Snowmass Village adopts exacting codes for green/energy efficiency in building
by Allen Best
You can quickly get lost in the alphabet soup of building codes. But give an A to Snowmass Village, Colo., for being early adopters of the newest codes that most aggressively seek to elevate energy efficiency and green construction.
Only a handful of other municipalities in Colorado have adopted either of the 2012 codes: the International Energy Conservation Code (IECC), and the other and broader International Green Construction Code (IGCC).
“It’s very significant what Snowmass has done,” says Chris Green, an architect in Ago Studios in Eagle, Colo., who helped draw up the IGCC and was a consultant to Snowmass.
Green says building codes generally have become more rigorous in their expectations of energy efficiency. At least in part, they’re being pulled from above by the even-more demanding performance standards of such voluntary programs as the LEED rating system, Energy Star, and Passive House. But the IGCC was, in particular, a response to the federal government saying that if the codes weren’t strengthened by the bottoms-up building code committees, top-down edicts would be issued.
Motivating Snowmass is awareness of greenhouse gases caused by buildings. A 2009 inventory identified energy use in buildings and snowmelt as the community’s third-highest source of greenhouse gas emissions. Ground transportation was first, followed by air travel.
“Adopting the green building code is a critical step forward in minimizing the environmental impact of the town’s built environment,” says Kelly Vaughn, the spokeswoman for Snowmass Village. The town council, she notes, adopted a goal for 2020 of reducing carbon emissions 20 percent. A municipal sustainability plan identified a green building code as one strategy to achieve that goal.
Laying the groundwork
Snowmass laid the groundwork months in advance of adoption. It formed a committee of local citizens and building industry professionals, plus two independent consultants, who spent months reviewing every aspect of the codes. Among the supporters was the Aspen Skiing Co., a major developer in Snowmass.
“We had a lot of patience,” says Vaughn. “Overall, this process not only helped create buy-in by multiple groups—even those who were skeptical at first. But overall it led to a stronger product and a green code that is well adapted to fit our community’s needs, is consistent with our land-use code, and speaks to the goals in our comprehensive and sustainability plans.”
Despite the continued Base Village development, most of Snowmass Village is built out. But that actually motivated Snowmass even more in an effort to get right in what little remains.
Competitiveness was also a factor. “Studies show that green buildings are more attractive, marketable, and overall better places to inhabit,” says Vaughn. “It makes economic sense for Snowmass in the long run.”
The IECC addresses both commercial and residential energy efficiency. Specifically within the realm of energy, it raises efficiency requirements by roughly 10 percent as compared to the lower bar of the IBC, or international building code.
Some hiccups are expected. Town building officials assume an upfront cost of 5 to 10 percent. “However, it is important to consider that this cost will go down as the learning curve for builders goes up and efficient materials continue to get cheaper,” says Vaughn. “In addition, costs are generally offset by long-term reduced operating costs through saved energy, maintenance, and water consumption, plus increased building value and increased value to building tenants.”
Snowmass was assisted by a local non-profit, the Community Office for Resource Efficiency, or CORE, a non-profit group dedicated to energy efficiency and clean energy. CORE attempted to pull together several of the local municipalities.
“We always do push elevation of building codes, because buildings last for 50 to 100 years,” says CORE’s current director, Mona Newton. She sees the key challenge being enforcement, to ensure building officials know what to inspect with the new codes and to get builders up to speed.
Carbondale was the first community in the Roaring Fork Valley to adopt the IGCC.
“It’s a step up,” says John Plano, the chief building officer. “A lot of people look at the international energy code, and that has been in place quite a long time. This is a step above that. All of the insulation values have to be 10 percent better, and the Town of Carbondale also requires that 10 percent of your annual energy use (for commercial buildings) is offset with renewables. That’s more stringent than the code, which says 2 percent.”
Carbondale also requires renewable energy, such as solar, be installed on homes of more than 5,000 square feet.
What this means for builders
What does this mean in practice? One simple metric is insulation in attics. The international code requires R-38 in attics in the climatic zone where Carbondale is located. Carbondale bumped that to R-49.
The added requirements cost builders? Plano says he doesn’t know yet. “I can’t give an answer. Nobody can, because we are just now getting our first building construction. It’s a 10,000-square-foot medical center.”
How buildings are operated may be just as important as how they are built, however. Carbondale’s recreation center is LEED-platinum certified, the most demanding of LEED’s four-tiered program. But the performance wasn’t living up to that billing. Operating the building requires expertise, too.
“You just can’t have a janitor tweaking your system,” says Plano. “You have to have somebody who knows what they’re doing.”
For example, steps need to be taken to make sure that lighting controls are working properly as well as heating and cooling.
Green sees Snowmass’s adoption as part of a broad trend across the country to reduce demand on resources. At first, there was hesitancy, even fear, about cost. But the evidence is now starting to arrive of higher real estate prices for more efficient, greener, more sustainable buildings, he says.
“We’re not getting as much resistance as we were a couple of years ago,” he says.
Like Plano and many others, Green emphasizes that energy efficiency is as much about small things, the mundane matter of sealing leaks, but also designs. It’s not just technology.
An architect for 30 years, Green has lived in the Eagle Valley for 14 years. The mission of his studio is “reduction of resource consumption while enhancing the lives of our clients through architecture.” He’s aiming for the same in his personal life. He and his wife have remodeled a cabin in Eagle, pulling out all the stops, using radiant-floor heating and triple-paned windows. If the models are right, their energy bills should total just $50 a year. Amory Lovins would be proud.