Future developments in Scottsdale will now have to follow the city’s environmentally-friendly “green building code,” a set of construction rules that are expected to cut a fifth of each new building’s water usage and reduce their greenhouse gas emissions by at least 10%.
The code itself isn’t anything new, but how it’s being implemented could become a model for a region facing the ravages of a changing climate.
The green building code has been on the books in Scottsdale as an optional program for more than a decade, dictating everything from a project’s construction materials to its energy usage to the efficiency of its plumbing system for companies that participate.
The city convinced about 30 projects to opt-in over the past 15 years by offering perks, such as permits to construct buildings with more units. The strategy is less risky than requiring companies to build green, which can scare developers away because it’s often more expensive, ultimately hampering economic growth.
But on Tuesday, Scottsdale abandoned those fears and made its green codes mandatory for new commercial developments, a first-of-its-kind policy in Arizona that’s only been adopted by eight other local governments in the United States, according to Julian Anderson of Scottsdale’s Building Advisory Board of Appeals.
Proponents believe it’s one of the biggest steps in recent history towards long-term sustainability in the Valley. It could also be a major part of reconciling water and climate concerns with the inevitable increase in development that’s needed to accommodate Arizona’s ballooning population.
“Every piece of land is going to eventually get developed, it’s just a matter of what we put on it,” Councilmember Solange Whitehead said. “This is a gift to the next generations. This is what we needed to do.”
The city’s mandate may be the first in a line of dominos for Arizona. Scottsdale has led the way on green building initiatives since the 1990s, helping to facilitate a “green building movement” that has inspired other municipalities from Flagstaff to Tucson to craft their own optional initiatives.
Tuesday’s decision will expand that framework and spare other cities some of the trial-and-error that comes along with adopting these types of policies, reducing the risk for others who want to join-in.
It may also prove to be a pivotal turning point for larger environmental efforts in the state, which Tempe Director of Sustainability Braden Kay said must include a Valley-wide mandatory green code similar to Scottsdale’s in order to keep the region functioning amid the climate crisis.
“It’s building this green building movement so that eventually more and more cities can get on board, and we can move towards having some kind of regionally adopted code,” said Kay, who added that he has also followed Scottsdale’s lead while crafting Tempe’s initiative.
Economic risks still loom in the background, however.
Kay told The Arizona Republic that green building practices can increase development costs by as much as 10%, meaning a company that wants to build a $50 million complex in Scottsdale could now be on the hook for an extra $5 million.
Scottsdale renters could get stuck with that cost in a housing market that’s already the least affordable in metro-Phoenix, where essential workers such as police officers and firefighters can’t afford to buy or rent on their typical salaries.
The possibility of scaring-off future developers is also a potential problem. A recent city-commissioned study found that more than 95% of Scottsdale’s housing units are taken — a vacancy rate that’s potentially one of the lowest in the U.S.
“This is going to impact our local development significantly,” said Councilmember Tammy Caputi, who cast the only vote against mandating the green code. “Developers are going to pass these increasing costs through to the end users. We’re going to make housing even less affordable when we’re already struggling with soaring housing costs.”
Code expected to have massive impact on water, emissions
Scottsdale’s green code has a broad set of requirements across a number of different categories — including water, electricity and landscaping — but gives companies multiple different options to meet the city’s standards in virtually every area.
For example, developers have to make sure that a certain portion of the building material they use is environmentally-friendly, but can choose among a wide range of options from recycled steel to sustainable lumber.
They can also opt-out of installing solar panels — the most expensive green building feature, according to experts — if they use special types of wall insulation that keep indoor temperatures mild and reduces demand on air conditioners.
Scottsdale officials said they built that flexibility into the code to ensure it won’t be overly-burdensome on developers despite the long list of new rules companies will have to follow.
“We worked with the architects, the designers, and the contractors, and we discovered that it’s not that difficult. It’s fairly simple to comply with,” said Anthony Floyd, Scottsdale’s senior green building and energy code consultant.
The city’s green building mandate is expected to produce similar benefits for each project regardless of what options the developers choose — and the anticipated impact is significant:
- Water usage will drop by 20% because of plumbing requirements and other water efficiency rules
- Outdoor water use will be cut down by as much as 50% through green-friendly landscaping codes
- Energy-efficient systems will reduce usage by 14%
- Each building under the code will ultimately produce at least 10% less greenhouse gas than traditional developments
It will be up to city staffers to ensure those anticipated benefits pan out. They’re responsible for vetting each project proposal to make sure it’s up to snuff, reviewing initial efficiency tests on the building’s green features and performing code inspections to keep each development in compliance.
The mandate won’t take effect until June, so the city has about six months to craft a solid game plan that will allow the code to work as intended.
‘Unintended consequences’ ahead?
Despite Scottsdale’s decades-long track record of successfully implementing green building initiatives, a number of questions still surround the city’s latest policy change.
Officials remain unsure about how many additional staffers they’ll need to accommodate the influx of green building reviews, for example, and it’s not clear if the mandatory initiative will jam up the city’s construction permitting process.
“We are going to need more staff to enforce this mandatory code,” said Caputi, who added that “permitting times are also going to increase by months.”
The roughly 30 green buildings Scottsdale has approved since adopting its voluntary code in 2007 represent about half of the eligible developments built during that time.
That means the city could soon experience a 50% increase in green code reviews under the mandatory rules, a massive spike that Floyd said the city will need more staffers to handle.
He added that just two new employees would suffice and that the cost would be minimal. Still, the lack of a solid staffing plan creates uncertainty about whether Scottsdale is ready to execute the stronger initiative.
“We do need to have more staff to do that. But I know our plan reviewers are pretty already loaded with what they’re doing,” he said. “We just need someone specializing in energy and green (construction) to fill that void, (and) lessen the burden on existing plan reviewers.”
Perhaps the biggest unanswered question about the new code is how much it will cost developers.
Floyd and Whitehead contend that the cost will be “negligible” for builders, while Caputi believes it could be “significant.” None of them provided specifics.
Kay’s estimate that green construction can increase costs by anywhere from 0% to 10% is the most solid figure available. But he said even that range is questionable given how varied pricing can be for projects of different sizes and types.
The crux of that issue is that no one really knows how much more the mandated code will cost construction companies despite that piece of information being necessary to determine how the policy might impact residents.
Whatever the increase in cost may be, renters will probably have to cover it. Developers are likely to raise rent instead of just taking that financial hit.
In Scottsdale’s pricey market — where 97% of all homes are either unaffordable or taken — even a slight rate increase could further box-out middle-income earners, a possible “unintentional consequence” of the green code that would make a bad housing situation even worse.
“Almost no one else has made it mandatory and there is a reason for that,” Caputi said. “I believe this going to have unintended consequences on development in our city (and that it will) affect Scottsdale businesses and Scottsdale employees”.
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