San Francisco has an opportunity to reap tremendous economic, environmental, and health benefits by adopting recent advances in “green building”—benefits that will only increase in value over time. Many standard building design, construction, operation, and renovation practices are outmoded, inefficient, costly, and have adverse health and economic effects. The shift to new, environmentally sensitive practices would maintain San Francisco’s status as a leader in urban planning and environmental innovation. A shift to green buildings is also vital to enhancing San Francisco’s livability for its residents, workers, and visitors.
On April 18, 2001, the SPUR Board of Directors voted to urge the city to explore ways to encourage green building in San Francisco. The following paper was developed by the SPUR Sustainable Development Committee, as a contribution to this discussion.
“Green building” is the widely adopted term for strategies to improve the environmental performance of buildings. It includes energy efficiency, water conservation, indoor environmental quality, use of recycled and renewable materials, construction waste reduction, and site planning.
Other cities around the United States and around the world have already begun adopting green building policies to improve the performance of their building stock. Seattle, WA, Portland, OR and New York City all have established programs with explicit targets for performance improvements in new municipal buildings, and the state of California adopted such requirements in the fall of 2000.
San Francisco itself has taken positive measures towards these goals through parts of its General Plan, the 1997 Sustainability Plan, and most specifically in the 1999 Resource-Efficient City Building Ordinance. This 1999 ordinance began a modest pilot program, under the joint jurisdiction of the Department of Environment and the Department of Public Works, to incorporate green building features into new city-owned facilities. This recent law builds on earlier legislation like the residential and commercial energy conservation ordinances.
A more far-reaching green building program could have tremendous benefits for San Francisco. The city can build on its own and other model forays into green building and do more to move municipal buildings in an ecological direction. Perhaps more importantly, there is an urgent need to move private sector development in the direction of more ecologically sensitive design.
The SPUR Sustainable Development Committee suggests using the city’s building code and planning code as instruments to allow, encourage, and, in some cases, require the use of green building techniques in private-sector development in San Francisco. We also suggest support of the Department of Public Works and Department of Environment as they take the next steps in the municipal green building program.
This article is divided into five sections:
1. The need for a green building policy
2. Barriers to green buildings
3. Opportunities in the building code
4. Opportunities in the planning code
5. A green retrofit of municipal buildings
The Need for a Green Building Policy
Building construction and occupancy have significant impacts on natural systems and, thus, on our health and our economy. For example:
- Building-related energy use represents over 30% of the energy consumed in the U.S., including 60% of our electricity consumption.
- Buildings account for at least 35% of U.S. CO2 emissions.
- It is estimated that 30% of buildings in the U.S. have “poor” indoor air quality.
- The direct costs of buildingrelated illnesses may exceed $30 billion in the U.S., while the productivity losses and sickleave resulting from poor building environments approach $100 billion.
- A 1990 study by the American Medical Association and the U.S. Army found that indoor air quality problems cost U.S. businesses 150 million workdays and about $15 billion in productivity losses each year. The World Health Organization puts the losses at more like $60 billion.
- In some regions of the U.S., 40% of landfill space is taken up by construction and demolition debris, at least half of which could have been recycled.
Conventional building design and construction have created and continue to create environmental damage that compromises public health and the earth’s living systems. Due to the longevity of buildings (30-50+ years), we will live with adverse (or beneficial) effects for a very long time.
By far the most important factor determining the environmental impact of a building is its location. Building in a city, where people can walk and take transit, is always better than building in the suburbs, to which the building’s occupants will have to drive and where the building itself may harm ecologically productive land. Under this first criterion, San Francisco is by definition a good place to build, and locating within walking distance of major transit lines is the right place to build within San Francisco. The General Plan, which governs the location of new development in the city, is perhaps the most important environmental document in the city’s administrative structure. It already directs growth into the most environmentally appropriate locations.
The goal of designing buildings according to green building techniques, therefore, directs our attention away from planning issues per se to site-specific issues at the scale of the parcel. Once a site has been selected (ideally based on principles in the General Plan), we now ask, what kind of building is to be constructed?
