San Francisco Art Institute Fort Mason

California Architects Push the State for Emissions-Free Buildings

Last week I wrote about the important lobbying effort undertaken by the California chapter of the AIA, which is pushing Governor Newsom to support adoption of a Zero Code, an act that would essentially mandate the construction of new emissions-free buildings in the state. In the course of reporting the story, I interviewed William Leddy, one of the architects involved in the push. His San Francisco–based firm, Leddy Maytum Stacy Architects, has a decades-long commitment to sustainable design. (It also won the AIA’s 2017 Firm of the Year award.) What follows is an edited version of our lively talk. 

MCP: Martin C. Pedersen
WL: William Leddy


Tell me about this Zero Code initiative. How did it start, and what’s the status right now? 


The Zero Code was developed by Ed Mazria, Architecture 2030, and Charles Eley, an expert in high performance building design and green building codes. Their goal was to develop a simple, adaptable building energy standard that could be applied nationally and internationally to require all new commercial, midrise, and high-rise buildings to be zero-net-carbon immediately. They also created a special version designed to integrate easily within California’s existing energy standards: the Zero Code for California. When it was launched in the fall of 2018, my colleagues and I on the AIA California Committee on the Environment immediately saw it as a potentially transformational initiative and started to advocate for the AIA California Board to officially adopt it. In the process of doing that, we drafted a letter to then-governor-elect Gavin Newsom in support of the Zero Code, signed by many of the local AIA chapters and leading architectural firms in the state, a number of municipalities, and AIA California. This effort stimulated further discussion within AIA California leadership, which led to unanimous board support to more actively advocate for the Zero Code. They subsequently sent a separate letter to the governor advocating for quick adoption of the Zero Code and are aggressively lobbying for its approval in Sacramento.  


San Francisco Art Institute Fort Mason interior

San Francisco Art Institute at Fort Mason. Interior galleries. Architect: Leddy Maytum Stacy. Rooftop photovoltaics (shown in featured image) provide 100% of the electricity required for the building. Both photos by Bruce Damonte.


As I understand it, enlisting the governor’s support is only one part of your effort, right?


Correct. Initially, Ed thought we could push for an executive order. It turns out that’s not the way it works. We need the governor’s active support behind us, but it needs to go through the California Energy Commission with a fully vetted code-adoption process. So we’re approaching this on several different tracks. The first track is to enlist Governor Newsom’s active support of this initiative.

The second track, discovered by Michael Malinowski, the AIA’s government liaison, is to introduce the Zero Code immediately as a “reach code” within CALGreen, the California Green Building Standard. We believe this approach doesn’t require the Energy Commission process. It would give cities around the state the option to adopt the Zero Code now, while we continue to pursue the third track: formal statewide adoption through the lengthy code-revision process.



So it’s the three-prong attack, knowing that the governor’s support would kickstart all of these efforts.


Exactly. We all agree with Ed that it’s critical to do this immediately or, at the latest, by the 2022 code cycle. California originally passed legislation targeting 2030 as the date mandating zero net energy for all new commercial buildings and 50% of all existing buildings. So moving this forward from 2030 to 2022 is perceived by some government folks as being extremely aggressive. But our climate emergency is so pressing that if we can get more political support behind it, we’re convinced this can happen. 

 Recently I wrote an essay about the business case for zero carbon architecture, trying to convince skeptical colleagues that this is a historic opportunity that architects must seize, for many reasons, not the least of which is the business reason. If architects don’t take a leadership role in designing our zero-carbon future, others will.


Jacobs Institute for Design Innovation

Jacobs Institute for Design Innovation, University of California, Berkeley. Architect: Leddy Maytum Stacy. LEED Platinum Certified. Photo by Tim Griffith.


I’m going to be optimistic because, basically, what are my options? Let’s say you succeed in getting the governor behind the Zero Code. Would he have enough influence with the California Energy Commission to change the code in 2022?


Yes. We think that would be huge. Jared Blumenfeld, California’s secretary of environmental protection, received the letter, and we’re hoping he can get it in front of the governor. Honestly, this shouldn’t be this hard, given the gravity of the  situation that we’re all in. But it is, even in California. We’re trying to get to the governor in different ways, through different avenues, while also talking to the California Energy Commission and trying to get them on board, independently of the governor.



If California signed onto a Zero Code, I think it would be transformational. The state is the world’s fifth-largest economy. It’s arguably its own country. You have the EU, which has signed on to those carbon targets, and you have China looking over it at California.


Right. Since they all know nothing is happening at the federal level, China, India, and the EU are all looking to California to take the next step. One of the points we made to members of the AIA California Board was, “You have no idea how powerful you are. You have an opportunity to help create a global tipping point.” I think they took that to heart.

 Many of us who’ve been engaged in ecological design thinking for years have reached our own tipping point. With the mounting climate emergency upon us, the time for slow, incremental change is over.  Our message now is, “Stop telling us why we can’t do this! Start telling us how we can do this. Let’s cut the red tape and get it figured out.” As soon as zero-carbon buildings become a code requirement, I think many things will start happening in a domino effect. The first is, we can stop convincing our clients to do the right thing. This just has to be done. The second is that innovation and the free enterprise system will explode, providing new and cheaper zero-carbon materials and technologies. What has happened with photovoltaic panels, with shrinking costs and exploding efficiency, will happen across the construction industry. As soon as clients stop resisting it, architects will embrace it, and then we’ll attract the best creative minds to fully engage this as another element of what great design in the 21st century really means. And then it just takes off. I’m done trying to convince people to do the right thing. Getting the Zero Code approved is the threshold that we’re all pushing for.



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