Photo courtesy of Albuquerque Public Schools
MODEL SCHOOL Barcelona Elementary School is one of several LEED-certified schools in Albuquerque designed under a green code adopted in 2006.
Photo by Patrick Coulie Photography
MODEL LAB LEED-certification goals were added during design of the N.M. Scientific Laboratories.

The Albuquerque Public Schools system may become a testing ground for more than just the 90,000 students it serves. A recent debate within the school board over using the popular green-building rating system, known as LEED, for facility design and construction echoes a heated cost-versus-benefit dispute stemming from New Mexico's recent adoption of new building codes.

As part of a broad pro-business agenda, Gov. Susana Martinez (R) pushed to replace a statewide building energy code implemented in 2010 after more than a year of development. In June, despite strong opposition within the construction industry, the state's Construction Industries Commission (CIC) voted to replace it with the 2009 version of the International Energy Conservation Code (IECC), a less-stringent model code established in 2003 that many other states and municipalities have adopted.

But a coalition of industry groups and companies is challenging that decision in the state's Court of Appeals, and the issue continues to be divisive industry-wide. While some agree it makes economic sense to throw out the 2009 New Mexico Energy Conservation Code (NMECC) and replace it with the weaker IECC, others worry the switch may put something of a red light on a green building movement that has enjoyed momentum—and official sanction—for much of the last decade.

Among the most stringent in the nation at the time, the codes implemented by former Gov. Bill Richardson (D) helped distinguish New Mexico as a pioneer in green building. Public projects were among the country's first to utilize progressive energy conservation measures and guidelines, such as the U.S. Green Building Council's LEED, or Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, rating system.

The Albuquerque Public Schools began using LEED in 2006, largely in keeping with an executive order mandating that state agencies use the program for various projects. The school district currently has six LEED-certified facilities and more than two dozen others pending or planned for certification.

Last summer, after 14 months of exhaustive development that included dividing the state into distinct climate zones, the state officially adopted the 2009 statewide code. Similarly, Albuquerque and Santa Fe had implemented stringent green city codes.

Currently, with a Republican governor who repealed the NMECC and Republican Albuquerque Mayor Richard J. Berry, who also wants to adopt the IECC, some feel the change is driven more by politics than prudence.

“It locks New Mexico into higher building-sector energy consumption … and greenhouse gas emissions,” says Ed Mazria, CEO of Architecture 2030, a Santa Fe-based nonprofit devoted to addressing climate change issues.

Throwing out the statewide code could also get expensive for residents, according to Mazria. New Mexico ranks in the bottom 20% in per capita income and in the top 35% in per capita energy expenditures, he says.

“New Mexicans spend more of what they make on energy,” he says. “And with energy costs increasing, rolling back the code means families and businesses will pay even more of their income for energy, now and far into the future.”

Kris Callori, an Albuquerque-based architect and a founding member of the Associated General Contractors Construction Leadership Council, agrees. “The initial cost of construction … is significantly less than the total cost of operating and maintaining a building over its typical life span,” she says. “A decision to invest a small amount up front to foster energy independence will return tenfold during the operational life cycle of a building.”

But Rick Davis, an Albuquerque builder-developer and state-licensed contractor, sees merit in the baseline 2009 IECC. The model code “is already over 10% to 14% [stricter with regard to] energy savings than the 2006 [model code],” he says. The adoption of the model code “accomplishes the goals of the International Code Council without unduly raising costs to consumers or over-regulating types of materials or building methods for achieving the energy savings,” he adds.