Green building guidelines for San Francisco would include at least four areas (each explained in the sidebars below):
1. Energy use
2. Water use
3. Resource use/solid waste
4. Indoor environment
Within office buildings, roughly 50% of energy is used for climate control (heating, cooling, and ventilation) and lighting; the rest is used by other building systems and internal equipment such as office machines. While residential buildings typically require space heating, commercial buildings, because of their high occupant and equipment loads and lower proportion of surface to volume (given their multi-story design), require substantial amounts of cooling, sometimes even in winter. Although California’s Title 24 requires substantial energy conservation measures to be taken in all new construction or major renovations, California still faces a state-wide power shortage and most buildings in the state use far more energy than is necessary.
Energy efficiency is particularly attractive because its costs and economic benefits can be accurately projected and measured, and the benefits typically outweigh the costs. Utility companies have demonstrated that they can avoid the costs of increasing their generating capacity by investing in energy conservation, sometimes even paying building owners to install new appliances, insulation, and related features. Building owners can realize rapid paybacks (typically within one to five years) through reduced operating costs (which sometimes can be cut by more than 50%). Particularly with recent developments in the California energy market, lowering a building’s demand for energy represents a significant opportunity for savings. Similarly, supplying a building’s own energy needs through renewable energy sources (photovoltaics, wind, or bio-mass) has never been more economically attractive.
Why doesn’t more green building take place in San Francisco? We have identified four reasons that are particularly significant:
- Tradition. Inertia in the design and building professions means that a lot of people will tend to do things the way that they learned how to, or follow the path of least resistance. This is a typical response to change. It points to the need for education and training to raise awareness about green buildings.
- Codes. In some cases, the building code makes it hard to pursue green building techniques. For example, it is currently illegal to capture rain water and do something with it on-site; it must be sent into the combined sewer system. It’s difficult to build office buildings that are entirely cooled with natural ventilation without running afoul of the fire code. The codes have many such barriers.
- Expense. The extra costs of green building techniques vary widely. Generally, technologically advanced energy, heating, cooling, and lighting systems lend themselves to clear cost-benefit calculations. The vast majority of these green building techniques represent no cost or low cost replacements or redesigns of existing systems. Even the most radical systems will pay for themselves over the life of the building, even without government subsidies. However, given that in most cases the developer of a building is not the ultimate tenant or even owner, the time horizon for cost-benefit analysis is much shorter than the life of the building. This points to the need for public intervention to watch out for building quality over a longer time horizon. In addition, other green building techniques do not lend themselves to such simple cost-benefit calculations, but they could still be socially valuable.
- Externalized costs. Markets fail when the benefits or costs of a transaction are not fully captured by the price. For example, think of a factory that uses a nearby stream as a “sink” for its pollution. Without government regulation, the costs of the factory’s production are externalized onto society as a whole, and the goods produced are underpriced compared to their social cost. That is, the goods are artificially cheaper than they should be because they do not include the cost of cleaning up the system. Building development is full of this kind of externalized cost. If a developer makes a street inhospitable to pedestrians by lining it with a parking garage, the value is increased for the tenants (who can park conveniently), but the public realm is made worse off. Conversely, if a developer spends extra money to plant a roof landscape to capture and retain rain and keep it out of the peak sewer loads, the developer is not compensated for the added costs.
The cost to expand water supply infrastructure is becoming prohibitively high for local governments, and diverting water from other areas is politically less popular than ever. Water could very well be the most contentious resource issue California will face in coming years. In addition to demand management, there are many ways to use less water, both inside and outside of buildings. Conserving water saves building owners money on water and sewer bills, and reduces the need for river damming and wastewater treatment facility expansions (which depend on taxpayer dollars).
Because developers are the “middle-men,” they are very unlikely to spend extra money for green building features voluntarily. There must be a level playing field—a set of design and construction standards that apply equally to all projects.
San Francisco can do many things to overcome these barriers. The costs are too high to continue to develop in ways that compromise our health and over-consume energy, water, and other natural resources. Moreover, the moderate cost of most green building techniques and given the moderate climate of San Francisco, we are in an ideal position to raise our expectations about the quality of development that takes place in our city.
