February 1, 2012 - From the February, 2012 issue

VerdeXchange Green Build Panel: Codes & Mandates Should Not Impede Sustainability

VerdeXchange 2012 hosted a panel, moderated by Gail Goldberg, Executive Director of the Urban Land Institute, Los Angeles, on ‘Green Building Through Codes, Mandates, and Incentives’. Panelists Steve Glenn, CEO, LivingHomes, Ken Lewis, President, AC Martin Partners, and Deborah Weintraub, Chief Deputy Office of the LA Bureau of Engineering, outlined their practices and how building codes impact or fail to impact development projects. 

Gail Goldberg

“The local authorities have no right to do any inspection on the structure—it’s only the pieces that touch the ground. That tends to expedite the process.” -Steve Glenn, LivingHomes

Gail Goldberg (Moderator): Let me begin this morning by asking our accomplished Verdexchange panelists to share how each has been influenced in the work by public mandates and codes.

Steve Glenn (Founder and CEO, LivingHomes): Let me begin by saying that we get great architects to design our standard and custom single and multi-family homes, integrating an extremely comprehensive environmental program. We are using pre-designed systems to make our homes better equipped and cheaper with a smaller ecological footprint.

First and foremost, we need to create homes that people really want to live in, that offer form and functionality, and that addresses their lifestyle working needs. That was our first insight. We  develop them in a way that also radically reduces their energy and water use rates. We have completed now nine LEED Platinum homes, and next month we are introducing our first affordable home at, interestingly enough, $250 per square foot, which is about half the cost of a regular home. In Los Angeles, that’s incredibly affordable housing on top of the homes being 50 percent more energy efficient.

Let me make a few remarks about how we are impacted by code. First of all, there is a growing number of cities with whom we work that incentivize you to build in a more sustainable way, specifically with LEED. In Santa Monica, where we have two homes in production, they expedite your permitting process if you register to LEED certify your home. In other words, it just has to be certifiable. Los Angeles claims to do the same, but unfortunately the expediting they do is not true expediting. You can buy expedited permitting in Los Angeles, costing you about 50 percent more than standard permitting. If you LEED solar certify, it will take about a week off the permit process. 

Nonetheless, there are incentives in place to help you build in a more sustainable way. There are also codes that are required in Los Angeles for any building 50,000 square feet or above, unless they are built to a LEED certifiable standard. You don’t actually have to get them LEED certified, but when you go to planning check they are going to look to see if they could be LEED certified. That’s a great program. There are also some codes that pertain to us because we are doing modular buildings. We therefore have a bifurcated permitting process, in terms of our building ordinances.

At the same time, local municipalities are responsible for all the site work and foundation on location. But the state of California actually permits the modular structures. The local authorities have no right to do any inspection on the structure—it’s only the pieces that touch the ground. That tends to expedite the process, as the local authorities have less to do. The State actually contracts a third party for certain inspections as well, another advantage.

Every home we have done is grade-order ready. Santa Monica was the first to get a permitted grade water system, which is a very difficult process. I should mention there are some related advantages on the rebate side for doing such things: you get rebates for energy efficient appliances, and there are rebates for efficient water fixtures. 

Gail Goldberg: I understand that you went into the business not because of the business model, but because of your own interests in producing these kinds of homes. Talk a little bit about what the market is out there. Who are the folks who want the homes that you build? Are they interested in the modular component? Are they interested in green? Is there a premium right now because you are building them one at a time? Talk to us about who is buying these homes.

Steve Glenn: I can easily generalize our audience as the cultural creatives, which is a marketing term you sometimes hear to describe people who value design, health, and sustainability. They are driving Prius’s and shopping at Whole Foods, buying from IKEA or Design Within Reach, and buying organic cotton products from Patagonia. As I illustrated there are lots of companies that really address the values that these people place on form and functionality and on products that are built in a healthy and sustainable way. But homebuilders have not traditionally made products for this market. So we’re niche-playing, although we are sure that the demand cuts across all income bases—it’s not just the bourgeoisie that’s interested  in these things. IKEA selling low-cost modern furniture, Home Depot selling sustainable products, and Wal-Mart selling organic food have shown, in fact, that this demand cuts across a variety of income sectors. Thus, the most important thing we are doing is making an affordable living home, which, frankly, we wanted to do from day one. But there are challenges. There is nothing that brings costs down more than volume, and in the worst real-estate market downturn it is hard to get volume. As least it was hard for us to, although we’ve been doing pretty well for a small firm—we’ve had our best years over past two years. We’re not building lots of homes, however: we’re doing bigger homes. So we’ll see what happens with the low-cost homes, but we think there will be more projects. 

One of things that’s driving this is the people who are increasingly concerned about sustainability  and health. Oftentimes these are regarded as separate issues, but the America Lung Association features a huge section on their website about the hazards of indoor air pollution. It’s a big issue, and there’s a category of people increasingly interested in that. Likewise, there’s a category increasingly concerned with sustainability; there’s a category of people who demand great design. 

Ken Lewis (President, AC Martin): I wanted to talk about a regional issue that is very specific to Southern California, and that’s the Urban Heat Island. The Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory offers numbers indicating that our mean annual daytime temperature in Southern California is about 4-5 degrees hotter than it would be if we weren’t in a built-out state. And a very interesting point is that on a clear, calm night the temperature can be 22 degrees warmer than it would be if we weren’t in a built-out state. That’s a really substantial difference. It should actually cool down at night in the summertime in Los Angeles, and it doesn’t. 

