In a small California community, the Building Official keeps a stack of nearly 1,000 pages
on his desk as a reminder to consider the big picture. This stack was required by the
California Energy Code for a small project: replacement of 24 apartment HVAC units.
Looking past those 1,000 pages, you’d find some unhappy people:
An unhappy property owner: He knew updating the old equipment to high efficiency and
environmentally responsible new systems would be expensive, but he thought the permit
would be easy and simple. After all, this big investment would not only be great for his
tenants – lowering their energy bills, but it would also be good for the State since it hit on
a number of political hot buttons, such as reducing carbon footprint, need for power
plants, ozone damaging legacy refrigerant and more. Easy and simple? Nope: expensive
and time consuming.
An unhappy subcontractor: He had long ago given up trying to keep up with the arcane
regs, so he had to hire a specialist to prepare them … and then had to face a customer
unhappy about the time and cost involved.
The Architect on the project also wasn’t happy. This part of the process annoyed
everyone, didn’t put a dime into his own thin budget for design, and saddled him with the
legal liability of signing off on this massive tome.
Even the Building Official wasn’t happy. He didn’t have the staff or budget to process all
this paper, review it, or file it.
Everyone was behind the intent and ready to put the ideas into action. But the
paperwork! So what was the driver behind this massive tower of papers?
In California, we have what is widely considered the most advanced energy code in the
country. The 146 pages of the code itself were crafted by an army of State engineers,
consultants, academics, and bureaucrats under the guidance of our California Energy
Commission. Along the way, there were drafts and submittals, many hearings open to
the public, and each one officially noticed in all the legally required places. But how many
of the real stakeholders in this process were really engaged: individual small businesses,
contractors, property owners, or architects, for example? Precious few based on the
evidence. Those 146 pages of code are so arcane. They are backed up by over 2,000
additional pages of supporting documentation, compliance manuals, and reference
appendices. Many of those thousands of pages require forms ‐ so many that
replacement of a single HVAC unit might trigger over 40 pages of paperwork! Replace a
simple residential single family water heater? To do that requires someone to puzzle their
way through at least seven different sections of the code, with the process ultimately
leading to a pile of 47 pages of paper – just for the energy code part of the permit. That’s
to ask permission to install the kind of high performance water heater that California
wants you to have.
And what happens to all the paper which costs so much to prepare? It turns out, not
much. In many jurisdictions, they simply don’t have the time or resources to dig into it, so
it’s simply filed – sometimes into the round bin. YIKES!
This is but one example of the growing divide between our aspiration to be at the cutting
edge of energy and environmental performance and the realities of our businesses,
consultants, regulators, and citizens. How did we get here? And more importantly, how
can we get to a more sustainable course?
Across the country, California is considered a leader in the drive toward high
performance. With that often comes the assumption that “we’ve got it figured out.”
From our perspective at the Streamline Institute, the reality is more nuanced. We do
have a system that can produce great results, but it’s also one that imposes unnecessary
burdens on all the stakeholders, and unanticipated disincentives. Looking forward,
California’s state level mandates for high performance buildings are on course for
mandating Net Zero Net Energy for all new low rise residential buildings statewide by
2020 and all new commercial buildings by 2030. Today, some California communities are
even ahead of that ‐ Santa Monica’s Reach Net Zero Code is live as of May 1.
It’s time to take a fresh look at our California regulatory environment. It is clear that
achieving these goals will require significant changes in building design, products,
systems, and construction practices. One aspect not so often considered: we need a new
approach to the regulatory environment itself. There are already many examples of
confusion about what is required, wasted and duplicative efforts, unintentional
disincentives, plan review and enforcement disconnects, and conundrums that may
unduly impact certain kinds of projects and customers. Considering how these might be
addressed provides some insight into how we might avoid greater issues in the near
The bottom line: we need to put as much attention on Streamlining as we do on the
science, engineering, policy, and codes. Real streamlining does NOT mean regulatory
abandonment. Real streamlining means integrating the customer perspective, customer
and project personas, and the cold hard realities of our economic and cultural
disconnects into the process from the beginning. Real Streamlining can’t be “patched
on” after the fact.
Let’s examine a few specific examples in more detail.
