The Greening of America

By Nicholas E. Vlattas, AIA, and Deborah Marquardt

The recent release of the 2012 International Green Construction Code (IgCC) has produced spirited debate in our profession, as it seeks to provide a uniform way, or umbrella, to deal with sustainable design.

As the International Code Council reported on March 28, the IgCC is “aimed at helping state and local governments provide direction and oversight of green design and construction.” It is meant to act as an overlay to existing code, with the ability to be customized to fit the needs of local communities. “Coordinated with the ICC family of codes, the IgCC is designed for use in communities that are pursuing sustainable construction above and beyond the traditional level of requirements in our codes,” noted William D. Dupler, president of the ICC board of directors.

Our national AIA thought the issue was important enough to pull up a seat at the table and collaborate with other building industry disciplines, including the U.S. Green Building Council and ASHRAE, over the three years of development. Yet, many remain skeptical.

Current discussion among members of the Virginia Society AIA seems to be taking a contrary view to the code—at least the local jurisdiction language—as the Commonwealth already has the Uniform Statewide Building Code. “Expanding the scope of the Building Code in this manner will open the door to an enormous amount of additional conflict, misinterpretation, and dispute,” writes Matthew Arnold, who has represented the VSAIA on the Virginia State Building Code Technical Review Board since 2003. Arnold was responding by e-mail to questions asked by Duncan Abernathy, VSAIA’s director of Government and Industry Affairs.

We don’t intend to use this space to pick nits over code language. We know there are people who are much more fluent on the issue than we are. Yet on a philosophical level, it is hard to object to the idea of a green code.

When the AIA initiated its goal of achieving carbon neutral buildings by 2030, it reported that buildings contribute an astonishing 40 percent of greenhouse gases and 76 percent of power-plant-generated electricity. For this reason alone, architects need to take a leadership role in supporting energy conservation and promoting sustainable building practices and planning, or we will be left behind.

We have a responsibility to our children and our children’s children to leave the world a better place. Do we want them to inherit an energy landscape like they will inherit our national debt?

Yes, there are dangers in codes written when new technologies are unproven, or with codes that might put architects at risk for long-term building performance. Our personal experience designing student housing has proven that even with all kinds of “green” technologies in place, you can’t make students turn off lights or take shorter showers. In other words, no code can possibly account for the human behavior factor.

Yet let’s look on the bright side. The IgCC may evolve into more effective ways to deal with health and safety issues related to sustainability. The U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED program was a first step, but the costs of LEED certification made it prohibitive for some. The IgCC suggests minimum levels of compliance, but encourages higher levels.

In researching this piece, we read a lot of opinion. The article that resonated most deeply was one on AIA KnowledgeNet penned by A. Vernon Woodworth, AIA, LEED-AP. Woodworth has much experience in architecture, code enforcement, and code consulting and served on the drafting committee of the IgCC. He frames his discussion around a “standard of care” theme. “Every architect assumes a standard of care in the course of his or her professional activities. When codes evolve, so does the architect’s standard of care,” he writes.

“Could the continued construction of inefficient buildings and the propagation of environmentally harmful landscapes in the face of scientific evidence of destructive impacts be equated to the manufacture of tobacco products after a direct link to cancer has been established?

“The ultimate standard of care is that of the medical profession: ‘Do no harm,’ [a shorthand interpretation of the Hippocratic Oath]. “With regard to the environmental impacts of our professional work as architects, why would this not be our standard of care as well?”

He continues: “Given the role of the architectural profession in designing the built environment, what is our standard of care? We must answer this for ourselves before it is answered for us.”
In subsequent e-mail communication with us, Woodworth says: “If architects are worried about increased liability in being responsible for a new code, what about their liability for buildings that pollute?”

Think about it. Might we have worked diligently to provide disability access with ADA, or installed sprinkler systems without a code requirement? What might have been the outcome for Louisiana if it had had a state building code before Hurricane Katrina rather than after?

While many of us would prefer less government in our lives, a recent blog post from Raleigh-based Gontram Architecture, suggests: “The fact is, if left to the marketplace, building design would be unacceptable, discriminatory, and hazardous in many instances. Just because a building owner or tenant can afford to waste massive amounts of energy and water doesn’t mean that they should. In fact, it’s our duty to protect the environment from ourselves. Suffice it to say that a Green Building Code is not the end of the world. It is, however, the only real way to effect change.”

Good design must include effective sustainable strategies. We can no longer separate the two. Above and beyond “code,” this is a value we must incorporate into our work.

Your thoughts are welcome in the comments section below.

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