the floor on minimum building standards for new construction, incorporated green elements into base code, and as such are another manifestation of California’s leadership in the green economy.

There has been quite a bit of discussion about the relationship between the codes and rating systems like LEED. I’d like to place this issue in a larger context of the overall sustainability goals of California and the importance of leadership in the building industry.

The first distinction to keep in mind is that codes and rating systems are fundamentally, necessarily, and structurally different but complementary systems. Codes mandate minimum standards and some specific measures, whereas rating systems like LEED define leadership standards, are performance based, and are rigorously verified by an independent third party.

Industry and policy analysts widely agree that LEED is significantly more rigorous than the new building codes1 2, and is the most powerful tool available for market transformation. In addition, LEED has systems for existing buildings, commercial interiors, core and shell, schools, neighborhoods and more. One way to think of all this is that codes define the floor (and are the law), whereas LEED sets the ceiling.

Some important considerations to keep in mind to situate this issue in a broader context:

  • The Challenge: AB 32 mandates California to reach 1990 levels of GHG emissions by 2020, and 80% below 1990 levels by 2050.
  • Where we are: the green building industry has made amazing strides in the past decade, but – if all LEED registered projects (35,000+) were net zero energy today, the U.S. would save about 1% energy used by existing buildings. We’ve come a long way, but have a long way to go.1
  • The Horizon: The California Public Utilities Commission’s strategic plan, released in January, sets goals of net zero energy requirements for residential new construction by 2020, and net zero for commercial construction in 2030.
  • Leadership: LEED is recognized worldwide as the de facto green building standard and certification system, and is the preferred ‘stretch code’ for local jurisdictions3 4.  For example, analysts estimate that CalGreen’s mandatory provisions would earn 10 or more LEED points, but nowhere near enough to achieve LEED Certified.1 5
  • Verification: LEED provides well-established, consistent, clearly-defined guidelines and protocols for verification.
  • Future of LEED: LEED is constantly evolving: e.g., the general trajectory for LEED Platinum is to reach net zero energy by 2018, and “regenerative” by 2030. We should expect to see elevated standards in all LEED credit areas in each new iteration of the system.
  • Performance: The only way we can be assured of meeting our aggressive building efficiency standards is to measure and report performance. USGBC’s Building Performance Partnership, and LEED v3’s energy and water reporting requirements are powerful tools to aggregate data, report performance, develop standardized metrics and research, and provide insights for future iterations of LEED.
  • Cost: StopWaste estimates that the hard and soft first costs for LEED Certified level are from 0.1% less to 0.2% more than CALGreen Tier 1 (which is a higher standard than mandatory codes).6
  • Superior ROI: Several studies by McGraw Hill Construction demonstrate that LEED buildings can reduce operating costs by up to 14%, increase building value by 10.9%, and increase Return on Investment by almost 10%. LEED buildings, whose features include occupancy comfort and other factors beyond energy and water use, also have higher occupancy rates in the 3-6% range, and rent premiums of 1-6%.7

Taking all of this into account, when we consider the tremendous challenges we face, the available tools, and the financial case, the question becomes what defines sustainability leadership? rather than is a code compliant building the new green?

We applaud California’s leadership in greening its building codes – it will have a powerful effect on the development of green building practices in the state. When we consider the potential of the greenest possible building codes combined with the highest private market standards like LEED, it’s clear we need BOTH to be an industry and national leader.

1 LEED & CA Green Building Code [pdf]
2 A Recommended Approach to California’s New Green Building Code [pdf]
3 Bay Area Green Building and Policy Assessment [pdf]
4 State and Local Government Green Building Ordinances in California [pdf]
5 CALGreen Compliance and Beyond [pdf]
6 StopWaste.org - Cost of Green Building [pdf]
7 CALGreen in Context 3-17-11 [pdf]

For more information:
State and Local Government Green Building Ordinances in California [pdf]
USGBC-NCC Green Building Codes Resource Center
StopWaste.org CALGreen Resource Center



Comments (0)


U.S. Green Building Council -
North California Chapter

560 Mission St. Suite 900
San Francisco, CA 94105
Phone: (415) 659-9404
Email: info@usgbc-ncc.org