1. Unduly Complex Regulations and Documentation Requirements
There is a tendency today to assume that the increasing complexity of moving toward our
energy and sustainability goals is inherently so complex that arcane codes and massive
bodies of manuals and forms are unavoidable, even for simple projects. To counter that
perspective, consider consumers interaction with computers. It was not that long ago
that ANY interaction with a computer was also accompanied by a need to dig into arcane
documentation and consult with experts. Today, computers are more complex than ever,
yet most citizens carry one in their pocket without so much as a glance at an operation
manual. The key: the customer experience is given a lot of consideration during
We need a similar mindset in California’s regulatory environment. It has to be someone’s
responsibility to weigh the cost and benefits for every piece of paper involved. We need
to rediscover some of the approaches that California had not long ago, such as short and
simple forms designed for customers to use directly, point systems for evaluating options,
and simple scripts for simple tasks. Replacing a water heater should be a “one pager,” not
a “book” that requires an expert consultant to interpret.
2. Lack of Products to meet requirements at all project scales
When the last cycle of commercial California energy regulations first went into effect, for
small some projects there were no cost effective products available in the marketplace to
meet requirements such as lighting, dimming, and panel segregation. An example of the
result: electrical bids for a 1,500 sq. ft. wine tasting room were over quadruple the
budget. Manufacturers were aware of the products needed, but they logically waited for
the market to materialize first. So, in the interim, products designed for 10,000 sq. ft.
projects had to be jammed into small TI’s at very high cost. This marketplace “gap”
extended for nearly a year. During this time, unreasonable costs hurt small businesses,
contractors, and property owners without corresponding public benefit. If products are
not there to serve customers, there needs to be flexibility granted to local officials where
the issues arise to use common sense.
3. Failure to consider “single dimensional” retrofit projects
Our regulatory environment is based on a “typical” multi‐dimensional project that
includes many changes that happen concurrently. This typical situation affords the
potential to “trade off” higher performance in one area against lower performance in
another area. What about projects that are “one dimensional?” Our current regulations
don’t address these scenarios. Example: A tenant and building owner would like to
replace existing, single glazed storefront windows with a new double glazed system which
will provide both significant energy savings, as well as a quieter interior. Today, it is
difficult or impossible to navigate the code to success as it limits glass transparency
without considering that, in some cases, it would be a disaster for a retail business, not to
mention also violating design review mandates that specify clear glazing for retail
storefronts. The inflexibility of mandated “minimum standards” in examples like this can
create a “Catch 22” that either stops some potential upgrades in their tracks or drives
them “underground,” to be executed without permits at all.
Streamlining needs to be part of the process, not something
“applied” at the end
We need Streamlining to be a part of Regulatory development from the beginning, not
something “patched on” after the fact. There is currently a working group, driven by
statewide building officials attempting to fix some of the energy code regulatory
disconnect cited here. While this has promise – to shift the needle as we move forward –
it requires a new paradigm. Streamlining must be a core responsibility from the beginning
to the end.
Full engagement of the marketplace must occur: Design Professionals,
Vendor, Code Officials, and Building Owners
Old school methods of public engagement involve posting official notices of hearings. We
need new models of engagement going directly to the customers. Stakeholder
engagement must include proactive outreach, high bandwidth technology enabled
communication channels tuned to customer and stakeholder preferences, and funded
participation as necessary. In the absence of full stakeholder engagement, even
streamlining efforts can become ironic examples of the challenge. One recent example: a
large California jurisdiction mandated “electronic plan submittals” for all large projects
with promised savings in time and money for everyone. This sounded appealing, but a
red flag soon surfaced: the 73 page manual that covered detailed formatting and
submittal requirements for simply getting plans into the system. What about the cost of
reading, understanding, and implementing 73 pages of requirements? Then multiply that
as jurisdictions adopt different requirements … pretty soon this good idea can become
part of the problem!
Enforcement Officials must be empowered to achieve intended outcomes using alternative approaches
Modern uniform building codes recognize that there is no way to craft a set of regulations
that can anticipate every possibility. Not only are there complexities and variables that
cannot all be addressed, but there are also innovations and new approaches that are
constantly emerging. To most reasonably deal with the messy complexity of the “real
world,” at some point judgment must be brought to the table. In the Uniform Codes, this
is accommodated with the provisions that permit Alternative Materials and Methods
Requests (AMMR’s). This same approach should be incorporated into Energy Codes and
other regulations. In this manner, we can consider those inevitable situations where the
intended result can be achieved by approaches that were not anticipated when the
regulations were created.
The Streamline Institute welcomes opportunities to be engaged in the movement toward
more effective and efficient regulatory environment. The Streamline Institute believes
that real streamlining results in a High Performance Regulatory Systems that are an
integral part of our progress forward. Streamlining does NOT mean regulatory
For more information, visit the Streamline Institute.
To read the whitepaper in its entirety, click here.
Please share your thoughts, and consider supporting the 501c3 Non-Profit Streamline Institute’s work with a donation of $20 or more.
Michael F. Malinowski, FAIA
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