Building green in SF

The city considers rival plans to implement mandatory green design standards for new residential and commercial buildings

GREEN CITY Wind turbines and solar panels may soon sprout on San Francisco rooftops as the city considers rival plans to implement mandatory green design standards for new residential and commercial buildings.

One ordinance proposed by Mayor Gavin Newsom's Green Building Task Force would require new commercial construction of more than 5,000 square feet, residential buildings above 75 feet, and renovations to buildings of more than 25,000 square feet to be Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Gold certified by 2012, the second-highest designation.

The U.S. Green Building Council developed the point-based LEED system based on numerous green factors. The lowest green standard is LEED Certified, followed by Silver, Gold, and Putf8um. The new Academy of Sciences building, with the country's largest living roof, is LEED Putf8um.

Newsom's legislation would start off by mandating requiring only the lowest standard, LEED Certified, which requires 26 points, and gradually move to LEED Gold by 2012. But Board of Supervisors president Aaron Peskin has introduced an ordinance that would require the same buildings to immediately earn LEED Gold certification.

According to the LEED system, most existing buildings already have between 18 to 22 points, so Newsom's proposed goal should be fairly easily attainable. A bike rack outside a building qualifies for 1 point. Proximity to mass transit gains another point, and Muni runs within two blocks of 90 percent of all San Francisco residences, according to the Municipal Transportation Agency.

At a green building standards workshop Feb. 20 at the San Francisco Green Party's office, about 20 people voiced their concerns with the ordinances in front of three city commissioners.

"We need to correct the language to include all buildings," said panelist Patricia Gerber, a member of the city's Peak Oil Preparedness Task Force. The San Francisco Office of Economic Analysis last year concluded both proposed ordinances would impact only 38 percent of the construction industry. "We should look to Europe for inspiration," Gerber recommended. "They have much stricter standards."

Some European nations started mandatory green construction in the mid-'90s, but critics say the United States has lagged.

"There are no minimum requirements on windows, insulation, and leaks," Gerber told the Guardian, describing the proposed ordinances. "LEED is a joke."

But Mark Westlund, spokesman for the Department of the Environment, defended Newsom's longer LEED certification timeline. "We want to develop a green building plan that business can work with," he told us.

The Green Building Task Force claims that businesses need time to adjust to the higher costs associated with green materials, such as EnergyStar windows, can reduce heating costs by 30 to 40 percent. "They're expensive because they're used on a small scale. The minute they require it, it will become cheaper," John Rizzo, Green Party member and City College Trustee, told the audience. "It would be great if this could be done on a statewide level."

Panelists noted that green buildings save money in energy costs over the long run. Another criticism raised at the workshop was the Newsom plan's loopholes. "Even if a project is approved green, it might not end up green," Gerber told us. If a construction company runs out of money for example, it can ask the planning director to waive LEED certification.

In addition, the event attendees questioned the credibility of the mayor's Green Building Task Force, which does not include any environmentalists.

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