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Green Construction Bill Needs a Governor’s Repair

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In today’s age we hear a lot about energy efficiency and sustainability. As consumers, we are encouraged to be environmentally conscious and as an enticement we even get tax credits for purchasing energy efficient (Energy Star) devices.  Environmental responsibility is important and both individuals and public entities must be proactive in demonstrating environmental stewardship. The recent passage of the Cost Effective Public Buildings Act attempts to codify environmental stewardship but misses the mark in balancing sustainable construction policies with practical cost implications.
The Cost Effective Public Buildings Act, Senate Bill 160, was introduced by Senator Chap Petersen (D-Fairfax) during the current 2012 General Assembly Session and is his fifth introduction of the measure. The legislation requires the Virginia Department of General Services to develop a ‘green building’ qualification program that meets the requirements of the Virginia Energy Conservation and Environmental Standards (VEES).
While the intent of Senator Petersen’s bill  is admirable, the practical implications could have a negative effect on the construction of public facilities in the Commonwealth. To begin with, the square footage threshold of the bill mandates ‘green construction’ standards for public facilities over 5,000 square feet. That square footage threshold is very low, especially when compared to other jurisdictions in the United States. For example, Houston, Texas implemented a similar initiative but set the size threshold on facilities larger than 10,000 square feet; Dallas, Texas requires ‘green standards’ on all public projects over 10,000 square feet; San Jose, California requires green construction on municipal buildings, but sets the square footage minimum at 10,000 square feet; and Washington, D.C. recently enacted the D.C. Green Buildings Act and set their minimum building size at 50,000 square feet.
One of the main reasons for only implementing ‘green standards’ on larger buildings is because regardless of the building size, construction costs increase when you build to those standards. However, on smaller facilities the return on investment often does not outweigh the increased construction costs. Furthermore, smaller facilities typically leave less of an environmental footprint and therefore the long-term cost savings do not always materialize.
To be fair, Senate Bill160 does allow the Director of General Services to issue a waiver when it is determined that meeting the standards are impracticable. However, this exemption loophole is subject to interpretation and therefore might not be uniformly applied to future public construction projects.
While I readily support efforts to construct public facilities in a leaner and more environmentally sustainable manner, the Virginia General Assembly must be careful of proposals that will ultimately lead to the suffocating of the construction industry by impracticable standards that make new construction difficult and dramatically increase the cost of these new facilities. After the Senate General Laws Committee approved his bill (SB832) in 2011, Sen. Petersen stated, “If this bill becomes law, it will become the first time in Virginia history that energy efficient building standards are written into our state Code. It won’t be the last.” Whatever building efficiency standards are written into our Code in the future, we must be vigilant in ensuring those policies encourage responsible environmental stewardship rather than an agenda that actually  harms the critical construction sector of our economy by codifying onerous regulations that make new construction difficult and more costly.
This legislation passed the Senate of Virginia 26-14 and was unanimously approved by the House of Delegates. The Governor should embrace the intent of the legislation but amend the minimum size threshold to 10,000 square feet and spare smaller facilities from having to meet costly standards which will lead to a very negligible return on the investment.

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