CalGreen vs. LEED

Since its inception in 1998, the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design system, more commonly known as LEED, has been held as the highest echelon of green building standards in the United States. For meeting any of LEED’s stringent environmental requirements in construction, a project is awarded LEED points on a 100 point scale. These points correspond to a certification hierarchy, with a “platinum” certification entitling its bearer to advertise that the building in question meets the highest possible standard of environmental awareness in construction techniques. Until recently, these green building qualifications were entirely voluntary in the state of California; no minimum environmental standards for new construction existed. Many contractors sought to achieve high levels of LEED accreditation for the positive, earth-conscious reputation that comes along with certification, but it was not legally required that new construction meet environmental standards.

However, on January 1, 2011, the 2010 California Green Building Standards Code (Part 11 of the California Code of Regulations, Title 24), also known as CALGreen, went into effect, establishing mandatory minimum standards of green building practices for most new construction in the state, along with some additional voluntary components. CALGreen is notable as the first state-wide green building code in the country, in keeping with California’s typical role as a leader in environmentalism across the nation. While CALGreen is not meant to replace LEED, its writers did take into consideration the standards addressed at the lower levels of LEED certification in an attempt to make comparable legislation. Satisfying the mandatory components of CALGreen qualifies a project for 10 LEED points, with an additional 25 to 40 points possible under the voluntary components of CALGreen.

From an environmentalist standpoint, it is hard to find theoretical fault with any law mandating green construction techniques, yet the new law remains controversial because of the implications of forcing conformity with its requirements on nearly all new buildings. Some environmental advocates argue that CALGreen does not go far enough in its requirements and that it should have been written to adhere to the higher levels of LEED-qualifications. Some critics worry that CALGreen will be seen as a replacement for LEED certification rather than a supplement, deterring the pursuit of the platinum LEED rating and allowing builders to settle for lower standards. After all, if everyone is required to comply with green building techniques, there is no longer the incentive of “bragging rights” to encourage more environmentally-friendly construction. LEED accreditation used to be a golden goal for many builders, but the new requirements may make green buildings so ubiquitous that builders will no longer be able to use their “greenness” as a subject of advertisement to appeal to environmentally-conscious consumers.  By negating this key incentive, some fear that CALGreen may do more harm to the environment than good because fewer builders will be inclined to strive for high levels of certifications.

Conversely, some contractors and builders resent being forced to follow these standards from an economic standpoint as they can prove costly and can slow the pace of construction. The main goals of CALGreen are to reduce the environmental impact of construction through minimizing waste, as well as to make new buildings more efficient in their use of energy. Accomplishing these two goals can require more expensive building strategies, such as irrigation to reduce runoff of contaminated water from the construction site and recycling of at least 50% of building materials. Furthermore, since the law is new, builders and architects are scrambling to learn what standards are included in CALGreen and what methods of construction they must follow in order to be in compliance. Additionally, some inspectors must be trained to specialize in CALGreen in order to adequately determine projects’ fulfillment of requirements, a costly and time-consuming process.

In the chart below, we have highlighted five key sections of CALGreen and LEED (Sustainable Planning and Design, Energy Efficiency and Atmosphere, Water Efficiency and Conservation, Material Conservation and Resource Efficiency, and Environmental Quality), along with some key standards addressed under each of these sections for non-residential construction. This can provide a brief, rough comparison of how LEED’s standards are similar or dissimilar to requirements established under CALGreen.

CALGreen v. LEED


Sustainable Planning and Design


  • Storm water pollution prevention (SWPP) plan that meets State National Pollution Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) requirements
  • Bicycle parking for at least 5% of projected visitors
  • Designated parking for low-emission or electric vehicles
  • Light pollution reduction



  • CALGreen requires grading and paving to prevent surface water runoff into buildings; LEED has no comparable tenet
  • CALGreen requires 8% of parking be designated for low-emission or electric vehicles, while LEED requires only 5%


Energy Efficiency and Atmosphere


  • None



  • CALGreen only requires that new construction meet California Energy Code (Title 24, Part 6-2008); LEED accreditation demands a 10% improvement on California Energy Code requirements


Water Efficiency and Conservation


  • Irrigation controllers that regulate the amount of water to plants depending on seasonal needs
  • Minimum 20% reduction in potable water usage within the building



  • CALGreen requires separate water usage meters for subtenants projected to consume more than 100 gallons of water per day and separate meters for landscaping when it will cover more than 1000 square feet; LEED has no comparable standards
  • CALGreen requires high efficiency plumbing fixtures; LEED has no comparable standard
  • CALGreen requires a 20% reduction in generation of wastewater; LEED requires a 50% reduction


Material Conservation and Resource Efficiency


  • Recycle or reuse a minimum of 50% of nonhazardous construction and demolition debris
  • Provide areas for the storage and collection of materials for recycling by residents
  • Include green building commissioning in the design plans for a building



  • CALGreen requires that the exterior of building must be protected from spray or runoff from irrigation; LEED has no comparable standard
  • CALGreen requires 100% of plants, rocks, tree stumps, and other landscaping materials be recycled; LEED has no comparable standard
  • LEED requires that commissioning agent cannot be affiliated with the designer or builder of a project; CALGreen has no comparable standard


Environmental Quality


  • Cover all air ducts during the construction process
  • Comply with VOC limits in SCAQMD Rule 1168 VOC limits and California Code of Regulations Title 17 for aerosol adhesives
  • Install only low-emitting carpeting in compliance with  Carpet and Rug Institute’s Green Label Plus Program
  • Prohibit smoking within 25 feet of buildings; require no smoking or provide designated smoking areas



  • CALGreen allows the installation of only direct-vent or sealed-combustion appliances; LEED has no comparable standard
  • LEED requires that CO2 levels be constantly monitored within the building; CALGreen has no comparable standard
  • CALGreen requires ventilation systems to meet California Energy Code; LEED requires ventilation systems meet ASHRAE standard 62.1-2007, Ventilation for Acceptable Indoor Air Quality
  • CALGreen requires a Minimum Efficiency Reporting Value for air filters of 8; LEED requires a MERV of 13.
  • CALGreen requires that 50% of flooring materials meet VOC-emission limits defined in the 2009 Collaborative for High Performance Schools (CHPS) criteria or certified under the Resilient Floor Covering Institute (RFCI) FloorScore program; LEED requires this of 100% of flooring materials



For a comprehensive overview of the CALGreen legislation, view the Housing and Community Development Department’s brochure at

For a more in-depth side-by-side comparison of LEED requirements to CALGreen requirements, view the United States Green Building Counsel’s websites here: (for residential projects) (for non-residential projects)

Leave a Reply