When the Greenbuild International Conference and Expo makes its inaugural trip to Washington, D.C., this November, it will set up shop in one of the greenest cities in the world. The city’s eight wards are peppered with sustainable spaces, from the U.S. Green Building Council’s (USGBC) Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Gold-certified main building for the U.S. Department of the Treasury just east of the White House, to the LEED Platinum-certified Dunbar High School on New Jersey Avenue. Last year, our nation’s capital became the latest of four cities to surpass more than 100 million square feet of LEED-certified space. And at the same time, D.C. has earned bragging rights for having more LEED-certified space per capita than anywhere else in the world.
That superlative is a natural result of the recent community wide push to make the District a greener place to live. In 2011, the city’s Department of Energy and Environment and the Office of Planning launched Sustainable D.C., an effort bringing together constituents from across the spectrum to make the city the most sustainable in the country over a 20-year span. And despite Capitol Hill’s reputation for political gridlock that rivals the congestion on the Beltway, legislative efforts to bring energy savings to government buildings and structures have transcended party affiliation.
“We’ve been fortunate that sustainable building executive orders and legislation haven’t gotten bogged down in a lot of the controversy of climate change,” says Lance Davis, sustainability architect for the General Services Administration (GSA), an agency that manages 9,600 federal buildings across the country. “Both sides of aisle seem to be focused on [the fact that] a sustainable building is generally a building that’s saving taxpayer dollars, it’s better performing, the people in them are generally happier—and isn’t that exactly what we want for our federal agencies? Isn’t that exactly how we want to spend taxpayer dollars?”
In fact, executive orders and congressional legislation have played large roles in D.C.’s green building zeitgeist—particularly the Energy Policy Act of 2005 (EPAct 2005) and the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 (EISA 2007), which, among other goals, targeted incremental energy reductions totaling 30 percent by 2015. “That was the biggest legislative driver for our conservation and sustainability components,” explains Doug Helmann, deputy chief sustainability officer for the Architect of the Capitol (AOC), which maintains some 17.4 million square feet of libraries, office buildings, and other locations on and around Capitol Hill, including the iconic U.S. Capitol Building that houses the Senate and House of Representatives. Those mandated energy targets had their desired effect: Speaking on the eve of fiscal year 2015, Helmann says the AOC had already surpassed its 30 percent energy reduction target.
Along the way, LEED standards have helped agencies to put their sustainability aims into action. Stephen Ayers, head of the AOC, is the first LEED Accredited Professional (AP) to hold the honor and one of 28 LEED-accredited employees within the organization, and the AOC’s goal is for new projects to target LEED Silver for New Construction and Major Renovations guidelines.
As for the GSA, after first incorporating LEED standards in 2000, the agency raised its mandatory minimum for large-scale projects to LEED Gold in 2010. “What we’ve seen from the LEED rating system is that aspirational aspect for our design teams,” Davis says. “They recognize that they can’t just focus on energy: They have to look at the complete system and say, ‘How does this project relate to its site, to the materials I’m selecting, to the energy and the water, to the people inside? By being at that level, it ensures the design teams are looking at each project holistically.”
Now, with the AOC and the GSA as our guides, let’s look at a few of the greenest places that this ultra-sustainable city has to offer.
U.S. Capitol Building
While its signature dome is now going through its own renovation, the U.S. Capitol Building finished a three-year-long overhaul in 2012—one that resulted in a 40 percent energy reduction over five years. “We were proud that we were able to make those achievements,” Helmann says, noting that night and weekend work was an inevitable part of the process. “You can imagine trying to get in and do that work while Congress is in session.”
The $20 million project was financed through an Energy Savings Performance Contract (ESPC), a mechanism that allows the AOC to pay for energy-saving projects without bearing the full cost upfront. “We were a big advocate of that method because it allows us to make these improvements without having to use precious dollars that we have appropriated to preservation, or to more pressing needs in our portfolio,” Helmann says.
The majority of the improvements to the U.S. Capitol Building came through tried-and-true upgrades: more efficient lighting systems, water-saving measures, and building and automation controls to regulate the mechanical and HVAC systems—a particular advantage in a place that can go from quiet to bustling faster than you can say “fiscal cliff,” and that needs to maintain certain environmental parameters to preserve the valuable artwork under its watch. And by data-mining information from the new automation systems around the Capitol, the AOC can find new ways to reduce energy use. “That’s been a key part of getting to our 30 percent reduction,” Helmann says. “We got a lot of our early savings through projects, but a substantial amount of recent savings has come from our operators figuring out how to make our buildings operate more efficiently.”