California has overarching building codes, a set of rules that specify new construction or residential remodels standards. These include regulations for plumbing, electrical, and structural, to name a few.
Designed to protect buildings and the people and property within them, building codes ensure structural integrity, energy efficiency, accessibility, and system safety. New state codes are adopted every three years.
Reach codes exceed (or “reach beyond”) California’s baseline building energy requirements. Implemented on a local level by cities and counties in both design and construction, these extensive qualifications amend the state codes to achieve higher energy efficiency and reduce harmful emissions.
All newly constructed residences must have solar panels, and many cannot include any source of natural gas as an energy source. There is a trend toward all-electric homes that are powered at least partially by sustainable sources such as solar, wind, and hydroelectric energy.
There are two primary types of reach codes: prescriptive and performance. Prescriptive codes require one or more specific energy efficiency measures. Examples of prescriptive regulations include solar panels, reduced outdoor lighting, and cool roofs.
Performance codes are more complex than prescriptive regulations but also allow for greater flexibility. They require a building to perform more efficiently based on accepted computer modeling. They also allow trade-offs between energy efficiency measures. For example, Palo Alto had a 2016 performance code that stated if a building did not have solar panels, the building must exceed the minimum energy performance depending upon the type of facility.
These energy-focused regulations apply to all new construction. Since buildings, including homes, last for decades, it makes sense to ensure they are as efficient as possible.
Cities and local communities adopt reach codes to save money through increased energy efficiency and reduce greenhouse emissions. Implementation can also help local governments achieve part of a Climate Action Plan or meet their emission reduction goals.
Existing buildings far outnumber those being built. Many are highly inefficient, so some cities require reach codes to be applied to older structures. Depending upon the city, implementation of reach codes may be triggered during a home remodel based on the type and level of the project.
For example, in some local jurisdictions, if a homeowner remodels 75% or more of their existing residence and the project scope meets the building official’s criteria for a rebuild, the implementation of local reach codes may be triggered. Implementation of reach codes may even be possible without adding any additional square footage to your home.
Every city, county, and agency differ in their definition of a rebuild and how they choose to execute reach codes in existing dwellings. To determine when reach codes are triggered, the homeowner or their architect should research the building and planning ordinances in advance.
Though not a reach code, there are numerous other conservation codes of which homeowners should be aware. Civil code section 1101.4 is a water conservation measure that applies to any remodel work of $1,000 or above that requires a permit. The code requires all non-compliant plumbing fixtures (toilets, kitchen and bath faucets, showerheads) in the home to be replaced with water-conserving fixtures. This code applies even if the remodel work has nothing to do with updating anything relating to the home’s plumbing systems, such as having a new roof installed. This code is one that catches many homeowners off guard, adding the unanticipated cost of installing numerous new fixtures.
Reach codes are ever evolving and vary in each city. Campbell, Los Altos, Los Altos Hills, Los Gatos, Monte Sereno, Mountain View, Palo Alto, San Jose, Santa Clara, and Sunnyvale have all approved or are in the process of approving reach codes. This interactive map allows a visual representation of where reach codes have been implemented. Again, it is prudent to check with your local jurisdiction to get the most up-to-date code information as they change frequently.
These energy-efficiency codes will only get stricter as the state building codes change. They also create opportunities for local governments to pave the way for cleaner air, climate solutions, and renewable energy opportunities.
The California Energy Codes and Standards website offers more information on reach codes and the five paths to “reach beyond.”