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CalGreen Is Confusing

CalGreen Is Confusing

Just about every day we hear complaints that CalGreen is confusing. That’s because it is.

In part, it’s confusing because it seems to duplicate requirements that are already in the California Building Code Volume 1, as well as the Mechanical, Plumbing and Electrical codes.

Also, the format of the CalGreen Code is completely different from all of the other Building Standards Commission codes.

Another problem is the myriad of CalGreen Checklists. There’s a California Building Standards Commission “official” CalGreen Checklist. There’s a California AIA CalGreen Checklist and just about every jurisdiction in the state has published their own version of the CalGreen Checklist. What is more, every single checklist is different.

Our personal favorite – mandatory CalGreen requirements are NOT mandatory. If there is one idea that every reader takes away from this article is that simple truth – CalGreen Mandatory Measures are NOT mandatory. See below for an explanation of this confusing reality.

Additionally, interpretations and enforcement of the CalGreen requirements vary drastically from one jurisdiction to the next. 

Also, there is the confusing issue of the CalGreen Special Inspector. Is one required for your project? How do I find out? What are his responsibilities? How much is this going to cost us?

What exactly are the Tier 1 and 2 “Voluntary Measures” in the code? Why would you have voluntary code requirements? In many jurisdictions the voluntary measures are mandatory. Say what?

Let’s take a deep breath and reduce the confusion…

Why Didn’t the BSC Simply Include These Requirements in the Existing Codes?

California Building Standards Commission

The development of CalGreen took some strange missteps along the way. It began as a collaboration between the BSC and HCD (Housing and Community Development) and that collaboration continues to this day.

In 2007 Assembly Bill 888 required all new state-owned buildings over 50,000 square feet to comply with LEED Gold rating. LEED is the Green Building Councils Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design program. Although the bill was passed by the assembly, it was vetoed by then governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. While there is definitely some benefit to LEED Gold compliance, it is difficult to make a business case for the added cost. It was for this reason the bill was terminated.

As a result of the governor’s veto of the LEED program, the BSC and HD decided to create and entirely new code that would address sustainable issues.

It’s not clear why they chose to create a brand new code instead of simply including the requirements within the existing California Building Codes (Building Code, Energy Code, Mechanical Code and Plumbing Code). Instead, they developed an entirely new code.

From the outset there were may conflicts with the existing codes due to the lack of coordination. This problem continues to this day. Furthermore, the complete deviation in formatting and process from the other state codes has left local building officials, well, confused.

Eleven years after it’s inception, almost every urban city and town has created their own limited acceptance of the Calgreen Code by adopting an abbreviated CalGreen Checklist. This reality has resulted in widely varying interpretations of the code and the subsequent enforcement procedures.

Consequently, there is little motivation for building departments throughout the state to enforce the California Green Building Standards Code. In essence, the CalGreen code has become the black sheep of the California Building Codes.

The Formatting of the CalGreen Code

Page IV of the CalGreen Code introduction states, “The format of this code is common to other parts of the California Building Standards Code…”. Uhhh, no, it’s not.

The only format in common with the other BSC codes, is the introduction. Beyond that, everything about the format of this code is Calgreen formatdifferent, and for no apparent reason.

One of the most confusing aspects of the code is that different sections have exactly the same paragraph numbers! For example, there are two separate code paragraphs numbered 4.303 and many, many other examples. Apparently, someone thought it would be helpful to use the same numbers so that you can easily reference between one section and another. Its not.

In fairness, the different sections have an “A” in front of the paragraph numbers which designates “Appendix”.  However, it can get very confusing when thumbing through the code as to where you are, and which identical paragraph numbering system you should be looking at.

The “logic” here is that the paragraphs with the “A” in front of them relate to the Appendix sections. The three “A” sections refer to the Tier 1 and 2 Voluntary Measures for Residential, NonResidential and Healthcare Facilities.

The CalGreen Checklist

The first thing you need to ask when it comes to the CalGreen Checklist is, which one? Unless you are in a very rural area the correct checklist is rarely the California Building Standards Commission “official” CalGreen Checklist, or the California AIA CalGreen Checklist.

Almost every urban area in California has created, an adopted, its own version of the CalGreen Checklist. The only way to find out is to check with your local building department and make sure you use their approved version. Furthering adding to the argument that CalGreen is confusing are the checklists themselves. Each has its own list of items that will be reviewed, as well as the type of inspection, if any, required. Some jurisdictions allow self-permitting, some do the inspections in-house and some require a CalGreen Special Inspector.

We very frequently get frantic phone calls like, “We need to get this permit approved but we’re told we submitted the wrong CalGreen Checklist! Can you help us? Today?”.

