'Green' rules emerging for Palo Alto buildings

Checklists mandate rules for new construction under plan recommended by planning commission -- could take effect July 1

After July, new buildings in Palo Alto are likely to be green.

Green as in energy efficient, constructed with sustainable materials, water saving, toxic avoiding and well ventilated thanks to a green-building ordinance approved Wednesday by the Planning and Transportation Commission.

"This is the first really good start in getting our hands around the whole issue of green building and sustainability and slowly but surely reducing the carbon footprint of this city," Commissioner Lee Lippert said.

The commission approved the program on a 6-1 vote during a more than six-hour meeting, with Chair Karen Holman voting no because the rules don't go far enough. The recommendation is scheduled to go to the City Council May 12 and if approved would take effect July 1.

Holman said she thought the standards weren't adequate because they didn't penalize basements, which require at least 200 tons of concrete, and didn't reward re-use, rather than demolition, of existing houses.

Commissioner Paula Sandas said she agreed with Holman, but believed the city should adopt the checklists.

"I think this is a starting point. I think we're talking about progress and not perfection," Sandas said.

The program is based on checklists developed by California's "Build It Green" program and by the U.S. Green Building Council.

The green-building checklists now have wide acceptance among builders and developers, Assistant Planning Director Curtis Williams told the commission.

Residential projects would have to comply with Build It Green's GreenPoint Rated checklist, which has at least 251 available "points" for single-family houses.

Commercial projects would have to meet the building council's Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) standards, which has 69 points available for new buildings.

The GreenPoint Rated checklist offers points for construction waste recycling, drought-tolerant landscaping, sustainable wood, low-emission paints and solar panels, for example.

Commercial projects can earn LEED points for locating close to public transportation, reducing light pollution and water use, using renewable energy and recycled material and maintaining good interior-air quality.

Palo Alto's proposed ordinance would require all commercial buildings larger than 5,000 square feet to meet LEED "Silver" standard of 33 points.

Multi-family and single-family houses larger than 1,250 square feet would have to earn at least 70 points on the GreenPoint Rated scale. Larger houses would have to earn more points.

The program would be phased in: Residential builders will only have to earn 75 percent of the necessary points within the first two years to allow time to master the new requirements, Williams said.

Major remodels and additions would also be subject to the new requirements.

Certification of the checklists and projects is the tricky of the new program, Williams said.

Currently, planners are proposing only that new commercial projects larger than 25,000 square feet must have official LEED certification.

Other commercial-building checklists could be reviewed by a LEED-certified architect.

Residential checklists would have to be verified by a GreenPoint "rater" certified by the Build It Green program. Williams said city staff members will explore additional training opportunities.

The city's building inspectors aren't familiar with the requirements, Chief Building Official Larry Perlin said. And the most important factor for Palo Alto builders is time, not money, Perlin said.

"What I don't want to have this ordinance do is to cause any additional delays," Perlin said.

Commissioner Samir Tuma said he also thought adding time to the permitting process would jeopardize the program's acceptance.

"What we're trying to accomplish here is to reduce impacts to the environment. Generally, Palo Altans want to do that," Tuma said.

But builders will resist if the checklists add time and cost to projects, he warned.

Perlin said he thinks the ordinance would add $1,500 to $2,500 to the cost of building a single-family house and 5 to 15 percent to the cost of a commercial building.

Yet the costs tend to balance out over the life of the building through energy and water savings, Williams said.

He said any added cost to the city would be eventually transferred to developers.

There may be other benefits beyond environmental: Studies show that green buildings have lower vacancies and higher worker productivity as well, Perlin said.

"When you really start looking at all the benefits, you more than make up that initial up-front cost over the life of the building," Perlin said.

The city originally intended to introduce mandatory green building for residences in 2009, but planners decided to go ahead this year after the standards were approved by the Northern California Homebuilders' Association.

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Like this comment
Posted by Senor Blogger
a resident of Palo Verde
on Apr 10, 2008 at 8:20 am

This just added a minimum of 2 to 3% of total cost to every new building, residential or commercial.

Like this comment
Posted by I'm for Green
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Apr 10, 2008 at 8:24 am

Good, with those kind of restriction on building in Palo Alto, perhaps developers will go to other City's where building can be cost effective.