The SPUR Sustainable Development Committee believes the right approach to this problem is to go into the heart of the codes themselves, and to make selective changes to the building and planning codes. Rather than create a new bureaucratic layer in the development approval process (e.g., an ecological permitting board), which would either be ignored or, if it were implemented, would add to the time and risk associated with development, we propose that changes be made within the existing building regulatory framework. Highly trained building inspectors already have the task of making sure that buildings meet building code requirements. The Planning Department already goes through a design review process. The most elegant and effective way to encourage green building in San Francisco is to work within the codes that already govern the construction of all buildings in the city.
Opportunities in the Building Code
San Francisco traditionally has taken a broader view of the building code than most American cities, using it as a tool for aesthetic, economic, and cultural goals. In addition to ensuring that buildings are safe, the Building Department (which enforces the code) is the logical agency to ensure that buildings are environmentally sustainable. Our committee proposes the following actions:
1. Redefine the mission of the Department of Building Inspection and the Building Inspection Commission to include ensuring the environmental sustainability of buildings within the city.
2. Based on this expanded departmental mission, modify the job descriptions of the Director of the Department and other staff, as appropriate. Do not marginalize environmental concerns within a separate division; rather, work to create cultural change within the department so that sustainability becomes a core part of everyone’s work.
3. Appoint an official committee of architects, contractors, building inspectors, and green building experts to revise the building code to remove all barriers to green building within the limits set by health and safety standards.
4. Conduct an inventory of green building laws that are already on the books, but not being implemented. If they are faulty, alter them to be workable, or develop implementation plans. In particular, we recommend the removal of the following barriers within the building code:
- Make it easier for buildings to use natural ventilation instead of air conditioning. Designing for natural ventilation is one of the most dramatic green building strategies. It saves significant money during construction by not having to put in a traditional heating, ventilation and air-conditioning (HVAC) systems. More importantly, it saves large amounts of energy over the life of the building. Natural ventilation requires more than simply having operable windows; it means, for example, designing to take advantage of the natural tendency of differences in air pressure to equalize, and distribute air throughout the building. But the goal of natural ventilation runs up against problems in the code, especially the fire code, which tends to limit air movements in order to limit the ability of fires to spread. There is no single solution that will work for all situations. The Building Department, the Fire Department, and the American Institute of Architects (AIA), among others, need to work together to develop guidelines to provide natural ventilation in ways that take into account fire-safety concerns.
- Allow rainwater to be captured and put to use on site. Right now, the code requires all runoff to drain directly into the combined sewer system. This means that when it rains, and the sewers are flooded by peak volumes of runoff, the combination of sewage and rainwater overwhelms the sewer system and flows into the bay. In order to reduce the incidence of combined sewer overflows, the city need to find ways to trap, store, and use more of the rainwater. Storing rainwater in cisterns, for non-potable uses like flushing toilets or watering plants, is currently not allowed. It should be legalized, so long as the intent of the code is respected—which is that water from someone’s property can’t drain onto someone else’s property or onto the public right of way. (This idea would be strengthened if San Francisco followed the lead of other cities such as Seattle by reducing people’s sewer bills if they reduce the amount of impermeable surface area on their property by installing “sod roofs” or rainwater catchment systems.)
In a smaller number of cases, it also makes sense to go beyond simply allowing green design, to the point of actually requiring it. This was the approach of California’s Title 24 Energy Act. Sooner or later, as a society, we are going to have to take environmental sustainability seriously enough to view it as something more than a voluntary “extra.”
We suggest that the Building Department explore ways to require green building design in the following areas:
- Ensure that office workers have natural light in their work spaces. Design strategies that bring light to all (or most) occupants can have a profound effect on the energy consumption and habitability of buildings. The building code already requires that every residential space used for eating, sleeping, or living must have a window, but there is no such requirement for office space. Older office buildings were often designed with courtyards or slender towers to bring light to the inhabitants, but the modern tendency for people to “cocoon” in artificially heated, cooled and lighted spaces has allowed building footprints to grow ever larger, thus removing large portions of interior space from daylight. While the “finger” designs of some European green buildings may not be appropriate for the urban style of San Francisco, there are many ways to design for daylight that are compatible with high densities, tall buildings, and good urban design.
