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.