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July 25, 2008
Federal Support for
Green Building Grows
From the American Embassy in Sophia, Bulgaria
to the Pentagon in Washington, DC

With one of the world’s largest real estate portfolios, controlling more than 505,000 buildings, the U.S. government faces a unique challenge in reducing carbon emissions from buildings. Executive orders and legislation have been targeting energy efficiency and green building in government-owned and leased buildings since the early 1990s. Over the last two decades, federal green building principles have evolved, setting more rigorous requirements. Today, with the passage of the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 (EISA), federal buildings have more specific and ambitious green building requirements, including a goal of zero-net energy buildings by 2030.

To comply with requirements, federal agencies look to the presidentially-appointed Federal Environmental Executive (FEE) for direction. The current FEE, Joe Cascio, was appointed to the position on May 22, 2008. He chairs a steering committee whose members are among the President's chief advisors on environmental issues. Together, their mission is “to promote sustainable environmental stewardship throughout the federal government.”

Much like LEED, the precise role of the FEE and the involvement of the government in sustainability has evolved over the years. We spoke with Mark Ginsberg, one of green building’s earliest government advocates, about the history of the government’s involvement in green building. Mark is a board member of the Department of Energy’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy.

USGBC: You were there as USGBC and LEED were being formed. Can you tell us about how the government first came to be involved in green building and how things progressed from there?

Mark Ginsberg: In the early 1990s, there was a group of thoughtful folks who’d been assembling around the topic of green building. Many of those people were among the earliest leaders of USGBC. They envisioned a tool that could measure green building performance, and that system became LEED. The Department of Energy (DOE) put in the initial $500,000 in funding, then we realized it was bigger than one agency could and should undertake.

Around the same time that USGBC was forming, [Former President] Clinton said he wanted the White House to be an example for everyone else in terms of energy efficiency and environmental stewardship. So at the former President’s request, leaders like Rick Fedrizzi and Bill Browning joined AIA, DOE, and others for the “Greening of the White House” in March of 1993, right after Clinton’s inauguration.

Under the Federal Energy Management Program (FEMP), Clinton signed an executive order with that same kind of leadership. FEMP got the government in the position of “doing,” and since that time, each executive order signed by Clinton and by President [George W.] Bush has shown progressively better leadership by example. Still, each agency had to make its own decision on how to comply. But now EISA (the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007) specifically requires energy efficiency, greener construction and renewable energy in federal building construction and operations.

USGBC: What changes do you think we’ll see as a result of the new federal requirements?

MG: We should see more of the typical benefits of greening: improved economic results, productivity and employee morale. The goal is that the finest green building practices become common in the public sector. Federal buildings will lead by example and the private sector will begin to follow suit as we have more examples of success. Those examples will continue to raise the bar, especially in learning and healing environments where better lighting and better air quality just make sense. We’re starting to see state and local schools go green in larger numbers, which should inform and encourage the private sector in those communities to do the same.

After all, these last 15 years have been one big snowball effect for green building. The concept has gone from a small group to a global movement. All along, I never imagined that LEED could be as effective, widespread, and respected as it’s become. In India, there’s a Green Building Council, and China has a Vice Minister of Construction who is committed to green construction and eco-cities. I can only see us continuing in this same spirit, improving technologies and strategies, raising the bar, and reaching more of the market.

USGBC: Do you foresee any major shifts in the coming years?

MG: My personal goal is for zero energy buildings and communities—that over the course of a year, buildings produce as much energy as they require. That’s within our grasp and should be cost-competitive by 2020, which is DOE’s research goal.

We saw lots of skepticism in the 1990s, but now there’s a micro energy or near-zero energy building in the Beijing Olympics. And the federal government has campuses that ought to be examples for the private sector, so I hope we continue to set good examples.  

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Private Sector Provides Green Leases to Government
With government-owned buildings, there’s a sense of responsibility for addressing global climate change. But because government projects require Congressional approval and funding for a future budget cycle, there’s a lag-time in applying new technologies. Therefore, whenever possible, the General Services Administration (GSA), the federal government’s largest landlord, solicits green leases from the private sector. Starting this year, all build-to-suit leases over 10,000 square feet and in which the federal government will be the sole tenant, are required to achieve LEED Silver certification. In addition, federal agencies will be expressly prohibited from leasing in buildings that have not earned the Energy Star label.

