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Green goals beyond reach for most federal buildings

May. 8, 2011 - 06:00AM   |  
By ANDY MEDICI   |   Comments
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Division of Laboratory Sciences Building 110, located on CDC's Chamblee campus in Atlanta, follows the guidelines and blends the use of natural daylight, sustainable design and energy-efficient lighting.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Division of Laboratory Sciences Building 110, located on CDC's Chamblee campus in Atlanta, follows the guidelines and blends the use of natural daylight, sustainable design and energy-efficient lighting. (Courtesy McKenney's Mechanical Contractors an)

Agencies face many mandates to become more environmentally friendly: Reduce gasoline consumption in cars and trucks, lower water use and greenhouse gas emissions, and adopt more renewable energy sources, among others.

But the mandate that agencies struggle with most is one to convert their existing buildings to meet green standards. That means decreasing energy use at hospitals and health clinics and reducing waste at laboratories. Agencies will also have to work to bring historic buildings, and even prisons, into compliance.

Those steps take money, and that's what agencies are increasingly short on.

Of 20 agencies graded by the Office of Management and Budget on their compliance with green mandates, only seven met the 2010 mandate to have at least 5 percent of their buildings meet energy-efficient and sustainable standards.

Dan Tangherlini, chief financial and performance officer at the Treasury Department, said tighter budgets are certain to make this an even tougher challenge going forward.

But, he said, tighter budgets "shouldn't be an excuse for us not to continue to find efficiencies and try to create new sustainable practices."

Treasury used a strategy of "1 percent solutions," such as installing low-flow fixtures, instituting recycling programs and making small improvements to help make their mandates more achievable, Tangherlini said. In that way, it exceeded the 2010 mandate by making 8 percent of its buildings sustainable.

To be considered green, a newly constructed building must use 30 percent less energy than a typical building of the same size. Renovated buildings must use 20 percent less energy. Also, they must meet specific standards for water efficiency, recycling, indoor air quality and low-emission paints and sealants, among other things.

Agencies need to have 15 percent of their buildings meet these green guidelines by 2015.

OMB's scorecards grade agencies on how they comply with mandates for reducing energy use in federal facilities, reducing gas use in fleets, and other sustainability goals. Agencies were given green lights for meeting or exceeding the goals, yellow for partial completion and red for failing to meet the mandates.

Agencies scored worst on the green buildings mandate.

"Conquering the green buildings beast will be difficult," said John Selman, energy and environment program director for LMI, a nonprofit organization that helped develop greenhouse gas reporting protocols.

He said agencies need to think of new strategies and innovative ways to bring their building portfolios into compliance while keeping costs down.

Still, agencies will need extra funding and time to achieve these sustainability goals, he said. And making a business case for these projects will be hard in the current budget environment.

"These projects, they are not donated. Someone has to pay for these things, and that's the greatest challenge," Selman said.

Olga Dominguez, senior sustainability officer at NASA, said the space agency is looking at more innovative ways to achieve sustainability goals. NASA missed the 5 percent mark, with 4 percent of its buildings meeting the guidelines.

NASA has used energy savings performance contracts, in which a private company makes efficiency upgrades to an agency facility in exchange for long-term payments from the energy savings generated by the upgrades.

Willie Taylor, director of the Interior Department's Office of Environmental Policy and Compliance, said the green building mandate was Interior's most challenging. Less than 1 percent of its buildings meet the green goal.

Interior does not construct many new buildings, and its building portfolio contains many historic structures that cannot be renovated to comply with the goals. But Interior will be tackling the goals in increments over the next few years.

According to a June sustainability report, the department plans to have 6 percent of its buildings meet the guidelines in 2014 and 15 percent in 2015.

At the Health and Human Services Department, less than 1 percent of buildings meet the green goal. Ned Holland, the department's chief sustainability officer, said HHS is working to upgrade its buildings as it secures funding for the projects.

The department's many laboratories, hospitals and American Indian health clinics require more resources and funding, and making those buildings more sustainable is fully consistent with its core mission.

But HHS has made progress by upgrading laboratory space, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Division of Laboratory Sciences Building 110, which follows the guidelines and blends the use of natural daylight, sustainable design and energy-efficient lighting.

Stephen Leeds, senior counsel to the administrator at the General Services Administration, said tighter budgets will present additional challenges in finding ways to further reduce the use of energy and other resources.

Leeds pointed to an effort at GSA to develop sustainable technologies that aim to yield savings.

"It means that we have to tighten our belts, and we are going to find new ways to accomplish the goals laid out for us," he said.

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