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It’s safe to say that most of those present Tuesday morning for the meeting of the City Council’s building and environment committees didn’t grasp every last detail of what was being discussed. Among the less-than-illuminated were the six aldermen expected to vote on it.

When, for example, the 42nd Ward’s Brendan Reilly asked for further explanation, an official from the city’s Department of Buildings told him: “Basically we’re trying to follow the IECC 2006, and basically we give our permit applicants two ways to apply, and one is prescriptive. And the prescriptive method basically follows this little chart, and this little chart basically tells you what you have to have your building systems at if you’re going to comply with the code, and if your building systems have these ratings you comply automatically. And these ratings are, for ceilings, it would be an R value of 49. For fenestration it would be a U-factor of 35….”

This prompted laugher, rave reviews of the official’s algebra skills, and ultimately joy and relief that the city was coming together to get this done—whatever, exactly, “this” might be.

In fairness, though, city officials did patiently try to explain what all the jargon translated into: a revision of the city’s building code—based on two-year-old federal guidelines—that should reduce greenhouse gas emissions, save Chicago residents money, and (believe it or not) clarify requirements for developers and builders.

The revised codes, it turns out, would apply to new construction projects starting next April 22, which is Earth Day. Under the codes, officials said, developers and designers could either follow “prescriptive” rules requiring improved insulation and reduced energy loss; or they could achieve goals by “performance-based criteria”—by upgrading their heating and cooling systems with things like more efficient furnaces and better-designed windows.

In addition, buildings with flat roofs would be required to use materials that reflect more light and heat. Dark roofs help trap energy that forms an “urban heat island” on warm days, forcing buildings to consume more power for cooling.

Tests have shown that the new standards might add about 1 percent in construction costs but save 12 to 15 percent in heating and cooling bills, according to city officials. “This is going to result in a net savings in a very short period of time for everybody, but especially low- and moderate-income families and seniors,” said Richard Monocchio, the acting commissioner for the Department of Buildings.

Cutting the energy wasted in buildings could have other far-reaching impacts, as Department of Environment commissioner Suzanne Malec-McKenna noted. About 70 percent of Chicago’s greenhouse gas emissions come from the energy used to heat and cool buildings, and she said implementing the new code would alone slash our carbon dioxide production by more than a million metric tons in the next 12 years. City officials believe the city needs to cut its CO2 output by at least 15 million metric tons in that time to have a chance of avoiding drastic environmental problems.

Aldermen moved from befuddlement to enthusiasm about what they thought they were hearing, especially after testimony from the leaders of several construction, real estate, and environmental groups. Not only did all of the speakers express support for the changes, but most pointed out that dozens of other cities and states have already implemented similar codes, and by next year the federal government is expected to create new guidelines that go even further.

“This isn’t a groundbreaking step—it’s something that’s been done around the country,” said Brian Granahan, an attorney with Environment Illinois. “It’s not something where we’re on the cutting edge as in some other areas.”

“I’m sure you’re right,” said environment committee chair Virginia Rugai, who to at least one reporter didn’t sound so sure. But she and her colleagues had heard enough to unanimously approve the ordinance, sending it to the full council for consideration.

After the meeting, Malec-McKenna said it had taken the city about ten months to get input from real estate, construction, and environmental organizations and craft the new codes. “No, it’s not radical—the wheels of government sometimes move slower than you’d like,” she said. “But it was important to do the process right and get everybody at the table.” This way, she said, it will be easier to get their support when it’s time to make the codes even more ambitious, perhaps as soon as next year.