The Curious Case of Dr. X and the Burlingame Green Building Ordinance

The Curious Case of Dr. X and the Burlingame Green Building Ordinance

Posted on 30. Jan, 2012 by in Case Studies, Regulatory Changes

“People don’t understand the impact of ‘beyond compliance’ and what it requires,” said Mark English, as we were discussing Title 24 energy compliance for various types of custom home designs and remodels. “They don’t understand the difficulty of getting even very small additions to comply – and if they have to meet local green building ordinances that require exceeding Title 24 by 15% or more, it’s even more challenging.”

The problem with additions is that you have less to work with if the project doesn’t comply. Small additions are the hardest, and alterations are even worse, because you’re not adding any conditioned area. If it doesn’t qualify for prescriptive (simple but rigid), you have no choice but to do a whole house energy model. And with the energy model method, you have to justify the values used for the rest of the house that’s not being touched, and which may be built to a long-obsolete energy standard. Those existing R-0 walls can cost you.

Local Green Building Requirements Can Differ

Local green building ordinances can vary in very unpredictable ways. Some areas are adopting BuildItGreen’s GreenPoint Rated system, which at a minimum requires 15% over compliance for new construction. That alone means an energy model, since you can’t “exceed” compliance using the prescriptive form. With the simpler prescriptive form it’s very black and white: either you meet every requirement, or you don’t comply – there’s no extra credit in one area to make up for shortfalls in another.

And it’s not just the GreenPoint checklist that the jurisdictions want, either. If a local Building department is using the GreenPoint Rated system, they often want to see the full follow-through, with a third-party rater who checks up on the project all the way through construction. Others are adopting CALGreen optional tiers, which have pretty much the same measures as BuildItGreen, but it’s structured differently – and that can also have an impact. A locality can even adopt a green building ordinance all on its own that doesn’t reference these systems, although that’s less likely than choosing one standard and then piggybacking further requirements on top of it.

For example, Portola Valley has added a sliding scale GreenPoint score where the larger the house, the more GreenPoints it needs. One of our recent Title 24 projects, a new 6,000 square foot house with 40% glazing to floor area, and metal framed windows (less efficient) required 172 GreenPoints, and in order to make that, we needed to get that house to exceed Title 24 by 35%!

At least with that project, we had the whole house design to work with. We got that project early in the design phase, so we could work with the architect to specify better windows, test out the impact of various system efficiencies, and discuss the additional credits of HERS testing with the assurance that it would likely pass all those tests. With additions, you have to perform the same miracles without altering the majority of the building. And you never know what a local green building ordinance may require.

Even Interior Remodels Now Require Title 24 – in Burlingame

Here’s an example that just came up, and is the subject of this case study. One of our recent Title 24 projects, a remodel of a private home in Burlingame, CA, was mainly an interior remodel. Who knew that Burlingame has an expenditure threshold where any construction project costing over $50K now triggers a Title 24 compliance requirement that has to beat the standard by 15%? And a GreenPoint Checklist with a minimum of 50 points? It’s not like they’re even changing the building envelope.

Well, Mark ran this project and it was -174% behind. “It simply couldn’t be done,” he told me. “It was a nice Mid-Century Modern home with lots of glass everywhere, and vintage insulation. Even if we replaced every window and the heating system, we wouldn’t even make the baseline, let alone 15% over.”

Title 24 energy model report example

The home's existing condition, before the interior remodel which had no impact on the exterior envelope whatsoever, failed Title 24 by an impossible margin. Note that California's energy code assumes a minimum 13 SEER cooling system, whether any cooling is installed or not.

Mark spoke to a Burlingame city Green Building official, who bluntly told him, “You can apply for a hardship exemption, but you’re not likely to get it.” The owner, a medical professional whom we’ll call Dr X, was already committed to making this project happen. This would have crushed the project completely – and for no justifiable reason.

Then, Mark had a brainstorm. He talked the owner into replacing the heating system with top-of-the-line efficient equipment, and then he created two separate reports: a “before” and an “after”. The “after” report was only (only!) -120% under, a 50% improvement! The home didn’t have any cooling system installed, so no help there. Title 24 assumes you have one even if you don’t, and penalizes accordingly.

The owner agreed to upgrade his heating system and got a 50% improvement.

A Happy Outcome

The owner then submitted the two reports to the City, along with a hardship application form – and to everyone’s astonishment, he got his permit. He wrote us a lovely handwritten note:

“Dear Mark,

Many thanks for all your work and suggestions. I turned in your Title 24 analysis and the hardship for with your wording plus additional palaver and got the permit Monday. It would have been a bleak Thanksgiving if I was still in a suspended state. I really appreciate everything you did.


Dr. X.”

Lessons Learned

What are the lessons to be learned from this exercise, aside from the fact that new regulations can have unanticipated consequences? Here is what we concluded:

  1. Don’t assume that additions are easier than whole-house remodels. You have a lot less to work with and fewer opportunities to improve performance.
  2. It’s very hard to get an addition to comply on its own.

Be told.

Impact of Poorly Designed Regulations Can Be Catastrophic

Mark English, ever the advocate for both architects and homeowners, put it this way. “You can’t inhibit people from upgrading their homes – it only kills the economy and prevents construction from happening at all. You can’t hold people hostage and force them to rebuild their entire house for some ridiculous bureaucratic rule that no one’s thought through. At the very least, Burlingame should raise that construction threshold to something like $200K, because any interior remodel, even a kitchen and master suite, can easily cost $125K and more – without any changes to the envelope.”

This goes back to one of our earlier articles on QII credits for spray foam – another “gotcha” that almost cost one of our Title 24 projects its compliance in the field – too late in the game to make it up easily through design or construction changes. The way regulatory processes work, the people writing these codes can’t anticipate their impact in the field, unless we bring it to their attention. I sure hope they see this article!

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