- Require energy-efficiency retrofits when commercial buildings are sold or upgraded. The city has a Residential Energy Conservation Ordinance and a Residential Water Conservation Ordinance in the housing code. These provisions require that money be spent on a defined set of energy and water conserving measures at the time of sale (low-flow faucets and toilets, ceiling insulation, weather stripping, etc.). The laws spell out the requirements clearly and ensure compliance by requiring inspections in order to complete a transfer of title to the property. In 1988, the city adopted analogous ordinances for commercial buildings. The Commercial Energy Conservation Ordinance (CECO) was particularly far-reaching, requiring optimization of HVAC, lighting, hot water, and motor-driven systems. (This optimizing process was a combination of building “commissioning” to make sure the systems work as originally intended and “retrofitting,” which actually upgraded the performance of the systems.) Unfortunately, CECO was removed from the building code in 1995, by action of the Board of Supervisors and Building Inspection Commission. (The Commercial Water Conservation Ordinance still stands.) By many accounts, CECO was hard to enforce. It should be revisited, finetuned, and reinstated in some form.
- Require non-toxic materials for indoor air quality. The Building Department already determines what materials are allowed in all aspects of the construction process. The finishing of indoor spaces, however, is behind the times. Indoor air quality can be dramatically improved by the use of non-toxic materials. This provision, like many green building strategies, would directly improve the health and comfort of buildings for their inhabitants.
- Require new buildings to be built with dual plumbing so that recycled water can be used for nonpotable purposes. One of the biggest open secrets of green building in San Francisco is that the city already has a Reclaimed Water Use Ordinance. Passed in 1991, during the last drought, this law actually directed the Public Utilities Commission (PUC) to construct an entire reclaimed water “grid” that would make recycled water available throughout the city. This recycled water system would treat the water to a standard that makes it usable for urban uses, but not drinking. The largest users would be parks. The law also requires that all buildings and subdivisions covering an area of more than 40,000 square feet be built with dual plumbing so that they can separate sewage from reclaimed water. The Department of Public Works and the PUC issued a Recycled Water Master Plan in 1995, which presented plans for the water lines, pump stations, reservoirs, and treatment plants. Implementation of the ordinance has stalled, but this idea could prove to one of the most far-sighted experiments in ecological urban design to be undertaken anywhere. The city may need to set up a Citizen Advisory Committee to keep this ambitious project on track, establish a logical phasing for the new infrastructure, and figure out how to pay for it.
Resource Use / Solid Waste
The 3 R’s of waste management—reduce, reuse, recycle—can all be applied to building construction. If building material use is reduced and building materials are reused or recycled, owners and/or contractors can enjoy substantial savings in procuring materials and avoiding steep disposal fees (which are increasing as landfills fill up). Most construction waste is wood, drywall, metal, concrete, dirt, and cardboard, all of which can be reused or recycled when prepared properly.
Opportunities in the Planning Code
The planning code, as a reflection of the General Plan, is already oriented towards sustainability in the deepest sense of the word because it conveys a vision of a city that is oriented towards pedestrians, transit, and urbanity. Nevertheless, there are some parts of the code, governing the design of individual buildings, which currently act as barriers to green building. In particular, we suggest the following changes:
1. Encourage productive use of rooftops. One of the fundamental concepts of ecological urbanism is the need to make use of vertical space. In a dense city with high lot coverage, rooftops make up a high percentage of the total area. Every rooftop presents an opportunity to contribute something ecologically productive: solar panels, windmills, gardens, plantings which will capture rainwater, or—if nothing else— roofs which are colored white to decrease the cooling load and “heat island” effect. The planning code should encourage or require that something ecologically productive
2. Reduce parking requirements. Cars account for a great deal of water and air pollution in San Francisco and a truly green building would not include parking. Electric cars create pollution at the source where electricity is generated, and especially in today’s climate of energy shortages, are no solution to the pollution problem posed by cars. Cars also consume a huge amount of space in a city, occupying land that might be better used. In cities especially, cars are a poor choice for transportation. Reducing car traffic in our cities is one of the most important goals of a healthy city, as it helps not only the natural ecology but also the human ecology. San Francisco should take the modest step, not of banning new parking spaces, but of allowing developers of office space and housing to build projects with no parking, especially in the most transit accessible locations.
