Creating High Performance Federal Buildings (and Landscapes)

At the 2010 Ecobuild, Senator Thomas Carper, a key member of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, argued that public-private partnerships are critical to creating high-performance federal buildings and — the Senator left this out — landscapes. He said sustainable, high-performance buildings are a “common sense approach” to reducing waste, increasing energy efficiency, and tackling the ever-growing government debt.

As an example of a high-performance building, Carper pointed to the National Building Museum, which he said was built 120 years ago for less than a million, but is now worth more than $21 million. Modeled after Roman palaces, the building is a feat of “19th century construction and engineering.” NBM’s great building not only demonstrates the “power of high-performance construction, but the beauty found in functional buildings” that last many years.

Since the NBM building’s construction, the concept of high-performance in architecture and landscape architecture has advanced. Carper says this is largely due to the integration of scientific and engineering breakthroughs with design practice. In addition, the federal government can play a role in further advancing high-performance design practice and ensuring that these technologies spread through the marketplace.

The federal government’s key leverage point is through its own buildings. Carper pointed to President Obama’s Executive Order 13514, the Federal Leadership in Environmental, Energy, and Economic Performance, as a step in the right direction. The order calls for federal building energy use to be reduced by 25 percent by 2020 and all federal buildings to be net-zero by 2030 (see earlier post). Buildings must also improve water efficiency by 26 percent and reduce CO2 emissions by 28 percent by 2020. “On energy alone, the federal government spends some $25 billion per year. This program will save some $8-12 billion in energy costs.” The idea is to use the “federal government’s buying power” to spur a new, broader market for green building products so every major company and non-profit organization and each family can access these technologies at low cost. Carper said President Clinton effectively kick-started the recycled paper market in the U.S. In the 90’s through an executive order so Obama’s green building order has the potential to do the same.

In terms of legislation to strengthen public-private partnerships, Carper is working on the Improving Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy Use by Federal Agencies Act, which he calls a comprehensive set of proposals to enable federal agencies to tap private financing to make green building retrofits. Also, this legislation would enable the federal government to sell-off unused office space and use the proceeds to retrofit green buildings. “According to the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), we are spending $100 billion a year to secure and maintain buildings we aren’t using. We don’t need this given our increasing debt.” Another piece of legislation Carper worked on has made it through the House and is on its way to President Obama for signature: The Federal Building Personnel Training Act, which will “ensure the federal government has the skilled workforce needed to maintain buildings at high-performance levels.”

Beyond buildings though, President Obama’s new executive order also has the potential to revolutionize the use of sustainable landscape practices. To achieve water reductions of 26 percent by 2020, the federal government should consider applying the Sustainable Sites Initiative (SITES) to the landscape surrounding buildings. SITES, a sustainable landscape rating system that will also be rolled into LEED, would help with sustainably siting new landscape projects; water-efficient retrofits of existing government plazas, parks, and facilities; and integrating building and landscape systems to maximize water and energy efficiency gains. To achieve the tougher goal of net-zero buildings by 2030, the GSA can apply SITES to ensure “zero environmental impact” also holds true for the site surrounding the building, not just the building itself.

To get more supportive legislation that can incentivize the use of sustainable building and landscape practices in the broader market, Carper said it will be important to measure the benefits. Given any pending legislation must be considered in terms of its budgetary implications, “we need more metrics” to prove the case on Capitol Hill.

Learn more about how some designers are applying SITES and quantifying the benefits during the rating system’s pilot phase.

Also, check out the Next Generation Design competition from Metropolis magazine and GSA, which will take a 1960’s Los Angeles government building and turn it into an environmentally-sustainable showcase that illustrates integrated design principles. Susan Szenasy, editor of Metropolis, has called on all design professionals, especially landscape architects, to submit entries. Submissions are due January 31, 2011.

Image: National Building Museum interior

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