Going Green: One Small City's Big Impact

Being green means different things in different parts of the country. In St. Louis, Seattle and other places, eco-friendly construction standards apply only to city-owned or city-funded buildings. In Boston and a few other cities, green construction codes also apply to major commercial or residential developments.

So which American city thinks it can lay claim to the most comprehensive green building standards? Look west to tiny city of West Hollywood, Calif., a 1.9-square-mile patch of Los Angeles with 37,000 people, making it the city with the highest population density west of the Mississippi. Starting October 1, every private and public development must meet the city's ambitious new green building requirements. The policy includes new construction, rehabs and additions. The only exemptions: duplexes and single-family homes. Requiring so many of the city's real estate projects to meet green building standards puts West Hollywood in the forefront of the move to thrust eco-friendly design closer to the mainstream of architecture and planning.

According to city officials, thinking about smaller projects was the only way to make a big dent in West Hollywood's carbon footprint. "We thought it was important to involve everybody [to be part of the solution]," says councilmember Abbe Land, coauthor of the new ordinance.

Developed with the help of consultant Global Green USA, a nonprofit based in Santa Monica, as well as through community meetings that included developers, the idea was to make up local rules to be administered by local officials, not a national building council. The city installed a green resources center at city hall to make education simple. Officials wanted to be encompassing without being punitive. "It's best when you can develop public policy that is doable," says Land.

Under the strict but more doable rules, developers can't get city construction permits until a project has earned at least 60 points (from a menu of 160 possible points). For example, planting canopy trees can get five points. Using exposed concrete floors can net developers up to five points, bamboo or other rapidly renewable floors up to three points. Cellulose wall insulation gets two points, Energy Star-certified lighting, three points. Projects can earn up to 10 points (1 point per kilowatt) for using solar panels. In addition, all developers must meet mandatory requirements, such as reducing to 20 percent the construction waste they haul to the dump, making all roofs solar panel-ready, and using low-volatility paints and Energy Star appliances.

Once they get to 90 points, developers can choose between eight incentives, including expedited permitting and variances, like approval of an extra housing unit. That was enough for Enrique Melcer, managing partner of a family-owned development firm, who is building seven condos on a "challenging" and narrow site on Detroit Street. Melcer's attempting to earn 90 points to take advantage of an incentive that would let him build city-mandated common space on the roof rather than on the street. "If we had to put it on the ground level, it would make the project very difficult," says Melcer. To boost his point total he's putting in energy-efficient windows and insulation (up to 15 points), tankless water heaters (two points) and a green roof (eight points).

West Hollywood officials hope that the system is simpler than the United States Green Building Council's Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) rating system. (Some developers complain about the paperwork required for LEED certification.) Los Angeles architect Anthony Zubick is about to find out. He's designing a three-apartment project in West Hollywood for a French developer that will comply with the city's requirements. Meanwhile, he's also building a home for himself in Los Angeles that he's voluntarily designing to the LEED standards. As it turns out, says Zubick, "the West Hollywood rules are a little more lenient than the LEED program."

Still, West Hollywood officials admit that their city's green initiatives-like others around the country-do drive up building costs. But they insist that the expenditure is eventually made up in reduced utility bills. Melcer figures getting to his green goal will add "roughly 10 percent" to the cost of his seven-condo project. "It is a little bit more costly, but we think the benefit of going green in terms of marketing and the environmental point of view is worth the incremental cost," Melcer says.

The city's homegrown green plan is already drawing enquiries from other municipalities around the country. Global Green USA, which helped develop West Hollywood's system, has already received calls from Henderson, Nev., Claremont, Calif., and McKinney, Texas. Walker Wells, director of the Global Green USA's sustainable communities program, worked closely with West Hollywood and says any city that develops its own plan should work to reflect its own values. But he sees West Hollywood as "a great example of a small place that can make a difference." And that's always exportable.