Like this comment
Posted by Walter_E_Wallis
a resident of Midtown
on Apr 10, 2008 at 8:25 am

On the other hand, this may double my billing for energy conservation compliance documentation. Thanks, council.

Like this comment
Posted by Let's Jump off a Cliff without Looking
a resident of Community Center
on Apr 10, 2008 at 10:35 am

Gee, the council does not know who will inspect these construction projects to ensure compliance with the new standards, they have no experience with how that will work or how much time or cost it will add, they have not published the checklist for public comment, and they want to begin imposing these regulations right away, phasing them in over time but still requiring compliance immediately with unknown, poorly understood, untested requirements and no clear tested enforcement mechanism.

I'm all for this, but wouldn't it have been better to start it off, say, as a 6 or 12-month voluntary trial program -- get all the details worked out, fix any problems, and then make it mandatory?

These people on our Council are in such a competitive rush to show they are Green -- the new Apple Pie -- they are willing to overlook the obvious need to proceed with good sense. It's really an appalling lack of judgment on the part of the Council. Gee, maybe I did make a mistake voting for those young kids -- experience, it turns out, might matter after all.

Like this comment
Posted by R Wray
a resident of Palo Verde
on Apr 10, 2008 at 10:47 am

Fundamentally, restrictions such as these are a violation of property rights. Practically, they don't accomplish their stated goals. More old, inefficient buildings will remain in service longer. The government standards will become the accepted practice and innovation will be discouraged. If the restrictions are severe enough the city will atrophy and die which is what the Greens want.

Like this comment
Posted by Steve Broadbent
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Apr 10, 2008 at 11:31 am

The draft ordinance can be found at: Web Link

Addtional details from the study sessions, including the checklists, can be found in two parts.

Part A: Web Link
Part B: Web Link

There was a public comment period, but it was not well advertised and sparsely attended. At last night's Planning Commission meeting, only 3 people spoke during the Public Hearing.

I did raise the concern that the cost impacts were not adequately addressed by staff. There will be increased permit fees, new inspection/certification fees, and additional architecture, design, and construction costs imposed on property owners by this ordinance. When I raised this question during the public comment period, staff told me that most of the cost should be recouped through energy savings over the lifetime of the building, but there was no hard data behind this.

I also expressed concerns, as did another speaker, that the Green Building ordinance did not go far enough. Projects that remove water from our underground aquifers during the construction of a basement are NOT green in my opinion. The City needs a serious review of it's basement construction policies.

For those on this blog who want to comment more directly on the Green Building ordinance, here is the tentative schedule for the next public hearings:

Architectural Review Board: April 17, 2008
City Council: May 12, 2008 (tentative)

Like this comment
Posted by Jane
a resident of Professorville
on Apr 10, 2008 at 12:47 pm

Scientific American explains, in detail, what to do if one of your new congressionally mandated light compact fluorescent bulbs happens to break:

Jim Berlow, director of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) Hazardous Waste Minimization and Management Division, recommends starting by opening the windows and stepping outside. "Any problems at all frequently are handled for the most part by quickly ventilating the room," he says.

"Get all the people and pets out of the room for 15 minutes and let the room air out.

If you have a central heating system or an HVAC [heating, ventilating and air-conditioning] system, you don't want it sucking the fumes around, so shut that down."

The important thing is not to touch the heavy metal (mercury). After airing out the room, the larger pieces of the bulb should be scooped off hard surfaces with stiff paper or cardboard or picked up off carpeted surfaces with gloves to avoid contact.

Use sticky tape or duct tape to pick up smaller fragments; then, on hard surfaces, wipe down the area with a damp paper towel or a wet wipe.

All materials should be placed in a sealable plastic bag or, even better, in a glass jar with a metal lid.

"If it gets in the jar, that's pretty good containment," Berlow states. "We've found that the plastic bags actually don't contain any mercury fumes, so absolutely, if you've got the plastic bag, get it outside when you're done."

Vacuums or brooms should generally be avoided, as they can spread mercury to other parts of the house.

