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Code makers struggle with sustainability

The development and practice of sustainable building techniques are pressuring municipalities to keep pace with updating building codes to accommodate the changes.

Ann Beier, director of Milwaukee’s Office of Environmental Sustainability, said most of the city’s commercial building code is based on state, national and international rules.

“We have started to look at our building codes on a case-by-case basis to identify places where we have rubs with our sustainability agenda,” she said. “This goes for not just our commercial building codes, but also our development codes.

“Where is there language in those codes that serves as a barrier to doing sustainable practices?”

Some barriers in Milwaukee’s code included the prohibition of pervious pavement, such as porous concrete and asphalt, and the requirement that downspouts be connected to the storm sewer system, both of which have been lifted.

The city also is examining ordinances and building code requirements as they relate to solar techniques. Beier said permitting for solar power systems can be complicated because the installation requirements for electrical systems involve multiple inspections.

Dan Davies, senior project manager at Brookfield-based Hunzinger Construction Co., said two sustainable efforts ” solar and rain water reclamation ” are forcing inspectors to re-examine building codes.

“A lot of these companies that are developing these technologies are based in California, and not all of the prepackaged and not all of the internal wiring of these things are up to local code, so that is what these inspectors are looking at,” Davies said.

As Milwaukee works toward more sustainable building, other municipalities are moving at a much slower pace. Mead and Hunt Inc., a Madison-based planning, design and construction management services firm, surveyed officials in 55 Wisconsin municipalities on plans for sustainable practices.

According to the survey, completed in September and October 2008, four municipal officials said they were reviewing and modifying their building codes to remove obstacles to sustainable building practices. Another 12 responded they will be going through the process within the next three years.

“For the most part, (municipal officials) are very practical people … who want to do the best for their municipality,â’ said Rich Lundeen, an architect at Mead and Hunt. “To them, a lot of people say that being green costs money, and if you think of what their priority is in today’s economy … it’s always been about the dollar and where they’re putting tax dollars.”

Green Bay is considering rewriting its building code, which Tom Lesperance, inspection superintendent with the Green Bay City Inspection Division, said is old and obsolete.

Lesperance began rewriting the city’s code in October and expects to be finished by summer.

“The code has always been the minimum requirement for any development,” he said. “The code has always been written in such a way that it will not prohibit above and beyond the standards. There is very little said in the code that addresses the green revolution.”

Madison does not have a city commercial building code, deferring instead to the state’s commercial building code.

George Hank, director of Madison’s Building Inspection division, said the state’s code sets stringent minimum standards for building plans and construction techniques. Within the state code, the overall energy efficiency of a building is taken into account rather than the efficiency of each individual building technique or section of a structure.

The advantage of looking at overall energy efficiency is that there is give and take.

“You may offset thinner walls with better windows or offset not as thick of a ceiling with better doors and windows,”Hank said.

According to architect Kurt Zimmerman, who works in the field of environmental design, Wisconsin tends to be progressive in terms of its building codes and keeps them up to date to reflect sustainable techniques.

“The state is very much into the national standards, and the national green building standards are emerging from the West Coast,” said Zimmerman, a principal at Zimmerman Architectural Studios Inc., Milwaukee. “States like California and Oregon are leading the way with very progressive standards, and they have set the bar high as far as energy code.”

During the past decade, as sustainable building has become more mainstream, many states have been slow to respond, but Zimmerman said Wisconsin is not among those states.

“In our state, code officials have been very progressive in adopting this stuff,” he said. “People look at Wisconsin as a leader.”

The state bases its commercial building code on the 2006 International Energy Conservation Code. Updates to the international code will be published this spring, according to Bob DuPont, director of the Wisconsin Department of Commerce’s Bureau of Program Development. At that time, state officials, along with an advisory code council comprising construction, environment and energy industry experts, will make recommendations about which elements of the code revisions make sense for Wisconsin.

“By and large, we adopt what’s in that code, DuPont said. “Probably 99 percent of it stays in our code and is used in Wisconsin.”

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