IGCC Series: Longevity and Adaptability in Green Building

The International Green Construction Code (IGCC) is a model code for cities seeking to promote sustainable building practices through their building codes. The IGCC promotes transition from the current voluntary green construction certifications, like USGBC’s LEED, to mandatory green construction codes. As the most recent revisions of the IGCC are currently under review, Green Building Law Update hopes to promote awareness by examining some of the code sections.

505.1 A building service life plan (BSLP) in accordance with this section shall be included in the construction documents. The design service life shall not be less than 60 years and the BSLP shall indicate the design service life selected for the building.

505.1.2 A plan to accommodate future re-configuration, dismounting, and disassembly of interior non-loadbearing walls, partitions, lighting and electric systems, suspended ceilings, raised floors, and interior air distribution systems for a minimum of 25 years shall be included in the BSLP. The plan shall verify that the interior materials, components, and assemblies have a minimum service life of 25 years, and are adaptable to future reconfigurations with in the interior spaces.

Among the numerous aspects of green development, building service life is rarely mentioned. Building longevity and adaptability are critical to any analysis of long term sustainability.  Among the various elements that factor into a building's service life are the design, materials, utility, location, and ownership. Due to these competing interests, a universal standard for building service life is difficult to define.

The building service life plan (BSLP) required by the IGCC mandates all buildings have a 60 year life span unless a shorter span of 25 years is approved and justified by community development plans. In response to new technology or unforeseen future needs, the IGCC also requires buildings to include plans for accommodating interior renovations for a minimum of 25 years.

Despite sustainable construction and management practices, if a green building does not serve its intended purpose after a mere ten or fifteen years, its sustainability should rightly be questioned. To illustrate some of the sustainability issues related to building service life it is easiest to contrast two very different projects: a university building and a shopping center. 

Universities typically build on a campus where they plan to own and occupy buildings for the foreseeable future. This anticipated long-term ownership can affect the employment of better building materials and incorporation of sustainability features with a long-term payback. It is no surprise, then, that universities were some of the first to find value in and adopt green building programs.

Retail developers often build shopping centers near new or trendy residential areas. Unlike university buildings, shopping centers are typically built with low cost materials like cinder block, stone, and stucco. Some retail developers do not plan to own a new shopping center for any extended period after it is leased. This short turnaround can disincentivize investment in sustainable features and high quality materials. Many of the savings from sustainable features are realized through lower energy consumption but the tenants typically pay shopping center utilities.

The IGCC’s building service life plan takes a step toward finding a middle ground between these development strategies to increase overall sustainability. Balancing long term development plans with the ability to adapt to the needs of a rapidly evolving society is vital to the ultimate success of a building life plan.

The Schermerhorn Symphony Center in Nashville, TN demonstrates the notable difference when building service life is a top consideration. From the outset, Nashville's new venue was designed to last 300 years. To achieve this goal, the design team incorporated elements of many European performance halls combining classic architecture with modern technology and high quality materials. Nashville's result is a timeless building that is also adaptable to future technology.

Unfortunately, the IGCC fails to account for these differing motivations and incentives for sustainable building across various industries. Symphony halls do not need to adapt to new innovations at the same pace as hospitals. Should a gas station be built to last for 60 years? Or even 25 years? Is that the best use of monetary or natural resources?

Though the current provision needs further conversation and refinement, the IGCC's efforts to account for this often overlooked sustainability issue should be applauded. In addition to sustainable materials, clean energy, and diverted waste, our green buildings must be lasting and adaptable to be sustainable.

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Stuart Kaplow - July 20, 2011 3:36 PM

Great post. Important topic. I would add that in May, hundreds of IgCC code changes were heard at public code development hearings in Dallas. Significant changes to Public Version 2.0 recommended by the IgCC Committees included “whole building life-cycle assessment is no longer a project elective and it is now an exception that essentially functions as an option.”

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