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Legislating Green Communities


By Casius Pealer

Washington, D.C. became in 2007 the first major city in the country to enact legislation to apply green-building requirements broadly to both public and private projects. This legislation was passed by the City Council due to the efforts of a diverse task force of building professionals. Later that same year, the American Institute of Architects (AIA) compiled a Local Leaders Report, detailing the growth and effectiveness of green-building policies. According to the AIA, in 2007 just 14 percent of all cities with populations over 50,000 had formal Green-Building programs.

Building professionals can help ensure that green building is addressed as a change to the entire design process.
Image courtesy Dan Page
Building professionals can help ensure that green building is addressed as a change to the entire design process.
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In order to develop such policy efforts, and specifically to expand green affordable housing, Enterprise Community Partners recently launched a web-based Green Policy Toolkit for groups interested in implementing local green-building requirements. Enterprise is a national nonprofit affordable-housing organization that created and manages Green Communities, which is a five-year, $555 million initiative to build 8,500 healthy, efficient homes for low-income families. The Green Communities program includes specific criteria that developers must meet in order to demonstrate that their projects meet green standards. Currently, at least five states and six large cities have enacted specific requirements for affordable housing based on the Green Communities framework, and Enterprise’s Toolkit revolves around the lessons from these real life initiatives.

Trisha Miller, Deputy Director of Green Communities for Enterprise, expects the Enterprise Toolkit to support individuals seeking to participate in local and statewide policy discussions. “Often, legislative staff members are not deeply familiar with green-building requirements,” says Miller. “The volunteer efforts of local experts can often make the difference between a law that is both achievable and rigorous, and one that sets the bar too low or leaves important questions regarding implementation unresolved.” In addition to explaining cost-efficient green-building techniques and added health benefits, building professionals can help ensure that green building is addressed as a change to the entire design process, rather than just to the final specifications.

A successful public-policy initiative must build broad consensus. The first section of Enterprise’s Toolkit describes various standard outreach efforts and identifies constituencies that should be engaged in the process prior to crafting and adopting an actual policy. The Toolkit also includes a number of important issues to consider when advocating for a green-building law, including the impact on construction and operating costs, the availability of local expertise for implementation, and an overview of various means to attach requirements to a project such as public financing or the local zoning code.

Additionally, any successful green-building policy will have to identify clear responsibility and resources for verification of compliance and ongoing administration of the program—issues that are discussed in detail in the Toolkit.

Another resource for building professionals seeking to participate in or initiate green-policy discussions is the Playbook for Green Buildings and Neighborhoods. The Playbook was developed by a consortium of twenty private, nonprofit and government entities in an effort to help achieve the U.S. Conference of Mayors’ Climate Protection Agreement, which encourages city mayors to meet or beat the greenhouse-gas emission targets identified in the Kyoto Protocol. Like the Enterprise Toolkit, the Playbook is primarily available online and is regularly updated to reflect current initiatives and strategic thinking. The U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) also has a State and Local Government Toolkit, which outlines key steps in making policy changes, including a specific section explaining why such policies should consider incorporating LEED requirements. However, neither the Playbook nor the USGBC Toolkit specifically addresses housing affordability, a key constituency in local-policy discussions.

Patty Rose, Executive Director of GreenHOME in Washington, D.C., is an architect and environmental activist who was instrumental in helping to create and enact D.C.’s Green Building Act. The Green Building Act was the first piece of legislation many local building professionals had ever worked on. “Architects can exhibit leadership in many different ways, not only with their clients but also with their community as a whole,” says Rose. “Today, creating green-building standards is an essential health and safety issue for the entire community.”

Casius Pealer, Assoc. AIA, is an Assistant General Counsel (Real Estate) at the District of Columbia Housing Authority and is the liaison from that agency to the D.C. Mayor’s Green Building Advisory Council. He also serves as a member of the AIA’s Housing and Custom Residential Knowledge Community.


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This article appeared in the January 2009 print issue of GreenSource Magazine.

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