A Work In Progress: First Draft of Green Construction Code

“This is not the end, this is just the beginning.”

After long months of work punctuated by meetings in five American cities across two calendar years, some 200 conference calls spanning four time zones, and thousands of hours of effort delivered by both volunteer working groups populated with members of the Sustainable Building Technology Committee (SBTC)—as well as representatives from a wide variety of industry and special interest groups—and the tireless members of the staff of the International Code Council, the initial rough draft of the proposed International Green Construction Code (IgCC) has been accepted by the ICC for the next steps of preparation in advance of release to the first period of public review and comment.

The finished version of the proposed code is scheduled to be released and available for adoption in the first quarter of 2012. Of course, at that moment the clock will start ticking on the next round of revisions, usually a three-year cycle—a process that has no end.

I cannot speak for other members of the SBTC, but my initial reaction was a blend of relief and optimism. After already being heavily involved in the year-long development and drafting of the National Green Building Standard (aka: ICC-700) throughout most of 2007 and the subsequent, prolonged public comment periods in 2008 (the NGBS received approval of the American National Standards Institute and became an ANSI Standard in January 2009), I wasn’t sure how much time I could justifiably devote to the new effort, and frankly, I privately had to question whether I would have enough energy and passion left to give the kind of effort that this new endeavor would require.

My previous work on ICC-700 would prove to be both the source of my opportunity to serve on the SBTC, thus to help draft the IgCC, and my main motivation for doing so. Since the proposed green construction code is for commercial buildings and ICC-700 will serve as the portion covering residential buildings, it would have been almost impossible for me to pass up the chance to remain involved, if for no other reason than to safeguard the work I had already been part of and the personal investment that implies.

But I must add that the fact that I knew and had previously worked with a number of the other nominees, people who I admire and respect for their personal integrity and their common commitment to making the world a better place, played a major role in my decision to accept a seat and participate in the second process. And I also knew that it presented a huge personal learning opportunity as well.

The earlier committee had been larger in size, comprised of roughly a dozen more members, and it included residential building professionals, building scientists, a limited number of architects and engineers, various building/code officials, and representatives of several green building organizations/programs, utilities, product manufacturers, trade groups, non-governmental organizations and numerous state and federal agencies.

The second committee again included several representatives from the building materials sector, active building/code officials, engineers, energy specialists and sustainability advocates, but it also seated a much higher percentage of architects, both those in active practice and those representing associations and industry organizations.

As the drafting of the second document continued it became increasingly apparent to me that the two approaches to developing templates for sustainable built environments, though similar in most respects, differed in others. Most specifically, and not surprisingly, the green construction code for commercial structures places much more emphasis on design solutions to resolve performance issues before they ever reach the field, while the ANSI Standard is weighted in the direction of execution of the actual steps of the development model and the construction process itself. Theory and application, I suppose you could say.

In the end, they must both be understood for what they are: steps along the same path—one that has no prescribed destination but rather leads back around to itself only to repeat another revolution and start anew.

At the final set of SBTC meetings, which just concluded in Austin, I returned from a working group breakout session to my seat at the table of the committee as a whole to discover a paperback copy of collected works by the renowned American poet, Wendell Berry. It had long been out of print but with some effort and investment a pre-owned copy had been procured and gifted to me by a fellow member of the committee, someone who I have known for many years, a friend with whom I share both a passion for the balance between the built and natural environments and a deep appreciation for those who have mastered this language we call our own.

On the plane ride to my next destination, as I allowed myself to luxuriate in the banquet of verse, I was brought up short by a reference the author made to the bargain we strike when we trade our involvement for efficiency, our ability to communicate our minds through our hands and into our work for the sake of higher productivity, referring to the “numb endurance of metal,” the “breathless distance of iron” and the work that “empowered by burning the world’s body, showed us finally the world’s limits and our own.”

The work of building a better future will never be completed but the real work in progress is in reminding ourselves, and those who come after us, that we must never aspire to automate and pre-program our world to the point where we unwittingly design the regulatory framework of our own obsolescence. We must instead resolve to never allow ourselves to forget not only how things are most elegantly done, but the reasons behind why we do them at all.