Illustrated by Rae Scarfó
California has for many years strived to be a national leader in the adoption of sustainable construction practices. The state’s CALGreen initiative, which has been under development since 2007, was the first statewide green building code in the United States. It has led to a slew of industry-wide legislation being introduced on a city and county level throughout the state, sparking both controversy and celebration.
San Jose, for instance, recently became the largest U.S. city to pass a natural gas ban, prohibiting its use in almost all new construction, following similar legislation in neighboring San Francisco and Oakland.
The Built Blog spoke to Stephen J. Murphy, MEP director of Santa Clara-based Blach Construction, about the role California’s legislative priorities may play in impacting the decisions made by construction firms throughout the state and country, as well as the company’s take on the future of green building.
As green building codes become more common throughout the U.S., many builders look to California construction professionals for guidance on navigating the complex world of environmentally responsible construction. Drafting projects based on environmental impact, rather than the upfront cost of installation, means construction firms must reassess client priorities for every new project.
Murphy said that California’s unique legislative environment has had a major impact on how Blach designs and builds projects.
“The adoption of CALGreen, which is now the minimum code requirement for all building projects, has had a huge effect on the industry,” he said. “These requirements have truly raised the bar for sustainability in the state and, of course in turn, have raised installation costs for all MEP systems. It has become necessary and routine to educate all project stakeholders on a complete ‘life cycle cost’ approach to cost analysis. Today, the ‘lowest cost first’ is not always the best approach for selection of building MEP systems.”
Murphy and other executives at Blach must communicate their legal responsibility to all new clients, so the company is able to gain insight into the true cost of MEP installation, as well as what technologies are permitted under local legislation.
Murphy believes that the transition away from natural gas for the construction community of San Jose and beyond will have to take into account the reality that major changes in building technology can’t take place overnight.
“Like many other challenges, this transition will be a shift to which the overall construction industry will have to adapt,” Murphy said, “and this will take time. Builders will have to familiarize themselves with new requirements and subsequently implement the necessary education and training programs for their employees and subcontractors, who won’t be as readily up to speed.”
These education efforts will have an impact on the bottom line. “It is highly likely there will be cost implications with MEP systems becoming more expensive due to the need to use ‘all electric’ heat pump systems for heating water in commercial and residential buildings,” Murphy said. “We imagine this will negatively affect the plumbing industry since gas piping will be eliminated.”
As legislation like the San Jose natural gas ban spreads throughout California and beyond, construction firms will be forced to re-examine client priorities and come up with new, innovative techniques for introducing green power technologies into building design.
Incorporating green power
Murphy said that the law has already begun to impact client needs for on-site power generation and management.
“We’re already seeing an increase in the upfront, full-scale implementation of solar PV systems on projects to offset increased electrical use of MEP systems,” he said. “This is a departure from previously common practice that included preparation for the infrastructure, with construction and installation of the complete system occurring at a later date. As a result, we anticipate that the need for energy storage, particularly batteries, will become more of a need on our projects. Fuel cell technology will also be considered more often for backup power requirements.”
As a founding member of the U.S. Green Building Council, Blach is prepared to lead the way when it comes to green power.
“Our experience in this area has been very positive, but we work very hard to stay abreast of necessary considerations and potential incentives,” Murphy said. “At the outset of a project, we always counsel clients on the importance of PV subcontractor savvy as well as after-market maintenance and service. We typically don’t recommend they select solar PV providers that either haven’t been in business very long or won’t still be in business 10-15 years down the road.”
“Case in point, energy storage is a fairly new concept and readily offered by providers, so it is essential that the PV subcontractor installing the system can handle this correctly. Additionally, roof-mounted systems can have waterproofing issues, so this must be taken into consideration and addressed upfront.”
This existing expertise has allowed Murphy and his team to adapt to the new law and prepare for whatever additional green building legislation California may throw their way.
Preparing for the future
Looking forward, Murphy believes that construction business leaders will have to partner with legislators as the industry moves toward a more sustainable future. “This is a really big undertaking, and I think we need to recognize that cities, counties and states do not really have the resources to lead the effort,” Murphy said.
Murphy also believes that it’s critical that the industry focus on the gains it has already made—instead of mindlessly pushing forward in search of the next big thing.
“It’s important that we first measure what environmental impacts have been made before we jump to the next step,” Murphy said. “For our industry, these are opportunities that are ultimately beneficial to all. The city of San Jose has actually been very progressive and at the forefront here. For example, the ‘electrification’ switch in its Reach Code is a primary way to lower our carbon footprint, eliminate dependence on fossil fuels and generate infrastructure jobs in the energy industry.”
As the construction industry continues the universal push to go green, Murphy said that support on all levels will be critical.
“Our industry can be reluctant to change, but I think we will have the most success if we focus on training and education,” he said. “We need to ensure that installation professionals are up to date and familiar with requirements for solar, heat, pumps, etc. Resources should be allocated to support community colleges and union apprenticeship training centers as avenues to properly train professionals. It will be interesting to see what incentives for ‘all-electric’ buildings will be made available.”