California on Friday became the first state in the nation to adopt a statewide code for green construction practices. Members of the California Building Standards Commission (CBSC) voted 10 to 0 in favor of new provisions mandating reductions in building energy use, conservation of potable water, job-site erosion control, recycling of construction waste, and a range of steps to improve indoor air quality.

California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger had vetoed legislation in 2007 that sought to establish green-building requirements as law. Arguing that changing the building code was a better way to attack the problem, Schwarzenegger ordered the CBSC to do so. In a July 17 statement, the Governor lauded the results, saying: “By adopting this first-in-the-nation statewide green building code, California is again leading the way to fight climate change and protect the environment. … Cars and buildings are two of the leading users of energy – we’re already addressing cars, and these new building standards will ensure that California remains at the forefront of reducing our carbon footprint and conserving valuable natural resources while also protecting our economy.”

The new requirements will take effect in phases over three years, starting with energy efficiency. The California Energy Commission’s Residential Energy Efficiency Standard will become 20 percent more stringent starting on July 1, 2009, making the California energy code about 50 percent tougher than the model International Energy Efficiency Code (IEEC). Moisture control, indoor air quality, and waste recycling rules will become effective in January of 2011, and rules mandating a 20 percent reduction in building potable water use will take effect in July 2011.

The new rules are not enough to satisfy some environmental groups, however. Green activists objected that language was dropped from the final draft that would have required the use of certified sustainably-produced lumber.

They also complained that confusion remained over whether the new state code would be viewed as a floor that would allow local governments to impose tougher restrictions, or a ceiling that would set a limit on the power of cities and counties to require more extensive green building practices.

So, while giving the new rules some grudging praise as a first step, advocates have promised to push for state legislation to clarify that towns are free to set stricter rules than the state code (some cities, for example, are already requiring certain building projects to meet criteria for earning LEED certification). They also promised to push in coming years to make the code itself tougher, setting the stage for a continuing political battle over the issue.

Ted Cushman is a contributing editor to BUILDER Online.

Learn more about markets featured in this article: Los Angeles, CA.