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urban design best practiceGreen Building

San Francisco, CA


Green Building
Photo source: David Assmann

To develop policies that address and minimize the environmental impact of buildings by pursuing advanced design and construction practices that are water and energy efficient, reduce waste and promote healthier lifestyles.


In 1999 the city set out to lead by example by instituting the Municipal Green Building ordinance which requires that buildings owned by the City and County of San Francisco meet resource efficiency requirements equivalent to LEED Silver. In recent years the focus has increasingly shifted to engage the private sector to adopt green building practices. Examples of its progress include: streamlining the Solar Photovoltaic Permit Process (2006); instituting a Priority Permitting Program for LEED Gold private projects (2006); and establishing binding Green Building Specifications for the future build-out of Treasure Island (2006).

Awards and Recognition:


Growth of LEED Certified Space in San Francisco

Background & Summary

In 2004, the Board of Supervisors updated an existing ordinance requiring LEED® Silver for City construction projects falling within the following scope:

  • Newly constructed small, midsize, and high-rise residential occupancy buildings
  • Newly constructed commercial buildings of or exceeding 5,000 square feet
  • New first-time build-outs of commercial interiors of or exceeding 25,000 square feet
  • Major alterations of 25,000 square feet

All listed buildings must meet or exceed the energy requirements of the 2005 California Building Energy Efficiency Standards. Further incentives offered by this policy include priority permitting in addition to rebates for photovoltaic system installation and water/energy efficiency.

In March 2007, the Mayor convened a Task Force comprised of ten members of San Francisco’s building ownership, developer, financial, architectural, engineering, and construction communities to develop recommendations for new green building standards for the private sector. The Task Force released its report in July 2007, resulting in the most comprehensive local green building code of any large city in the U.S.

Public Outreach & Education:
A key to success has been the close participation and full support of the Building and Planning Departments, and the numerous public stakeholder meetings held to discuss the development of the policy and its implementation strategy.

In  an effort to expand sustainable residential building, former mayor Gavin Newsom & the Board of Supervisors passed a resolution declaring the last week of September as "Green Building Week." During the last week of September, San Francisco hosts the West Coast Green Residential Building Conference & Expo in and effort to revolutionize smart and sustainable built communities of the future.

Public Support & Opposition:
In general, because of the innovative industry-driven Task Force policy development process, the phased-in approach, the use of known green building rating systems, and the carefully tiered approach to different occupancy-types, the proposed legislation received little to no opposition.

Support for the legislation (written and verbal) was submitted from the following groups and individuals:

  • San Francisco Urban Research Association (SPUR)-Housing/Sustainable Development Committees (non-profit policy think tank)
  • Home builders Association of Northern California (regional trade association)
  • Beacon Capital Partners (private development entity)
  • Farella, Braun, and Martel LLP Attorneys At Law (legal)
  • Leddy Maytum Stacy Architects (local architecture firm)
  • Stopwaste.Org (local government agency)
  • NAIBT Commercial Real Estate (commercial real estate)
  • Residential Builders Association –verbal support (local trade association)

Legal Issues:
In order to amend our local building code with green building standards, San Francisco was required to comply with administrative rules set by the California Building Standards Commission (CBSC) and the California Energy Commission (CEC). Existing provisions of the CBSC (Health and Safety Code Sections 17958.6 et seq.) generally preempt locals from setting building standards different from those set forth in the State code, except where “reasonably necessary because of local climatic, geological, or topographical conditions.”

Since both LEED and GreenPoint Rated require minimum modeled energy efficiency above existing energy code baseline, the City retained a consultant to prepare and submit a required cost-effectiveness study to the CEC conforming to the requirements laid out in of the California Code of Regulations (Section 10-106 , Title 24, Part 1, Locally Adopted Energy Standards); the CEC approved our application in October 2008.

Finally, there is a new hidden risk of referencing third-party green building systems such as LEED and GreenPoint Rated as the basis for local requirements. In July 2008 the CBSC formally adopted “Amendments to the 2007 California Building Standards Code (Title 24, CCR, Parts 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6 in Title 24, CCR, PART 11, California Green Building Standards Code)” – the first ever of its kind. This makes the above-mentioned CBSC findings process even more critical. The CBSC has stated their intent is to create a “floor, not a ceiling” for local jurisdictions regarding green building (see Sec. 101.7); it remains to be seen how this will play out for local governments adopting their own requirements.

Fiscal Impacts

Pursuant to CEC administrative rules, we retained energy consultants to report on the feasibility and cost-effectiveness of permit applicants exceeding 2005 Building Energy Efficiency Standards to meet the minimum energy requirements of the green building ordinance, with a cost of $15,000. Additional services provided by consultants included as-needed independent peer review and cost impact analysis for both the proposed legislation and the Administrative Bulletin (regulation document); although not required this task was performed as a “risk management best practice” at approximately $15,000.

As laid out in AB-093, the Department of Building Inspection will not be reviewing LEED or GreenPoint Rated documentation. It will rely on the administering entities (USGBC and Build It Green) to provide and maintain the third-party verification infrastructure and quality assurance for compliance with green building requirements, thus require no new permit application review staff. SF Environment and DBI provided ample staff time to develop administrative guidelines and forms, and for public and staff training.

As for all major proposed legislation, the Office of Economic Analysis found that “the economic cost associated with the CO2 savings is relatively high, compared to other potential policy approaches" and concluded that a “revenue-neutral carbon tax…could achieve similar levels of CO2 reductions with no negative economic impact.”

Contact for This Best Practice

Name: Rich Chien
Job Title: Private Sector Green Building Coordinator
Jurisdiction: City and County of San Francisco
Phone: (415) 355-3761

Last updated April 4, 2013



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