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Building Green in DC
Sarah Rich, 20 Nov 06
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The capital city is having a green streak this fall, from the National Building Museum's sustainable architecture and design exhibition, The Green House, to the recent news that the district Council has a bill pending which -- if passed -- would make DC the first major U.S. city to enforce strict green building standards for government and private development alike.

We just spent three days in DC for book tour events, during which time I was able to stop by the National Building Museum and check out the much-touted Green House (which is based on the 2005 book by the same name). The central focus of the exhibit is a full-scale Glidehouse -- the iconic ultra-green prefab design by Michelle Kaufmann. Visitors walk through the house and see what green living means from the big-picture down to the details. The Glidehouse has common sustainable structural features like natural ventilation, daylighting and icynene insulation; as well as interior elements like bamboo flooring, VOC-free paints, tankless water heaters and low-flow fixtures.

I interviewed Michelle Kaufmann back in September at West Coast Green (part of it can be found here), and was impressed by her deep knowledge of this field's past and present, and her strict adherence to the principles of sustainable design. She told me that her homes all fit within three main criteria: they are green, modern and modular. If someone comes along who wants only one or two of those three, she'll refer them someone else. (She's also been leaning towards designing her homes to fit more urban and multi-family circumstances.) Modular is characterized as the "most prefabricated" amongst the prefab approaches, permitting nearly total off-site manufacturing.

After exiting the Glidehouse, the exhibition leads into a space full of lightboxes illuminating beautiful photographs of green residences all around the world. Informative blurbs adorn the non-toxic walls, describing the important tenets of green building and how one might apply them at home. On the day I visited, this idea was particularly important, as the museum was holding a one-day expo called Greenovation to give homeowners some insight into what DC has to offer for the environmentally-minded resident. That day they were also displaying projects from their Design Apprenticeship Program for local youth, which were a collection of donation boxes for the museum constructed entirely of recycled and salvaged material.

The NBM wasn't my only chance to glimpse the progressive building practices around DC. When we visited World Resources Institute on Friday, we got a tour of their offices, which were renovated super-green in 1999, long before the wave that's sweeping the city today. The WRI offices (where WC contributor, Rob Katz, spends his days) are open, inviting and daylit. Although they lease their space, they've been able to do a tremendous amount to make the office not only environmentally sensitive, but highly conducive to employees' wellbeing. Hallways run along the perimeter of the entire floor, permitting window access for all occupants; the offices themselves are one-size-fits-all (the president has no more space than the newbies); computer-installed lighting controls allow individuals to adjust their light levels to fit their specific preferences (and it's all energy-efficient); and meeting spaces are transparent and set on the exterior of the floor to encourage people to leave their offices and convene in common spaces. They've also utilized an incredibly comprehensive array of green materials, including surplus seatbelts for chairs, sunflower hull board for cabinetry, cork and bamboo flooring, milk-based paints, and salvaged steel beams for hanging a beautiful old barn door that divides the conference room from the entry hall.

WRI's in the planning phase of an interior expansion on their lower floor which would qualify them for LEED certification. At the same time, they'll be creating a unique green roof on top of the building, another space they hope will encourage employees to get out of their offices and hold meetings where fresh air is abundant. Our incredibly knowledgeable tour guide, Nancy Kiefer, told us about the labyrinth that will be constructed alongside the sedum garden -- an installation of sorts that offers all kinds of meditative and brain-function-improvement benefits.

Needless to say, there's more than a little green building know-how in Washington DC right now. And the high value that's being placed on these practices has filtered up indeed. If the district-wide green building bill passes, according to The Washington Post:

...within two years all new District-owned projects, including schools, would have to meet the green standards, and in 2009, any building receiving more than 20 percent public financing would have to do the same. By 2012, every new commercial building over 50,000 square feet -- about the size of a medium-size retail store -- would have to meet the guidelines. The rules would also apply to affordable housing.

Like WRI, the bill creators understood that green building is a wholistic undertaking, which mandates not only attention to resources and materials, but to the health of the users. In addition to low-flow fixtures and drought-tolerant greenery, new buildings would have to be designed to facilitate physical activity and give occupants control over airflow and lighting.

It would be a big deal for DC to take the lead in building green. In nearly every conference and conversation I've participated in this year, the most commonly cited challenge to sustainable building's widespread success is beaurocracy. Architects, designers, developers and consumers all claim that government policies are the hardest hurdle to get over in completing a project with as many green features as it was conceived to include. If the government's hometown becomes the greenest built city in the nation, perhaps future sustainability advocates will find less push-back at the local level.

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The DC decision to go green is an important milestone.

The Washington Post article, however, included a semi-hidden bias that shows one of the hurdles of getting institutions onto a better path.

Blogged over at:

The Washington Post informs us that

"Opponents say building green can add as much as 11 percent to construction costs. Supporters place the extra costs at 2 to 4 percent but contend it's worthwhile."

This is the only discussion of cost in The Post article: going green costs extra money. In shorthand, The Washington Post suggests that:

* Building green requires a premium be paid to be a 'good citizen' ... it is a cost.

The Post does not discuss, in any way, how this might benefit the city, the users of the buildings, or their owners.

But, let us reserve the discussion simply to the question of cost. The focus on additional building cost skews the discussion and hampers thoughtful understanding of the issues surrounding building to LEED standards.

* Well designed LEED do not necessarily cost more. There are reasons to contest the assertion that they will cost more. For example, well designed buildings might require smaller heating/cooling systems, perhaps fewer light fixtures, etc ... potentially significantly lowering the cost of construction.

* But, let us accept that there would be additional construction cost, buildings built to LEED standards will cost less to run. They will use less energy (for heating, cooling, lighting) and typically will use less water (such as through waterless toilets, flush-free urinals, capturing rainwater for landscaping). They often require less maintenance and are built of materials and with equipment that is more likely to last longer (thus requiring fewer replacements) -- for example, LED lights that might last decades and use a fraction of the electricity that incandescent bulbs do. Thus, in terms of TOC (Total Ownership Costs), LEED buildings will typically be far less expensive to own than 'traditional' construction.

* There are corollary benefits that can be calculated, such as: workers in LEED buildings have lower absentee levels (fewer sick days) and higher productivity; with green roofs, many communities will reduce sewage fees as there is less runoff from the building/structure; etc ...

* And, the benefits can expand as more buildings are built to LEED standards. For example, city blocks built to LEED standards would likely have green roofs (or at least reflective roofs) and shading plants -- these would help lower the temperature in the air around these buildings which would further lower the air conditioning load within the buildings on hot summer days.

Thus, The Post has presented a very limited perspective on cost: cost to build. This article -- and might I say, The Post's reporting in general on this type of issue -- totally ignores the issue of cost to own -- or total ownership cost (TOC). Examining TOC would change the equation significantly.

This misrepresentation matters because it falsely frames the discussion and debate re cost. For example, as a taxpayer, I would much prefer the government to spend a little more upfront to save significant resources downstream. The DC building code this article discusses will help to drive the private market into this same infrastructure investment approach which is 'best' answer in terms of TOC for the building's owners and the best answer in terms of energy usage and environmental impact for all of us.

Posted by: A Siegel on 20 Nov 06

The subject of LEED certification is an article unto itself - there's a bit of controversey brewing in this area.

That being said, this is a good piece and well worth reading. Let's hope these kinds of buildings become the future norm and not the exception.

Posted by: John Schneider on 28 Nov 06



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