Yes, we can.

CalGreen Mandatory Measures are NOT MandatoryCalgreen mandatory measures

Every CalGreen Checklist has many measures marked “mandatory”. Typically, the local jurisdiction has already checked these boxes in an attempt to enforce the concept that these are all mandatory.

I can tell you that on almost ALL projects, many of the items marked “mandatory”, are not required. Yes, CalGreen is confusing!

Unfortunately, unsuspecting clients frequently hire CalGreen paper mills who simply submit the permit documents with all of the “mandatory” requirements checked. By doing so they commit the project to unnecessary requirements with no defined payback.

There are two problems here. The first is the CalGreen Code’s use of the word “mandatory”. In my opinion this is a glaring mistake that needs to be rectified. The language for all of these items need to clearly state when, and when they are not, mandatory.

A professional and licensed CalGreen Special Inspector understands the intent behind the code and will develop your checklist appropriately. They will clearly mark which “mandatory” items are not applicable to your project.

The second problem is the typical local jurisdiction published checklists don’t provide an option to say, “Not Applicable” (though the BSC one and the AIA one do). It is contingent upon your CalGreen consultant to know that he should over-write on the checklist when mandatory measures are not applicable and provide a brief description as to why that is the case.

Inconsistent Interpretations and EnforcementCalgreen code enforcement

There is widely varying interpretations of the CalGreen code itself. The vary because CalGreen is confusing in so many ways. Again there seems to be little interest, or motivation, for jurisdictions to develop statewide procedures for reviewing permit compliance with the code.

In addition, the enforcement of the code is just as haphazard. At this juncture, however, the over-sight and enforcement of the CalGreen code varies wildly from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. This makes it difficult for design professionals, building owners and contractors to anticipate the scope of work and the associated costs involved.

For example, Santa Rosa (located in Northern California) has developed their own checklists and reviews the permit applications very carefully. Additionally, they require CalGreen Special Inspectors on all new building projects – both residential and commercial.

Likewise, many of the other North Bay cities have similar stringent enforcement requirements. These include Windsor, Sebastopol, Rohnert Park, Napa, Marin County and others.

Enforcement in rural areas is, for the most part limited to self-permitting. Self-permitting is essentially code for “do want you want, or don’t”. If there is no enforcement or over-sight, nothing gets done.

Similarly, The City of Sacramento allows self-permitting for their CalGreen requirements. Basically, the building owner just has to sign a paper saying the building complies with CalGreen. No inspections, and no over-sight. Surprisingly, Sacramento is the home of the California Building Standards Commission. 

The CalGreen Special Inspector

Is a certified CalGreen Special Inspector required for your project? That depends on the jurisdiction that your project is located in.

Most of the North Bay cities and counties require CalGreen Inspectors for all residential and commercial projects. The City and County of San Francisco also requires CG inspections. The South Bay cities are hit and miss. The cities and counties in the Los Angeles area have few requirements for CG inspectors. The City of Los Angeles proper does not require a CalGreen inspector.

The complete lack of consistency regarding the requirements for CalGreen Inspectors, and inspections, is confusing for building owners, developers and design professionals.

Certainly, the jurisdictions that require inspections are seeing a much greater compliance with all of the CalGreen code requirements.

Tier 1 and 2 Voluntary Measures

The only thing you need to know about the Voluntary Measures are that they are not voluntary. Did I mention that CalGreen is confusing?

The explanation is that the Tier 1 and 2 are voluntary for local jurisdictions. If your jurisdiction has adopted Tier 1 or 2 they will be mandatory for your project.

It is critical that you know whether your project location has adopted Tier 1 or 2. If so, this will certainly add cost and complexity to your project. This is not something you want to find out at the permit submittal stage. The required changes to the design will be costly in both time and construction.

So What To Do?

The concept I’ve been holding back here is that CalGreen is actually fairly simple if you know what you’re doing.

A truly knowledgeable CalGreen consultant should not cost you an arm and a leg. This is because they should know how to determine your project requirements, critically review and modify your CalGreen Checklist and turn around the permit documents quickly. 

An efficient consultant will have procedures and documentation forms at hand so there are no delays getting your project out the door.

They will also ensure you have minimal comments from the building department to avoid delays to your permit.

At CalGreen Energy Services we are specialists in CalGreen consulting and permitting. We can educate and guide your team to ensure that the CalGreen process is smooth and transparent. We will work directly with the local code authorities to resolve any issues during the permit and construction process.

While the permit and construction process can be onerous, your CalGreen submittal need not be.

Call us today and let us show you how we can help with your project.


Phone: 707-328-5299

CalGreen Energy Services

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