It's Time for DC Building Code Officials to Start Enforcing DC's Reuse Laws and Climate Commitments

Testimony of Susan Schorr
Sierra Club District of Columbia Chapter
Committee of the Whole Performance Oversight Hearing
Department of Buildings
Thursday, February 22, 2024


Chairman Mendelson, thank you for the opportunity to testify at this Committee of the Whole Performance Oversight Hearing on the Department of Buildings (DOB). My name is Susan Schorr, and I am the chair of the Sierra Club District of Columbia Chapter’s Zero Waste Committee. The Sierra Club is America’s largest and most influential grassroots environmental organization, with millions of members and supporters. The DC Chapter has approximately 3,000 dues-paying members in the District and many thousands of supporters.

Outreach, Education, Enforcement, and Reporting on Construction Material Reuse and Recycling in the District’s Building Codes

According to Carbon Free DC (p.18), “[r]educing waste is the first priority in the waste management hierarchy and should be the central focus of the District’s first Zero Waste DC plan. Everyone has a role to play in a zero waste future. District Government can lead, both in piloting strategies to achieve reduction goals in offices, schools, and other facilities, and in deliberate procurement of materials to prevent waste from the start.”

This includes reducing waste by ensuring that construction materials in renovation and demolition projects are reused and recycled. According to the 2021 Desktop Waste Characterization Study (p. 2-16, table 2-11), construction and demolition (C&D) materials were estimated to comprise 25% of the DC’s aggregated waste stream in 2023.

Fortunately, the District has a framework to require construction material reuse and recycling. We request that DOB report on its efforts to provide guidance, outreach, education, and enforcement of Section 503 of the DC Green Construction Code (commercial) and Section 327.1 of the Residential Building Code (residential). The DC Green Construction Code requires commercial demolition and renovation projects to salvage or recycle at least 50 percent of construction materials, while the Residential Building Code calls for reuse or recycling of at least 5 percent of building materials from demolition and renovation projects. We understand that the Department of Buildings (DOB) is responsible for review and confirmation of hauling receipts from such projects showing the materials composition. This review presents an opportunity to leverage the data to confirm that the reuse and recycling targets are being achieved. Publishing this data would further provide an opportunity to analyze where DOB should offer more guidance, outreach, education, and enforcement.

We request DOB share more information, publicly, on their implementation of the existing District building material reuse and recycling requirements.

Action 5 of the Zero Waste DC Plan, published on February 8, 2024, requires all new construction, demolition, and building retrofit projects to submit a Deconstruction Plan that achieves a waste diversion rate of 80% of recoverable materials. DOB and the Department of Energy and the Environment are the lead implementation agencies. This will require community and inter-agency outreach and likely changes to the existing regulatory framework. We urge DOB to begin its outreach and regulatory updates, reporting back to this committee on implementation.

Given that C&D waste currently represents a quarter of the District’s waste stream, DOB’s enforcement of existing District building codes and implementation of the new Deconstruction requirements in the Zero Waste DC Plan would significantly contribute to meeting the District’s goal to divert 80 percent of waste from landfill or incineration.

While on a longer timeline, we also note that Action 24 of the Zero Waste DC Plan will require DOB to update the DC Green Construction Code to ensure space for source-separation of recycling and compostable materials in multifamily residential buildings, and urge DOB to develop an outreach and implementation plan to ensure compliance.

Disappointing Voting on the Construction Codes Coordinating Board

DOB supports the periodic update of the Districts’ commercial and residential building codes with administrative support and voting members on the body in charge of code updates. One key topic, for the Sierra Club and many environmental advocates in the code cycle that currently comes to a close, is to ensure that all newly constructed buildings are prohibited from installing new fossil fuel burning equipment.

The District’s Construction Codes Coordinating Board (CCCB) held a vote on such a code change proposal last year. Up for a vote was a common sense proposal that resulted from extensive stakeholder consultation and incorporated many compromises demanded by the building and developer community. The proposal would have required all electric equipment in new construction but provided a long list of exceptions to make the proposal eminently practical.

The proposal failed narrowly by one vote. The decisive vote that turned down the proposal was cast by a voting CCCB member of the Department of Buildings, who voted “present” rather than “yes.” The member later explained he had no substantive problem with the proposal at all, but voted present since he would soon be leaving his role with the DOB.

The Sierra Club is utterly disappointed in that behavior. The CCCB member’s explanation is a nonsensical attempt to explain his deciding vote against building electrification, against the District’s statutorily mandated climate commitments, and against the Mayor’s own climate goals as laid out in Carbon Free DC. We ask Director Hanlon to inform all DOB employees of the District’s climate commitments and ensure that DOB employees actively support these commitments.

Thank you, Chairman Mendelson, for convening this performance oversight hearing and for the opportunity to testify.