Santa Fe’s green building codes have been around so long they might seem institutionalized. But they are fragile. With recent departures of two key city staffers, they may be precarious.
Longtime sustainability expert Katherine Mortimer retired earlier this year, and Dalinda Bangert, the green building codes specialist, moved on to Los Alamos National Laboratory a few weeks ago. With tight budgets, neither position is likely to be filled soon. That is worrisome.
Our green building codes have evolved since they were conceived in 2006. They originally followed traditional checklist formats, with pages of options in numerous categories. There also were points accumulated to achieve designations from Bronze to Emerald, with Silver and Gold in between. They were cumbersome and didn’t accurately measure savings in energy, water or indoor air quality.
Bangert and Mortimer were at the table from the beginning and shepherded every change, including the revolutionary simplification to code compliance the city instituted when it adopted HERS, WERS and ASHRAE protocols.
HERS stands for Home Energy Rating System, WERS is Water Efficiency Rating Score and ASHRAE is the American Society of Heating Refrigeration and Air-Conditioning Engineers. All three protocols are verified by inspectors or raters not employed by the city but hired by builders.
We have the simplest and most thorough green code language. For energy compliance, a homebuilder’s project must have a HERS index of 60 or lower. For water compliance, it must have a score of 70 or lower, and for indoor air quality, it must follow ASHRAE standard 62.2.
That’s it. That’s basically the entire green building code in a nutshell. No other community in America has made it so simple. Because of Mortimer and Bangert, our codes are models of innovation, simplicity and maximum builder friendliness.
They also can be ratcheted lower (lower is better) whenever the City Council chooses to do so. While the language of the codes is simple, compliance — meaning getting the right scores — can be a challenge, especially on custom homes with walls of glass facing northeast for views of the Sangre de Cristos.
What makes them builder friendly is there is no end to possible creative solutions — including, if necessary, writing a big check for solar panels, which can dramatically lower a HERS index. The equivalent tool for drastically lowering a WERS score is roof water capture and reuse inside the home to flush toilets.
For subdivisions building repetitive models, what’s necessary to hit the right numbers for compliance is easy, and city staff simply signs off on work done by hired raters.
For custom homes, it’s trickier.
That’s where Bangert’s and Mortimer’s expertise was critical. With their departure there is no one left in the Land Use Department to fill their shoes.
As committed as the remaining staff members may be to principles of sustainability, and I believe they are, they are simply overwhelmed from taking on multiple tasks made necessary by an administration that refuses to give the department the resources it needs. As recent news made clear, gross receipts tax revenue from construction is keeping our city limping along. Tourism may be the golden goose, but construction is the cash cow these days.
Mortimer and Bangert are both leaving legacies. Mortimer recently got Santa Fe designated as a LEED for Cities Community by the U.S. Green Building Council, and Bangert rewrote sections of Chapter 14, the land-use code, to include multifamily apartments in our green codes. HERS and WERS protocols are both applicable to multifamily projects.
With the proliferation of multifamily projects planned and underway, the City Council should expedite passage of Bangert’s work and bring its language into our codes.
For a city that prides itself on sustainability, we can’t assume green building codes can survive and progress without people, policies and funding to keep them relevant.