Like this comment
Posted by CFL user
a resident of Ventura
on Apr 10, 2008 at 4:32 pm

Regarding Green Building: The building owners are lowering their costs over the life of their home, so the investment of going green will pay back (oil hit $110/barrel today).

Regarding CFLs: Mercury contained in and used to manufacture one CFL is 75% less than the mercury emitted in generating the excess electricity used by incandescents. If you are on the Palo Alto Green (100% renewable) energy rate, and recycle all CFLs, then the mercury is negligible.

Think long term- act for the next 7 generations!

Like this comment
Posted by julie
a resident of Midtown
on Apr 10, 2008 at 4:35 pm

30% of the mercury pollution in the atmosphere in the Bay Area comes from China

Like this comment
Posted by Greg
a resident of Southgate
on Apr 10, 2008 at 5:10 pm

Just trying to think long term here.

Can anyone please explain to me how the long term can be achieved without nuclear power? Even the most optimistic dreams about solar energy only keep up with the increased demand that is forcast. It does not take up base load (you know, that electricity that we use on a regular basis).

This is not high scale math. It is simple arithmetic. We need reliable, low-cost energy, in order to survive as a modern economy.

There is so much fantasy occuring here!

Like this comment
Posted by Dan
a resident of Midtown
on Apr 10, 2008 at 7:13 pm

"Regarding Green Building: The building owners are lowering their costs over the life of their home, so the investment of going green will pay back (oil hit $110/barrel today)."

If this is true, then shouldn't it be a voluntary program ... not a city requirement? Everyone loves to save money, but you have to count the opportunity cost of spending that extra time, effort, frustration, and money TODAY for something that will only "pay back" over many years (maybe never if the rules change down the road and more expensive upgrades become required by "law"). The payback timeframe might be relatively short for energy-intensive new commercial construction ... but will likely be quite long for a remodel or addition on an existing moderate-sized home.
I suspect the overhead costs of this regulation are being seriously under-estimated in the way they will ultimately be passed along to everyone trying to build/expand a home or remodel. I wonder if lower cost builders/remodelers who don't do a lot of work in Palo Alto will be hesitant to take jobs subject to the new unfamiliar requirements.
I'm all for home building regulations that protect our safety (like earthquake standards), but in this case the city should stay out of creating bureaucracy in an attempt to manipulate people's personal choices in their own home.

Like this comment
Posted by Walter E. Wallis
a resident of Midtown
on Apr 10, 2008 at 9:15 pm

Poor architects - this is the engineer's full employment act. We have stringent federal and state energy and efficiency standards. Why not a program to reduce leakage of water mains by 50%, rainwater incursion into the sanitary sewer system by 80% and to increase retention of storm water? And how about remote electrical metering with preferential off-peak rates? Sheesh! What a bunch of maroons!

Like this comment
Posted by Maroons or Macaroons
a resident of South of Midtown
on Apr 11, 2008 at 9:51 am


did you mean to say "what a bunch of macaroons?" perhaps?

Like this comment
Posted by Fear of Taxation
a resident of another community
on Apr 11, 2008 at 11:19 am

Ahh... The unfunded mandate approach to imposing taxes without the hurdle of getting a super-majority.

One might think that increasing the gas and electricity pricing would already be an effective way of making efficiency attractive.

Like this comment
Posted by OhlonePar
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Apr 11, 2008 at 12:29 pm

Don't get the grousing here, guys. Sounds like this checklist is happening elsewhere and in compliance with general trends in the state.

Re-use *is* better for the environment--construction debris is a pretty big river pollutant. Don't like the forced moved to CFLs, myself. That's really an area where I think the market should be left to drive things--i.e. longterm, we'll end up with some variation on the LED, meanwhile we *do* have the mercury disposal issue with CFLs.

Greg, your problem is that you think there's *one* solution and that energy production will continue to be centralized. I think we'll end up with a combination of better conservation techniques and a variety of energy production. Yes, so solar will be bigger in the Sunbelt, while geothermal will continue to power Iceland.

We need, among other things, to change the modern diet. At this point, we have a huge amount of petrochemicals going toward food production--that will need to change. The good thing is that it can be changed.

