The Cost of Downtown Green

Showdown brewing over energy efficiency code for old buildings

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Half the fun of seeing Downtown’s revitalization is spotlighting some of the older architecture. Las Vegas is known for tearing down the charming in favor of the slick, but by saving and sprucing up some older buildings, a multilayered cultural character emerges: culture; that thing critics say Las Vegas lacks.

One drawback, however, of using older buildings is that they’re often not as energy efficient as the new. And in recent years, Las Vegas has made big and well-publicized efforts to be greener—note the LEED poster-child $185 million City Hall, complete with solar energy trees right out front.

With green in mind, there’s a city code, adapted from a state code, prompted by federal mandate, worded by a group called the International Energy Efficiency Council, that requires people who take over old buildings for new purposes to make them more energy efficient.

Case in point: Mundo restaurant co-owner George Harris recently turned an old garage at 1017 S. First Street into his new restaurant, Mingo. The code required him to retrofit the building to meet those new energy codes, which were last adopted by the City in 2009.
Harris was irked. It seemed illogical to insulate the building to the tune of $34,000 when there’d be a pass-through bar to the outside courtyard—essentially an open wall—with air flowing in and out.

Soon thereafter, Councilman Bob Beers, who is chief financial officer for Mundo—and whose district is Summerlin, not Downtown, and who is a controversy magnet—introduced a measure to exempt buildings built before 2009 from the City’s International Energy Conservation Code. The proposed ordinance would hold owners accountable to the energy standards that were in effect the year the building was built; a structure built in 1970 would only need to meet energy standards in 1970. Current safety codes, however, would still be in effect. “It’s better for business,” Beers said.

This doesn’t sit well with the local chapter of the American Institute of Architects, whose mission includes advocating for a “better-built environment.”

“Beers is saying, ‘Throw it out because it’s interfering in business growth,’” says AIA Executive Director Randy Lavigne. “But we’re seeing more businesses here, and we have this code for a good reason.”

The IECC’ s intended purpose is “cost savings, reduced energy usage, conservation of natural resources and the impact of energy usage on the environment.” Many major U.S. cities have adopted the codes: Washington, D.C; Houston; Atlanta; Denver; Tucson; Albuquerque—plus Henderson and North Las Vegas.

Las Vegas architect Jennifer Turchin has asked Beers to recuse himself from the City Council vote on June 5, alleging that as a businessman with connections to Harris, he stands to financially gain from eliminating the code requirements. Beers says Mingo is now in compliance, and he will not recuse himself, because he believes the code will deter new business and is bad for the city.

But, says Turchin, “In all these years, this is the first challenge.” Plus, she notes, owners can petition for waivers, and historic buildings are exempt. Furthermore, if the City approves Beers’ ordinance, it will be out of compliance with state law, to which the anti-big government Beers says, “So what?”

Most importantly, Beers doesn’t believe anyone’s proven there’s an actual return on investment for the business owner who complies with the retrofitting ordinance.

But Turchin produced a slew of reports showing the eventual cost savings from retrofitting, including a stat from NV Energy asserting that local commercial businesses saved $1,607,400 in energy costs in 2012 due to energy-efficiency improvements. One study by Pike Research, a Colorado-based energy consulting group, says small businesses should see a return on their initial expenditure for energy retrofitting within three years. Plus, advocates of the ordinance say it’s not all about return on investment; it’s about costs shared by all for saving resources and limiting pollution.

That’s no comfort to Beers. “Traditionally, city governments take on the role of ensuring safety—making sure the ceiling doesn’t fall in,” Beers says. “This is the first code that extends the City’s reach like this.”