Palo Alto Weekly

Real Estate - April 15, 2011

Positively Green

Green becomes the new norm with CALGreen code

by Iris Harrell

Many people rue the day they start building or remodeling in California because of the massive amounts of regulation via the ever-changing building codes, inspections and increased permitting requirements. Much of what was considered voluntary upgrades in the recent past are becoming basic standards required by the new CALGreen Code that became effective Jan. 1, 2011, throughout California.

Having been a builder for three decades now, my perspective on these costly and time-consuming requirements has slowly evolved. Coming from North Carolina and Texas where regulations in the past had a much lower bar, I was shocked when I first moved here in 1985. One of the first local newspaper articles I read stated that almost everything involving a change in homes here required a building permit unless you were just changing out a dishwasher.

I could not fathom why such vigilance and high standards had to be mandatory. I was a "green" builder at the time, meaning I had only three or four years of experience under my belt.

When I started doing a lot of repair work in 1985 out of my Menlo Park home office, many of the projects were fixing other people's work, some soon after the prior contractor had barely left the driveway. Decks were made out of improper materials and too close to the ground or the structure was below code. Whole bathrooms had to be redone in short order because of moisture build up and improper waterproofing that quickly caused mold and dry rot.

Recently we have inherited a job where "in progress" electrical work on a home caused major damage to the whole house when an electrical fire broke out over the weekend while the homeowners were out of town. Over time, I came to understand the need for more permits and inspections and higher standards and codes.

Most homeowners do not have the time nor technical expertise to know that the construction job going on in their home is being done safely and to code. Even if the homeowner is an electrical engineer in the Valley, it is likely that he or she is not familiar with the nuances of the most current residential building codes in this state. Lastly, we need to remember that all code changes are for our personal safety, health and our community's health and wellbeing.

So before I list a few of the highlights of the new CALGreen Code, I want to remind us why we choose to live in this glorious state called California. We feel clean air and water are our natural rights. After a major earthquake, we are at those moments grateful for the part of the building code here that protects us in ways that places like Haiti are not protected.

So take a deep breath (of clean air) and notice a few highlights of the new building code that CALGreen addresses:

1. All toilets (as of July 2011) must be 1.28 gallons per flush maximum, versus the 1.6 gpf that was the prior code. If you have a 15-year old toilet, you may be having a 7-gallons-per-flush experience affecting the overall state supply of water, which of course is not infinite, by the way. Some toilets do an excellent job of flushing at 1.28 gpf and some do not. Check your consumer reports.

2. Stormwater management is required in every new home or ones with significant remodels. By system design, all stormwater must drain quickly away from the house, but the water must stay on the property and not flood into the streets or the neighbors' yards. That means more dry wells (deep pits that hold excess water until it slowly percolates into the ground below) will be required as part of basic construction permits.

3. In the clean air department, all paints used both inside and out must be low VOC (volatile organic compounds), meaning it does not create harmful vapors while being applied or after the paint job is complete. There will also be no more wood-burning fireplaces. Instead you can choose an EnergyStar gas fireplace appliance that vents directly through an outside wall or a pellet wood stove that complies with the Environmental Protection Agency. (Many of these work wonderfully and are very attractive!)

Stay tuned for part two of the CALGreen Code in my next article. Remember that just like green spinach is good for you, so is the new CALGreen code!

Iris Harrell is CEO and president of Harrell Remodeling, Inc. in Mountain View (www.harrell-remodeling.com). She can be reached at 650-230-2900 or irish@harrell-remodeling.com.

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