Architects and owners looking to construct high-performance buildings have a number of options to guide the process. Certification programs, like those offered by the U.S. Green Building Council, the International Living Future Institute, the Green Building Initiative, and the International Well Building Institute, provide frameworks for decision-making and myriad pathways to achievement. But these systems are all optional.

The International Code Council (ICC) hopes to bridge the gap between elective rating programs and prescriptive building codes with the recent release of the 2018 International Green Construction Code (IgCC). This third iteration of the code was developed in a joint effort with ASHRAE, which previously offered its own sustainability standard, ASHRAE 189.1, alongside the IgCC. Recognizing the need for synthesis and collaboration, the organizations merged ASHRAE 189.1 into the 2018 version of the IgCC.

Another Green Code?
Given the number of voluntary sustainable rating programs, a green building code may seem redundant. But “a building code is much more prescriptive and is generally meant to raise the floor rather than elevate the ceiling,” says Kim Shinn, a senior principal and sustainability consultant based in Nashville office of TLC Engineering for Architecture. In contrast, he continues, rating programs are a collection of best practices that target the part of the marketplace that wants to do better than the code. As Shinn sees it, the IgCC gives communities the opportunity to establish their sustainable design priorities using verified code language from the model code. These priorities, once integrated into the building code, could then be enforced as law by the jurisdiction’s code officials. “The IgCC is the perfect avenue for communities to adopt tested sustainable code language into their local amendments,” he says.

The IgCC, for example, could guide a community short on landfill space to develop strategies for construction waste management without adopting the entire code, Shinn says. Section 901.3.1.1 Diversion, for one, requires construction sites to send at least half of its non-hazardous waste to be reused, recycled, or otherwise repurposed. Additionally, a construction waste plan must be submitted prior to issuance of demolition or construction permits.

Stuart Kaplow, an environmental attorney, principal at his eponymous Baltimore-based practice and publisher of the Green Building Law Update blog, sees the IgCC’s value as further encouragement of sustainable construction practices. “I believe that many, if not most, of the adoptions of the IgCC will be as a voluntary code with an alternate compliance path,” he says. “In that function, IgCC can be a market leader. … It makes perfect sense because there’s no one homogenized building type in the U.S. If someone is building an auditorium on a college campus, that building type is incredibly different from a multifamily residential building on private property.”

Bruce Damonte The San Francisco Art Institute, designed by Leddy Maytum Stacy Architects, is an example of a high-performance building and a 2018 AIA COTE Top Ten Award winner (it was not necessarily designed to meet the IgCC).

Code Change Highlights
Since the 2018 IgCC incorporates the ASHRAE 189.1 standard, it differs markedly from its past editions. Section 501.3.1.2 Prohibited Development Activity, for example, states that no development can occur on previously undeveloped land 5 feet below the 100-year flood plain. Kaplow believes this requirement will likely be edited or left out by many jurisdictions. “Most jurisdictions already have a flood plain ordinance,” he says. “They are more likely to tie the IgCC into their existing ordinance as opposed to adopting a new standard.”

Likewise, Section 801. Minimum Daylight Area states that not less than 50 percent of the building floor area shall receive natural daylight; previously, the IgCC required only 25 percent of the floor area for structures with three or more stories. This strikes Kaplow as unduly limiting. “It would appear to restrict private offices because interior [spaces] won’t receive daylight,” he says. “But more importantly, it starts to restrict the size of floor plates. That’s fine if you’re building a three-story suburban office building, but what about bigger buildings in Chicago, New York, or any urban center?”

Another new requirement concerns Environmental Product Declarations (EPDs), third-party verified documents that report the environmental impact of products based on their life-cycle assessment using the ISO 14025 standard. Per Section 901.4.1.4 Multiple-Attribute Product Declaration or Certification, at least 10 materials installed in a building must have an EPD—which could be a burden for small design firms working on smaller projects. “If you’re building a $300 million, 38-story building, 10 EPDs is not a big deal,” Kaplow says. “But if you’re building a one-story, 10,000-square-foot flex space building in Des Moines, 10 EPDs might be a problem.”

Though Kaplow understands the value of such a requirement, he disagrees with its mandatory nature: “At some level, you have to make this move. But it’s difficult to justify cutting-edge science in a mandatory code.”

IgCC Users Today
Adoption of the IgCC, which debuted in 2012, has been slow. While other building codes benefited from government mandating their adoption, the IgCC currently lacks federal support. President Barack Obama’s American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, for example, required states to meet or exceed the 2009 International Energy Conservation Code (IeCC) for residential projects, and ASHRAE 90.1-2007 for commercial projects; as a result, the IeCC was widely adopted.

To date, fewer than 20 jurisdictions use parts of the IgCC, according to the ICC. The state of Maryland adopted the 2012 IgCC as an alternate compliance path to its mandated LEED Silver certification for public projects exceeding 7,500 gross square feet and for new public schools. Likewise, the Rhode Island Green Buildings Act, which requires LEED certification for all major public facilities and projects and school districts, recognizes the IgCC as an equivalent standard.

Shinn believes the glacial pace of adoption is also related to the nature of the code itself. “Code officials, who make up the preponderance of the ICC membership, are comfortable working in the life-safety field,” he says. “The crossover to energy, sustainability, and construction best practices is something that group never felt comfortable doing.” He thinks the IgCC has the best chance for adoption “in jurisdictions that have the ability to rely on a consultancy service to help code officials do the reviews and the verifications during construction.”

Similarly, Kaplow sees the IgCC as a good standard but one that jurisdictions will tweak before adoption. “It’s not something someone is going to be able to adopt off the shelf,” he says. Because people tend not to equate sustainability as imperative as health, safety, and welfare, he adds, “I think most Americans are not going to be comfortable with their government criminalizing the failure of someone to achieve some energy savings in a building.”

But, Shinn notes, jurisdictions can pick and choose which parts of the IgCC to adopt. The elements selected, he says, will be “rooted in an individual community’s need to help them raise the floor on particular issues that are clear and present dangers [to that community].”

Michael David Rose Sonoma Academy’s Janet Durgin Guild and Commons, designed by WRNS Studio and a 2018 AIA COTE Top Ten winner, is an example of a high-performance building (this project was not necessarily designed in accordance to the IgCC).

Testing the Promise
To date, the 2018 IgCC has generated a lot of buzz among green building groups and jurisdictions. “Because it’s so new, it is certainly being widely discussed and widely considered,” Kaplow says. The Maryland Green Building Council, for example, included discussion of the code in its December meeting agenda. The timing of IgCC’s release could also benefit its adoption. “A driver is going to be that many governments are in the process of adopting the 2018 codes,” Kaplow states. ”Because they’re in the cycle, that could give [the IgCC] some uptake.”

One approach that has worked for some jurisdictions is including the IgCC as an equivalent to other sustainability rating systems, like LEED or Green Globes. In Maryland, designers could choose which standard to adopt for their project. “There’s a menu and you have a choice of what you want to use,” Kaplow says. “The IgCC is currently used for a lot of tenant fit-outs and renovations. Its requirements make sense, where LEED doesn’t for [these projects].”

A couple years will pass before the IgCC is truly adopted, Shinn says. “If past is prologue, [jurisdictions] tend to lag the generations of the ICC codes by one or two versions. It wouldn’t surprise me if we don’t see any adoptions of the 2018 IgCC until next year, [and enforcement not] until 2020 or 2021.”

Despite the potential lag in uptake, Kaplow is optimistic. “There’s no question this is a good standard. You build [to the IgCC] and you’re going to get a green building.”