L.A. Takes the Lead in Replacing LEED

Downtown Los AngelesAmid much fanfare, in 2008 the Los Angeles City Council established the Green Building Program requiring, among other things, that most new structures over 50,000 square feet in size be built to the United States Green Building Council (“USGBC”) Leadership in Environmental and Energy Design (“LEED”) basic “Certified” standard. To incentivize projects of any size attaining LEED “Silver” or higher equivalence, priority processing was offered. The third element of the City’s Green Building Program was to establish an inter-departmental Green Team to implement and recommend refinements to the Green Building Program. Since then, 28 projects have met the LEED Certified level and an additional 19 projects have received priority processing.

In the interim, the California state legislature adopted the first-in-the-nation green building code, the California Green Building Standards Code known as CALGreen. (Click here for more on CALGreen) All municipalities are required to comply with CALGreen as of January 1st of this year. In addition to the compulsory baseline requirements, CALGreen establishes more stringent “Tier 1” and “Tier 2” discretionary green measures. Under the legislation, local agencies can opt to enact their own version of CALGreen to incorporate the more rigorous “Tier 1” and/or “Tier 2” measures as mandatory.

The emergence of CALGreen confronted the Los Angeles City Council with a dilemma — how to integrate its existing LEED-based Green Building Program with the new state regulations? The twin goal was not to step back from its progressive sustainability policies, while also avoiding two overlapping, and potentially conflicting, standards. So, with the CALGreen deadline looming, the City Council adopted an urgency ordinance effective December 27, 2010 that substantially revises the Green Building Program to replace the LEED standard with CAL Green.

The product is the Los Angeles Green Building Code, which requires in accordance with state law that all new buildings meet the baseline requirements of CALGreen. The Green Building Code exceeds the scope of the state provisions by applying not only to new structures but also to all building additions and alterations over $200,000 in valuation, and by requiring “solar ready” roofs and electric vehicle-ready components for all new buildings.

The voluntary measures in Tier 1 and Tier 2 were not imposed as mandatory requirements. Instead, developers who choose to comply with Tier 1 or Tier 2 will receive priority processing, similar to the incentive provided to LEED Silver projects under the prior green building regulations. In deference to the shift to CALGreen, the Community Redevelopment Agency (“CRA”) is considering replacing the LEED Silver standard that is imposed on redevelopment projects with at least $1 million of CRA investment with CALGreen Tier 1.

Additionally, the Green Team has been disbanded and the authority for implementation of the Green Building Code has been placed in the hands of a new “Green Building Division” of the Department of Building and Safety. A key concern was to assure that adequate staff is trained to process and inspect projects for compliance with the CALGreen standards. To do so, the ordinance included authorization for 19 new Green Building Division positions to be financed by an increase in plan check and permit fees of 10% on all building, plumbing, mechanical, electrical and grading applications, excluding grading plan check applications. Projects seeking priority processing based on Tier 1 or Tier 2 measures will be charged an additional 5% fee. Enforcement will be more stringent than under the predecessor LEED-based Green Building Program. All CALGreen projects will be physically inspected by the Green Building Division to verify compliance. Thus, two sets of building plans will be required for plan check with the extra set going to the Green Building Division for approval.

The City Council action calls for monitoring of the new green scheme. Specifically, the Department of Building and Safety is to provide a status report to the City Council in July 2011, delineating the number of projects processed in the first six months under CALGreen, the revenues received from the verification fees and a summary of the workload associated with enforcement of the Green Building Code.

The City action was designed, first and foremost, to avoid having two green building standards. Having taken the “LEED” in enacting a green building program ahead of the pack, the State’s subsequent codification of its own standard forced the City to decide whether to attempt to retain and reconcile with CALGreen any portion of the international LEED standards or to abandon LEED altogether. Given the administrative challenges of implementing a dual standard approach, the City’s response isn’t surprising. Consequently, it can be expected that other municipalities throughout California that have adopted LEED-based green ordinances will join in exclusively enforcing CALGreen. The question is whether the voluntary CALGreen tiers will ultimately replace the higher LEED levels (Silver, Gold and Platinum) as the premier green building standard in the marketplace and, if so, whether LEED becomes obsolete in California. Stay tuned.