Another big thing will be the use of air-conditioning as a given for months at a time in parts of the country. Basically, we need to see an end of cheaply built oversized houses that use a ton of energy and show little connection to their location. I'd rather see in Arizona, say, houses with good ventilation, overhangs and underground rooms than a stucco McMansion with no insulation baking in the sun.

I like that the proposal makes it easier to build a small house--that, too, is a step in the right direction. (By the way, insulate your houses--I was surprised to realize that my energy bill was a 1/3 of that of one of my neighbors. We're well insulated and have decent energy-rated appliances, she doesn't--but, wow, what a diff. Our houses are within 50 sf in terms of size. And, yeah, this does bring up the issue with thin-walled Eichlers.)

Like this comment
Posted by Annette
a resident of Barron Park
on Apr 11, 2008 at 2:10 pm

The residential guidelines and checklists have been around since the year 2000 and are time tested. Case studies for residential and commercial buildings: Web Link

More case studies and information on commercial green building are available from the US Green Building Council. There are buildings being built "green" that are generating HUGE savings on ongoing operations and maintenance, which is where the real test is for "green". This is well documented if you conduct a search online.

Companies are getting lots of publicity on some of their projects (Adobe Systems in San Jose is a prime example) so it makes good business sense.
Web Link
Web Link

The important thing about these checklists and programs is that they are third party certified so the program is administered by another organization, eliminating the need to add more work to the overextended planning and building staff.

Also, the certification is based on how the building PERFORMS after it is built (e.g., that the HVAC system is tested and tweaked to work properly and insulation is not just installed, but verified that it was installed properly so it does its job.) So much construction is done poorly that the building does not perform like it should and that type of thing is well documented as being a problem.

These programs have been voluntary for many years. If people had been voluntarily doing this type of building all along, mandatory would not be needed. Building "green" is really just building using best practices to build a high performing building. This is really the way it should be looked at- high performing. It makes sense for the long term.

Like this comment
Posted by Peter S
a resident of College Terrace
on Apr 11, 2008 at 3:21 pm

The Mercury that is contained in these new CFL light bulbs makes a mere broken light bulb a HAZMAT EMERGENCY that you can’t even safely clean up yourself.

This is already documented and has happened a number of times.

The vapors that are released into the air when one of these bulbs breaks can result in death.

That is a pretty serious side-effect from a simple and common household accident.

I guess this means that if someone gets mad and throws a lamp with a CFL bulb that breaks they could be charged with murder if the neurotoxicity of the Mercury (Hg) causes death and attempted murder if the person doesn’t die.

So … Who You Gonna Call? … do you call the police or the paramedics or a HAZMAT cleanup crew when a light bulb gets broken? Which one gets called first?

Like this comment
Posted by Homeowner
a resident of Midtown
on Apr 11, 2008 at 3:27 pm

Mayor Klein is in favor of rules that will ban the sale of houses in PA, until they are brought up to 'green' standards. He says he expects opposition from the real state lobby. How about the current homeowners?

Are we homeowners just going to sit back and get crushed by this mad rush to 'green'. Time to fight back!

Like this comment
Posted by Glen
a resident of Crescent Park
on Apr 11, 2008 at 3:29 pm

When is the next meeting of the Global Climate Change/Palo Alto City Council? Let's get this out in the open.

Like this comment
Posted by sue mom
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Apr 11, 2008 at 3:32 pm

Mean while the rate of armed robbery escalates, our childrens lives are

threatened and the beggars and vagrants continue to be a health hazard

and an invitation to even more violent criminals and sex offenders on

our streets and near our schools

Like this comment
Posted by Liberty for Homeowners
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Apr 11, 2008 at 10:59 pm

The grousing is less about increasing building efficiency, but more about the Council wasting time, effort, money, taxpayer patience, etc making mandatory rules, especially when the increasing cost will less disruptively encourage the improvements anyway.

Like this comment
Posted by Walter E. Wallis
a resident of Midtown
on Apr 12, 2008 at 7:40 am

I am always amused when a bunch who don't know a watt from shinola write standards based on the latest input from fad pimps like Amory's ex or that Aussie roundabout queen who had everything but a license to practice.
Ted Turner expressed it best when he asserted that our problem was too many people. The "it" being the libludd mindset behind all this directed living.

