Green the U.S. Capitol

During a briefing of the High Performance Building Congressional Caucus Coalition, Dan Beard, Chief Administrative Officer, U.S. House of Representatives, outlined progress on the Green the Capitol campaign, which has been underway for more than two years. The campaign has two goals: carbon-neutrality for the U.S. House, and reducing energy consumption by 50 percent over 10 years. 

Beard explained the U.S. House buildings, which have over 6 million square feet of office space and house some 7,000 Capitol Hill workers, previously had a carbon footprint of approximately 91,000 metric tons of CO2. Through the purchase of wind power, transition to natural gas, and the purchase of carbon off-sets, the U.S. House achieved its goal of becoming carbon-neutral. Beard said moving to wind power took over a year to accomplish, and involved negotiations with D.C. energy provider PepCo. Purchasing carbon off-sets also set off a debate within the House. “I was attacked from the left for being ‘impure,’ and from the right for ‘wasting money.'” Carbon off-sets are a minefield, Beard argued, because there is still no accrediting body, and the House required USD 89,000 of carbon off-sets (purchased on the Chicago Climate Exchange) to cover the remaining 24,000 tons of CO2 that couldn’t be mitigated by wind power. Beard recommends against carbon neutrality as an “end-goal,” and believes it should only be part of a greater sustainability plan.

A second goal — to reduce energy consumption by 50 percent over 10 years, is now being addressed through a diverse set of measures. “Innovative demonstration projects,” and employee-proposed measures have helped bring down energy use. The U.S. House has replaced out-dated light bulbs with high-efficiency compact fluorescent lamps (CFLs), which cost over USD 100,000, but “start earning money back after five months.” To further cut down energy use and waste, the House now uses: 100 percent recycled paper, smart power strips, waste compost machines, compostable water bottles, zip cars, and a free bike sharing program. The floor-to-ceiling drapes in Representatives’ offices are also a problem: they prevent natural heating and cooling and block out light, and are being replaced by venetian blinds. “Light increases productivity and reduces illnesses and absenses.” Additionally, the House’s servers, which run over 600 web sites, and carry 1.1 million e-emails per day, are being replaced by more energy-efficient versions. 

Over the long-term, to replace the HVAC, lighting and water systems in Representatives’ offices, the House has engaged in a private-public partnership with a private firm. Under this scenario, the firm will first put up the USD 40 million required for the re-installation of more efficient systems, and then reap the profits and make back their initial investment over time. There are also plans to re-light the U.S. Capitol using more energy efficient “compact metal halide” lights; similar systems are in place in other major monuments.

Beard expressed an interest in adding green roofs to House buildings, and mentioned that planning was underway for a few House and Senate buildings. David Yocca, ASLA, LEED AP, Conservation Design Forum, noted that a few years ago he was involved in Chicago City Hall’s green roof demonstration project. Now, there are some 2.5 million sq. feet of green roofs across Chicago. The U.S. Capitol can lead by example, and a House green roof system may have a similar impact in D.C. and nationwide.

Yocca also explained how the U.S. Capitol should take an “ecological management” approach to the U.S. House’s stormwater and land, which could also yield significant cost-savings, attenuate rainwater, cool the area, and promote the Capitol’s urban ecology. The Sustainable Sites Initiative was highlighted as a key blueprint for achieving these goals. However, Yocca noted, many of the proposals outlined in Sustainable Sites are “still illegal” in many districts. Codes, regulations, and ordinances are actually preventing sustainable landscape architecture because they haven’t been thoroughly re-thought in terms of sustainable best practices. Procurement procedures that require a “low bid,”  instead of allowing for higher up-front capital costs that yield greater cost savings down the road, may also be limiting the growth of sustainable projects.

Learn more at the U.S. House of Representatives’ Green the Capitol site.

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