The federal government sets the bar high for
sustainability across the nation’s capital.

WRITTEN BY Jeff Harder| Photographed By Ryan Smith


Lance Davis, AIA, LEED program manager for Design Excellence Architecture+Sustainability, in front of the U.S. General Services Administration in Washington, D.C.

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.



Doug Helmann, deputy chief sustainability officer for the Architect of the Capitol.

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.”

The green roof of the U.S. Coast Guard Headquarters in Southeast Washington, D.C., is one of the largest in the world.

U.S. Coast Guard Headquarters

Located on the western end of the campus that once housed St. Elizabeth’s Hospital, the proximity of the 1.2-million-sq-ft campus for U.S. Coast Guard headquarters to the Potomac River was a major built-in design challenge—and a major concern when it came to stormwater runoff. But now the headquarters is a point of pride for the GSA: Its 550,000-sq-ft planted roof is among the largest in the world. “Every drop of water that falls on that site is going through extreme filtration through plants and their root systems, coming out as super-clean water that is part of a natural hydrological cycle,” Davis says.


And while it remains a highly secure facility, it will not induce claustrophobia: The hillside landscape on a property with a National Historic Landmark designation includes a quartet of courtyards, each planted with different fauna schemes, from an Appalachian Mountains theme, to coastal lowlands, to others formed from some 200,000 plants and 300 trees—amenities that serve as pleasing lunch-hour vistas or de facto outside office space on sunny, breezy days. “This is a building that really took the landscape and used it to its fullest advantage,” Davis says. “…They’re not stuck in an underground bunker that’s all about security: This is design excellence that’s providing security and sustainability as a holistic concept.”


GSA Central Office Building

Built in 1917, the GSA’s headquarters at 1800 F Street NW is in the midst of a multiphase, American Recovery and Reinvestment Act–funded renovation that has involved upgrades of all stripes, from state-of-the-art electrical HVAC systems to a 70,000-gallon cistern that captures and filters water for reuse. But within its 710,000-sq-ft confines, few of its 4,600 occupants have an assigned desk. Instead, the GSA uses software that enables employees to check out desks like a hotel room—and save resources through a flexible office environment. “This whole concept of getting away from this idea of a cubicle where everyone owns their space is really allowing us to change how we deal with being an owner,” Davis says.


New office space at the U.S. General Services Administration in Washington, D.C., provides plenty of natural daylighting.

New office space at the U.S. General Services Administration in Washington, D.C., provides plenty of natural daylighting.

By allowing groups inside the multi-agency building to check out clusters of desks alongside whomever they need to work with, it encourages more face-to-face collaboration and communication. By giving equal access to treadmill desks and WiFi enabled spaces on the building’s planted roofs, it fosters healthier and happier workers. This strategy may even allow them to schedule occupants to work on the same few floors and shut down the rest of the building on days when most employees are telecommuting, or open this space to other agencies as a cost-saving alternative. Since completing the first stage of the renovation on its headquarters, the GSA has saved $24 million on annual rents by closing down a dozen leases in the D.C. area, and they expect energy usage at 1800 F Street NW to stay the same despite a 2,000-person growth in the building’s occupancy. “It gives us a lot of options for the federal workforce as to how and where they work, but it’s also saving us money at the same time,” Davis says.


Thomas P. O’Neill, Jr. Federal Building

Once the epitome of a glum government building from the mid-20th century, the Thomas P. O’Neill, Jr. Federal Building emerged from a complete gutting and redesign in 2013 as a LEED Platinum ambassador of green building in the heart of D.C. “It was not a place you’d want to come to work on a regular basis,” says Davis of the GSA. “But because of the high level of sustainability we were shooting for, we were able to achieve LEED Platinum, open the building up, and bring in some pretty high design to make it a very desirable, Class A office space.”


After that three-year renovation, the building—alternatively known as FOB 8—includes green roofs and stormwater retention systems, high-efficiency fixtures, a more robust tree canopy, and other water-saving features. A high-performance glass curtain wall on the building’s façade is the most striking in a slate of energy-saving features that includes efficient appliances and LED light fixtures. The construction of the building also incorporated a variety of reused and recycled materials: Limestone was salvaged from the original facade and repurposed in the building’s lobby and a pair of atriums, and those latter features deliver a deluge of natural light throughout the interior office spaces. Davis adds, “It’s a nice visual of how you go from a mid-century ugh to a modern wow.”

The Rayburn House Office Building behind the Bartholdi Fountain, located within the United States Botanic Garden.

Cannon House Office Building

First opened in 1908, this 806,115-sq-ft Beaux Arts building at 27 Independence Avenue SE has a special place in Capitol Hill history: It is the oldest congressional office building. “Basically, this was the first place where a member of Congress could actually have a Washington, D.C. office,” Helmann says. It’s been a fixture as the House of Representatives and its congressional staffs have grown larger. And today, after a lifetime without a major overhaul, the Cannon House Office Building is beginning a 10-year, $752 million renewal that is putting sustainability at the forefront.


Helmann says the project is targeting a LEED Silver baseline with a design that calls for special attention to the Sustainable Sites, Energy Conservation, and Indoor Environmental Quality LEED sections. “There’s a lot of historic fabric within the building, and a top priority is holding onto that embodied energy: How do we modernize it, but at the same time hold on to most of the stone work that the building has, the wood features, the plaster walls,” Helmann says. Once the renovation is completed, the AOC expects the building to be the most energy-efficient large building in its portfolio, reducing its energy consumption by 58 percent over its predecessor. “We’ve had it for 107 years, and the goal is to get the building positioned for its next 100 years.”


Rayburn House Office Building

Capitol Hill’s trio of office buildings devoted to members of the House of Representatives have been the sites of remarkable sustainability achievements, including a 23 percent reduction in energy consumption and a greater than 60 percent reduction in water usage. Notably, the Rayburn House Office Building—a 50-year-old structure named for Sam Rayburn, the longest-serving Speaker of the House—is host to an innovative, sustainable water feature.


Operating the flowing fountain outside the Rayburn building results in evaporating large amounts of water, but the AOC has devised a novel idea to fulfill one fountain’s needs while simultaneously conserving water: A fountain in the Rayburn courtyard captures the moisture that the building’s air handlers remove through normal air conditioning. “It’s just moisture from the air,” Helmann says. “It’s very clean, but most of us typically send it down the drain.” Instead, the system feeds those million-plus gallons of clean water to the fountain. Beyond eliminating the need to draw that water from elsewhere, it also reduces outflow into the city’s combined sewer system, a LEED regional priority credit for the District.


This selection of sustainable sites only scratches the surface of how LEED assists the federal government in its goals surrounding energy use and climate change. An analysis by the Energy Information Administration released in October finds “newly constructed and renovated federal buildings—many of them LEED certified—have been a contributing factor in federal energy use reaching a 40-year low.” Findings also highlight that LEED certification delivers this type of accountability cost effectively. For a city with many divisions, our nation’s capital is united in being the vanguard of sustainability.