High Standards

A bill would require all new buildings in Albuquerque to be more energy efficient

by Christie Chisholm, Weekly Alibi, February 22, 2007

Global warming, as a concept and point of dialogue, has been reborn. Over the last two years, thanks to hurricanes, rising gas prices and Al Gore, the public discourse about global warming, like so much carbon dioxide in our atmosphere, has risen exponentially. What a few years ago existed simply as an “environmentalists’ issue,” receiving no more attention than topics like deforestation and recycling (which are certainly linked to global warming), is today recognized as the next lurking catastrophe. Suddenly, society is paying attention.

Politicians are also paying attention. In fact, perhaps the most important reaction to the cultural change we’re witnessing is its accompanying change in policy. All over the country, and especially in New Mexico, lawmakers are crafting legislation to promote sustainable energy and building design and lessen our dependence on fossil fuels. In fact, some of the most progressive municipal legislation to combat global warming is happening locally and will be introduced this week in the Albuquerque City Council.

Councilors Isaac Benton, Martin Heinrich and Michael Cadigan announced last week in a cramped conference room at Benton’s architecture firm that the three will unveil a bill that would require the city to build with more energy efficiency. The Albuquerque High Performance Buildings Ordinance (AHPBO) asks for all new buildings and significant renovations—whether residential, commercial or government—to be built with higher energy efficiency standards for heating and cooling systems, insulation, and appliances, among other things. Low-e (low-emission) windows would also be required unless the window is south-facing and used for passive solar gain. And, for those systems that carry the label, Energy Star appliances would be mandatory (for appliances that don’t have Energy Star ratings, those with higher energy efficiency would do).

But the bill asks for more than altering building codes. The AHPBO would also outlaw burning certain materials—garbage, paints, paint solvents, treated wood and waste petroleum products. It would upgrade the International Energy Conservation Code standards the city uses from the 2003 version to last year’s. The new standards would require buildings to have a higher level of energy efficiency overall. And, lastly, it would move LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design)-certified projects to the top of the list for consideration for approval.

The three councilors, surrounded by renderings and cross-sections of future buildings employing sustainable design—evidence of Benton’s 30-year career in green architecture—touted the benefits the bill could bring: economic growth, a healthier city, savings on energy bills and, a phrase that emerged several times, an initiative that would put Albuquerque on the “cutting edge” of renewables and energy efficiency.

Indeed, the bill would make us a leader in such legislation. Few cities in the U.S. have introduced anything similar—Washington, D.C. and Austin, Texas, are two that have—even though other nations, especially those in Western Europe, have set higher energy efficiency standards in their building codes.

But there is some initial doubt about the bill. Cynthia Schultz, vice president of local contracting company Bradbury Stamm, had just learned about the proposal last Friday, Feb. 16. Not wanting to say much because she knew only a little about the initiative, Schultz put it simply, saying the cost impact on construction generated by the new requirements could affect development. “For developers, when they’re looking at the cost to build here versus somewhere else, they might look somewhere else.” Still, Schultz says her company supports green building and points to the fact that Bradbury Stamm worked on the first LEED-certified building in New Mexico, which was completed in 2003.

Heinrich, Cadigan and Benton don’t seem concerned. Saying they got significant support from a number of developers, architects and other building industry professionals for the bill, they predict that a few stray builders may object but that most people, including other city councilors, will welcome the legislation.

The proposal will be introduced to the Council on Wednesday, Feb. 21. During its discussion, a few kinks will be addressed, says Benton, including the issue of enforcement for minor home improvements which don’t have to be approved through the city.

Whatever happens to the bill, the three councilors say it’s just the first phase. More legislation to promote (and require) sustainable design is on the horizon—and, Heinrich says, this is likely the case all over the country, in the age of global warming.