3. Clarify the light and air goals of the Downtown Plan. Both the public realm (the streets) and the private realm (offices) in downtown need access to the sky. This implies buildings that are taller with space in between them, rather than squat buildings, right next to one another. The pattern of new office development in SOMA is not entirely encouraging on this front. The requirements of the Downtown Plan may need to be revisited to ensure that skyscrapers in the urban core have space between them. A subtle but related point is to strengthen the Urban Design Plan’s call for buildings that are light in color: the reflected sunlight from such buildings has a big impact on the ability of surrounding spaces to rely on natural light.
Most people spend about 90% of their time indoors. Our indoor environments have a significant impact on our health and well-being, affecting our productivity and performance. Since salaries are the largest expense for most businesses—vastly more than construction or utility costs—even small investments in worker health and productivity can have enormous pay-offs through reduced absenteeism, lower health care costs, more efficient performance, and a reduced liability risk. Poor indoor air quality can lead to "sick building syndrome" and a lack of exposure to natural light has been shown to adversely effect workers’ mental health and productivity. Studies have shown a sustained 3% to 15% percent increase in productivity from indoor environment improvements. The Reno Nevada Post Office documented a sustained 6% rise in productivity among workers at the Reno, Nevada post office after an energy-efficient daylighting retrofit; the Verifone Corporation’s daylighting, air filtration, and low-toxicity materials specification contributed to a 45% decrease in absenteeism at their Costa Mesa plant. Indoor environment improvements in schools have also been shown to improve student performance. Abatement of building toxins, such as lead, can increase children’s educational capacity.
A Green Retrofit of Municipal Buildings
California’s current energy crisis is only one indication of the pressure on the state’s resources, and hence the city of San Francisco’s resources, that will grow with projected population increases. Responsible governments and institutions recognize that conservation strategies are less expensive, more reliable, and more ecologically sensitive than developing new resource-intensive infrastructure. Given the large role played by buildings in resource use, and energy use in particular, a “green building” policy for San Francisco’s city government is a basic good-government initiative t hat should find ready support among a broad range of interests and the general public.
In 1999, the city passed a landmark Municipal Resource Efficient Building Ordinance. It mandated that city buildings do the easy things, like installing efficient appliances and fixtures during building renovations. It also initiated a pilot program within the Department of Public Works to design new buildings according to green building principles. SPUR’s Sustainable Development Committee believes the city is now ready to take the next steps, and build on this past ordinance with two measures:
- Prepare a General Obligation Bond measure to pay for a retrofit of the city’s current capital stock of buildings to make more efficient use of energy, water, and other natural resources, and provide a better working environment for city employees. Due to the cost savings associated with reduced energy, water and materials, usage, and productivity gains anticipated by improved air quality, the city stands to save money in reduced overhead and operating expenses. The benefit should, in time, pay for the bond. Once paid, all the remaining benefits accrue to the city itself. Public bond financing for such an initiative is an almost textbook application of the bond measure process, an idea quite similar to retrofitting city buildings for seismic safety. A bond expenditure plan should be prepared, which looks at the full range of possible green building solutions for city property, estimates costs, and prioritizes the projects in terms of cost/benefits ratios.
- Reform the city’s guidelines for contract specification, procurement, and capital planning to incorporate strong green building requirements. These should be translated into the requests for qualifications for project teams and put into the contract specifications. To the degree that the city’s Purchasing Department influences capital expenditures, they are also in a strong position to promote resource efficiency by incorporating it into their procurement requirements. Both of these proposals would result in a healthier work environment and would also benefit the public that uses city services. Additionally, improved environmental performance and healthier natural systems around the city would benefit the public in many intangible ways.
It’s time for San Francisco to upgrade the quality of its buildings. We can direct new construction to make a more positive contribution to the energy needs and ecological balance of our city. At the same time, we can improve the livability of the city for everyone. We can do all of this in ways that will not hinder the development process or distort the real estate market. By changing the building and planning codes, we can bring green building to the private sector in San Francisco.
The public sector can experience a similar transformation by enacting a bond measure to pay for the retrofit of city buildings. We’ve done it for seismic safety. It’s time to do it for ecological performance.
The architecture of San Francisco can combine the virtues of high-density urbanism with the benefits of ecologically sensitive design. We can make green building the norm for urban construction in the 21st century.