Like this comment
Posted by Conservative
a resident of Professorville
on Apr 12, 2008 at 7:22 pm

Stop unnecessary home demolition, we are adding unnecessary waste to landfills.

Encourage remodeling and updating.

Nearly all of the new appliances are already energy efficient and conserve water.

Many laws are already firmly in place, which ban toxic building materials, and paints.

Modest living, drought resistant landscaping, improved insulation on your roof and in a few walls, is enough to cut your energy costs.

I would think that a newly insulated Eichler would beat out any new energy sucking monster home with central air conditioning and all the other energy using conveniences (wine coolers, swimming pools, Jacuzzis, media rooms, double kitchens, two sets of energy efficient washer/dryers, and all the rebar and concrete in those basements.

Selfish and wasteful - a trend of the past!

Like this comment
Posted by Joe
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Apr 12, 2008 at 8:58 pm

> Selfish and wasteful - a trend of the past!

Why not prohibit the birth of children too? They are pretty wasteful.

Like this comment
Posted by palo alto mom
a resident of Crescent Park
on Apr 13, 2008 at 8:46 am

The infamous "palo alto process" has made is SO much easier to tear down a house and build a new one that it is hard to consider remodeling. The amount of hoops you need to jump thru and the additional time it takes make it practical to build from scratch. Also, the demand for a new home from new residents makes it much more profitable for a builder to knock down a house and build a McMansion with a basement.

Like this comment
Posted by what a hassle
a resident of Palo Verde
on Apr 13, 2008 at 10:13 am

Great, another good reason why you shouldn't apply for a permit. This will just encourage remodeling projects that are 'under the radar' and don't have permits from the city.

The last contractor I hired for remodeling said he could avoid applying for a permit as long as noise from the work is between 10 am - 4 pm so neighbors wouldn't complain. He also said how many contractors place the garbage from demolition in the backyard to avoid suspicion of a major remodeling. I felt nervous about all this and told him I'll pay for the permit but the processing time took forever.

With this new green checklist in addition to all the other hassles and costs of remodeling I'll probably consider not applying for a permit and just remodel the interior of my house 'under the radar'.

Like this comment
Posted by Remodeling Is Easy
a resident of Professorville
on Apr 14, 2008 at 11:01 pm

What is in world are people talking about?

I would like to correct some misinformation about remodeling.

When we decided to remodel two bathrooms, add a laundry room, and an upstairs room to the attic on the second floor, our permits were issued IMMEDIATELY to our contractor at The Planning Center.

Our contractor was organized and the plans were clearly laid out.

Everything we did was permitted.

The building inspectors were on time and we were happy to get the work inspected and signed off.

Our home is nearly historic, so it was nice to have the inspector make sure that the work was done to code.

We chose energy efficient fixtures and appliances, and chose to use "green" materials that are widely available.

The cost increase for using green products was insignificant in the overall cost of the remodel.

Perhaps remodels that require variances may take longer, but simple improvements with carefully laid out plans, are approved and permitted the same day.

Like this comment
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Apr 14, 2008 at 11:11 pm

Just another reason to tear down a perfectly good house rather go to the trouble of fixing up or remodling an existing home. With all the rules and regulations it is getting too difficult to keep the old home so the only alternative is to start again. Methinks this is really what the City planning department really wants.

Like this comment
Posted by Conservative
a resident of Professorville
on Apr 15, 2008 at 12:28 am

To Resident,

I don't think this is what The Planning Department wants.
They have been advocating waste reduction and recycling for years.
They have been trying to reduce landfill for many years since the waste from demolition has been exceeding the residential waste for many years now. I think there is now a California law regarding residential deconstruction waste.

It is interesting to note that 50 year old homes and buildings in other parts of the US are not considered old at all.

Like this comment
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Apr 15, 2008 at 1:52 pm


Have you actually tried to remodel in Palo Alto. Have you tried to add a family room or bedroom to your home. If you have, you will realise the truth in what I am saying. The rules are so strict that unless you are willing to bend over backwards, the simple option is to tear down and start again.

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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