The roads, the roofs, the buildings, they absorb the sun’s energy and it is later reradiated. This happens at a higher temperature than the soil, trees, and plants reraditate heat. The 1930’s was the peak of agriculture in the Los Angeles Basin, and we were irrigating and covering the land with trees. Because of the irrigation and trees, and all that evapotranspiration, the area’s average temperature lowered. Since then we’ve cut down paradise and paved it, and the temperature has steadily increased. Two years ago we had the highest recorded temperature in Downtown Los Angeles: 112 degrees. The trend is not abating at all; it’s maybe accelerated. 

This is really a Southern California issue that has to do with our climate, our geography, where we are in terms of latitude in the planet—all those things. The rate of urban heat island growth in Los Angeles and San Diego is the highest in the country, according to the Lawrence Berkeley statistics. San Francisco does not have this issue—the coolness from the ocean water takes care of that. We don’t have that same dvantage here. 

This is a photograph of a black asphalt roof. An infrared camera shows that in Burbank the spot temperature of these shingles was 171 degrees. You can cook on that. You take your turkey out of the oven at 165. So this roof is about 60 degrees hotter than the ambient air temperature. This shows how much these dark surfaces absorb the heat, which is later reradiated. That’s why we stay warmer at night, and that’s what makes your electric meters spin. 


Here is a photo of an adjacent roof that’s coated with a white coating. At the same time and in the same conditions, the white roof is 133 degrees. Just the color difference makes more than a 30 degree difference in the temperature. 

Computer simulations show that if we lightened the colors of two-thirds of the pavement and the rooftops in the LA Basin and added three shade trees per house, we would cool the basin by 3.5-5.5 degrees. The reduction in the air temperature would reduce the urban smog exposure in the LA Basin by roughly the same amount as reducing the entire basin on-road vehicle fleet. All the cars off the road and the smog they produce—the temperature impact is that great. 

A study looking at a few houses around Sacramento where shade trees were strategically planted demonstrated seasonal cooling energy savings of 30 percent. Trees are a very interesting part of the story. If we actually shade our roadways and parking lots we get the benefit of the shade, but the other things trees do is actually take water out of the soil and evapotranspirate it. It’s like a swamp-cooler: the process creates localized cooling through the evaporation of water through the pores of the tree. If you planted 11 million trees, watered them and got them to grow in the LA Basin, the total direct and indirect energy savings would be $170 million a year. It’s a staggering amount of money, it’s a staggering amount of energy, and it’s a staggering amount of carbon reduction by planting trees.

Our energy codes don’t address this, and yet it is a major issue for all buildings. It doesn’t matter how energy efficient we make them, if the outside environments are hotter we’re going to spend more energy cooling buildings. We are going to have a harder time making natural ventilation work because the outside air we are trying to bring into the houses is too warm to provide much benefit. In Burbank we actually set out through the commission to ban black roofs for re-roofing. We couldn’t accomplish this because the state energy board said it violates our energy code, Title 24. You actually have to file a petition with the State, and you have to pay $3,000 every time the code changes. 

We have no mechanisms for local governments and local jurisdictions to deal with large scale regional issues. The state energy code actually gets in the way of that. And I think that it’s very narrow thinking that our solution is only about the building and the building energy code. If we made larger changes we could have a profound effect on everybody’s collective energy bill. 

In Burbank we are working hard to plant more trees and to get trees in parking lots. From the City Council now is a new model code for a parking lot shade tree ordinance. The code right now, as we saw it, in Burbank does not have enforcement mechanisms. Sacramento, interestingly enough, has the mechanisms to enforce it, and we are modeling the one in Burbank after that. Hopefully, the City Council will bless that and it can move forward. 

Deborah Weintraub (Chief Deputy City Engineer, LA Bureau of Engineering): We have over 53 projects in our portfolio, and I think 44 have been LEED certified. We have two Platinum facilities, our latest one being the new library in Silverlake. As a municipality, a lesson we have learned is ‘tell people they have to do it’. We told ourselves we had to do it first, and everyone figured out how to get it done. The second thing we learned is we can use off-the-shelf technology, especially for City buildings. We don’t get the same kind of money for maintenance as we do for capital projects with bond programs, and so our projects have to be simple to maintain, and we struggled with that as a City. The last thing we learned with the Silverlake Library is that you can do it with off-the-shelf technology, much as LivingHomes is doing it. You can put together very efficient buildings with things you buy out of the catalogue. 

LEED standards have been remarkably effective in changing the attitudes of the whole building sector. We work now with the new version of LEED, which allows for regional specificity. 

What’s next? I think as a City we will continue to use LEED because it gives a higher standard than the Cal-Green code that just went into effect. But we are really talking about retrofitting the region now, because that’s where we’re going to see the greatest gain in terms of sustainability.

At the Bureau of Engineering we build roads and sewer facilities; we are really an infrastructure delivery organization. This is really a region-side issue. I was intimately involved in helping put together the River Revitalization Master Plan, and the single greatest impediment that we have to revitalizing the river is the speed at which the water comes down the river when we get rainfall. The speed that the water achieves is enormous. If we could look at a ways through which we could retrofit the region to take some of that water out of the river then we could have the possibility of restoring the river. So it’s really region-wide changes we’re considering.

We have 6500 miles of streets in the City of LA, and there is a lot in the press about the poor conditions of our streets. Re-paving the streets is not enough. We need to get public transit. We need to get out of our private automobiles and embrace our public transit system. We need to rethink the streets because they are the major conduit for directing storm water to the ocean.

More efficient building are important. We led by example with the green code the City adopted, and I think our example helped the State pass the Cal-Green code. Technology and thinking about buildings will continue to evolve, and we will continue to embrace new developments. But the next thing is we need to think region-wide. The population growth is enormous. How can we, as a region, use our resources more efficiently? 


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