Currently, 90 federal projects representing 10 million square feet are LEED certified, while 743 projects representing 149 million square feet are LEED registered. About 25% of the certified buildings are build-to-suit facilities leased from the private sector.

Don Horn is the director for sustainable design at the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA). He is also a non-voting USGBC Board member and serves on USGBC’s Government Committee. Don is an architect by trade, but has had an interest in environmental issues since his parents started an environmental awareness camp on their farm while he was growing up. Don’s GSA career began in historic preservation, which taught him that the greenest option was not to build at all. His current position coincided with an executive order to apply sustainable design in 1999.

USGBC: Tell us about GSA’s green leasing policy.

Don Horn: We've been using green lease clauses since 2000. These include requirements for construction waste management, environmentally preferable materials, low-emitting materials, T-8 lights and other energy efficiency and sustainable design items. Starting in 2008, all build-to-suit leases over 10,000 square feet and in which the federal government will be the sole tenant, are required to achieve LEED Silver. We've also added requirements such as commissioning and prohibiting the use of incandescent light bulbs.

Previously, green leases simply encouraged lessors to do the right thing according to the sustainable design principles laid out by Executive order. It was thought that the contract couldn’t require too much of a lessor, because it would limit competition. But we have to ask what the market can bear. Green lease provisions encourage the market to be greener, which is easy in big cities, but more challenging in smaller towns. We have to do the work to bring the developers on board. The market has changed so much; there was no real follow-up before, but now projects must show that they implemented green building principles with specific submittals. It still seems minimal, but we’re pushing the market. That goes especially for GSA’s Heartland region (Iowa, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota, Kansas, and Missouri), which has been requiring LEED certification for a number of years and now boasts that 25% of their leased inventory is LEED registered or certified.

Government projects have many complicated needs. Meeting the LEED requirements of the green lease clauses on top of that is a rigorous process but these projects can help to push the market forward. In competition for the government contract, they want to make sure that they get the lease, so many times they go beyond the requirement, targeting Silver and Gold LEED certification—usually within market rates. For many private sector builders, their first green project might be one for the government to lease. Once they see the payoffs such as fewer occupant complaints on indoor air quality and thermal comfort, they start to pursue green building on their own.

The government is certainly seen as a leader in these cases, along with impressive private sector projects like Dockside Green in Victoria, British Columbia, and the Bank of America Tower in New York City.

USGBC: What is the idea behind green leasing?

DH: Evaluations have shown that leasing is frequently the best option for government buildings because fit-out to move-in can take place within a year or 18 months as opposed to four or six years for the government building process. That disparity is the result of a few things. Government-owned [non-leased] projects require separate Congressional approval and funding for site acquisition, design and construction. Government projects also have specific needs, which make them more complicated—they can be 300,000-400,000 square feet and require varying levels of security. When we lease a building from the private sector, it doesn’t require Congressional approval and we end up with higher LEED ratings because newer technologies can be applied when the developer can make the economics work.

USGBC: How does the process for procuring green leases work?

DH: Federal agencies bring GSA their requirements for new space in a specific location. If there is no federal building available, GSA’s regional office will see if they can meet it by leasing existing space or a build-to-suit space. Cities sometimes have their own idea of where the project will be located, often offering Brownfield sites, or new areas where the government development will spur other businesses to locate there. A “Solicitation for Offers” is distributed with the green lease requirements and project needs. The contract is then awarded to whoever meets the requirements at the best value to the government—factoring in green elements, cost, location, accessibility, floor plan, etc. The Environmental Protection Agency puts a stronger emphasis on the environment than other agencies and they’ll pay more for greener buildings. Some of our customers want to forget about the green aspect, but since we’re required to incorporate it, it’s now the standard way of doing business.

USGBC: So, where are we headed?

DH: EISA (the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007) has aggressive energy efficiency goals and has adopted the 2030 Challenge to make the built environment a central part of the solution to the global-warming crisis. Projects starting design in 2010 will have to have a 55% reduction in fossil fuel use. The reason it’s not sooner is because that’s the next cycle for submitting funding. