Project: Construction Industry Council Zero Carbon Building by the architectural firm Arup in Hong Kong, China. Energy Consumption: Net-Zero Building. Photo courtesy Arup.
Project: Construction Industry Council Zero Carbon Building by the architectural firm Arup in Hong Kong, China. Energy Consumption: Net-Zero Building. Photo courtesy Arup.

It’s pass the buck time in San Antonio.

The formal names and acronyms of programs, plans and options can confuse citizens, but last week a subcommittee of San Antonio’s City Council took the easy way out. Faced with adopting or ignoring nationally recommended 2012 development standards for cities, staff recommended waiting for the 2015 recommendations.

San Antonio just got a little less green, a little less energy efficient than some of its urban peers.

Around the conference table filled by senior city staff and elected officials, there were no challenges, no substantive questions, no discussion, simply acceptance of the middle management staff’s recommendation to maintain the status quo. Put another way, elected officials appeared ignorant of the real choices they were weighing and making.

District 7 Councilman Cris Medina
District 7 Councilman Cris Medina

To formally state the challenge, last week the City of San Antonio’s Governance Committee considered a Council Consideration Request (CCR) from District 7 Councilman Chris Medina.

One of the three items on this CCR was that the city update the Unified Development Code to reflect the 2012 International Energy Conservation Code (IECC) within 90 days. These code updates address “the design of energy-efficient building envelopes and installation of energy efficient mechanical, lighting and power systems through requirements emphasizing performance.”

Basically, the IECC standardizes energy efficient building design. The standards are updated every few years and progressive cities are expected to adopt the standards and help raise the bar regionally and nationally.

By rejecting this particular item, subcommittee members continued to lag two years behind many other cities in their adoption of this code, contrary to a commitment made in an ordinance passed in 2009 as part of the Mission Verde Plan that promised not to delay implementation of evolving standards. It is commonly accepted that the 2012 code improved energy efficiencies in new construction by 15 percent over the code still in effect in San Antonio.

The committee was not provided with this contextual ordinance, so the recommendation from city staff was to wait until the 2015 IECC is reviewed by the state this summer and compare the 2012 language to that of 2015 to see which code is more advantageous for the city. City staff stated that by April of 2015 the city should be ready to make a decision on whether to pass the 2012 or 2015 IECC.

That’s right, April 2015. One year from now, and what went unspoken at the committee meeting is that developers who resist elevating standards will have opportunities to further delay implementation by demanding line item exceptions.

2030 target graphs. Courtesy image.
2030 target graphs for carbon neutrality based on IECC adoption. Courtesy image. Click to enlarge.

The Energy Efficient Codes Coalition in Washington, D.C. has reported that there is virtually no difference between the two codes in terms of energy performance and the one significant change, an alternative compliance path, would amount to a relatively minor amendment in the future. Delaying San Antonio’s energy code adoption will only delay passing on the financial benefits.

Mission Verde was the primary topic of conversation during the 2009 mayoral campaign, yet it now it seems all but forgotten. Last week I was not only reminded how long it takes to get things done in San Antonio, but also how short of an attention span our city leaders have and how legislation can so easily be ignored.

In 2007 our local American Institute of Architects and U.S. Green Building Council chapters fought hard for a Green Building Resolution that required all newly constructed city projects over a certain size to achieve Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design (LEED) Silver Certification. This resolution passed unanimously, we cheered, and then a few months later we learned that resolutions have no teeth and were not enforceable.  Lesson learned.

States and cities that have adopted the 2030 Challenge of net-zero energy buildings.
States and cities that have adopted/are considering adoption of the Architecture 2030 Challenge of building only net-zero energy/carbon neutral buildings by 2030. San Antonio is considering.

In 2008 I was fortunate to serve on the Mayor’s Task Force on Sustainable Buildings – an impressive effort led by Larry Zinn and Ed Kelley that brought together a truly diverse group of representatives from the architectural, engineering, construction, development, and green building professions. This was by no means a group of like-minded individuals, but because of the highly respected leadership that guided the process, in relatively short order this task force was able to recommend that San Antonio be the first city in the state to adopt the 2009 IECC, which would increase the energy performance of new construction by at least 15 percent (this goal was achieved), that in 2012 the city adopt a code that would require another increase of 15 percent, and that the city set a goal for carbon neutral construction by the year 2030.

These recommendations and the process by which the implementation of these recommendations should be monitored were spelled out clearly in the ordinance, which passed unanimously on March 12, 2009.

This ordinance states:

“That a Stakeholder Sustainable Building Committee (SSBC) be formed… Among other duties the SSBC would monitor the implementation of the recommendations of the Mayor’s Task Force on Sustainable Buildings and meet as needed but not less often than every three years to review COSA sustainability energy policies and goals. The SSBC would measure periodic progress and recommend the establishment or modification of interim goals to attain agreed long-term goals… In 2012 the interim goal would target 30% (reduction) above current code in effect in 2008…”

After months of asking how and when the SSBC was going to be formed, in December of 2012 the SSBC convened for the first time; however, this time we were leaderless with no involvement of the mayor or city council.

At that time, nearly one and half years ago, the City’s Development Services Department made the same recommendation that they made today, wait for the 2015 IECC, which is “just around the corner.” They said that they could not recommend the passing of the 2012 IECC because the State Legislature had not yet approved it. Seriously? We did not wait on the state in 2009 when we were the first city in the state to adopt the new code – so why should we now? The SSBC failed to act, Councilman Medina’s CCR was published, some cheered, but little did we know that it would fall prey to staff recommendations.

More than 30 municipalities, including Houston and Austin, have now passed the 2012 IECC. In 2009 we were leaders and now it seems every major city will be miles ahead of us by the year 2015. Why is this even important? It is simple. Buildings use energy, energy costs money, and energy production uses a tremendous amount of water and pollutes our air.

According to Texas A&M University’s Energy Systems Laboratory, the adoption of the 2001 IECC code led to $1.7 billion in energy savings, saved 2.8 billion gallons of water at Texas power plants and reduced NOx emissions by 879 tons, which is equal to cutting the annual pollution emission from 46,000 cars. The city established a goal of carbon neutrality for all new construction for a reason, which is best documented in Iris Dimmick’s article on the Rivard Report, “Architects: No One Else Can Solve Climate Change.

The Architecture 2030 Challenge.
The Architecture 2030 Challenge.

I am less naïve than I was in 2007. I have learned that a resolution is a feel-good piece of legislation crafted to make the squeaky wheels feel a temporary sense of accomplishment, but what is an ordinance? I was under the impression that it was law locally?

I know that it is hard to enforce an ordinance full of words like “recommendations” and “goals,” but I had no idea that an ordinance could be ignored just because the people that passed it are no longer in office. I know that each new city leader wants to and should make his or her own mark, but our term limits are still relatively short, and continuity is essential considering the typical pace of progress. It seems the biggest fault with Mission Verde is that it came at the end of Mayor Phil Hardberger’s four years in office. I hope that come 2019, SA2020 is not suffering the same fate.

*Featured/top image: This building by the architectural firm Arup in Hong Kong, China consumes no more energy than it produces – net zero. Photo courtesy Arup.

Related Stories:

Architects: No One Else Can Solve Climate Change

Cleantech Open Supports Innovative Startups

UTSA’s Next Generation Imagines San Antonio 2040

Conversation: Architecture 2030 Founder Ed Mazria

Tenna Florian is an architect and has been living in San Antonio for over 12 years. She is currently serving as the District 1 Representative and Chair of the City of San Antonio’s Citizens Environmental...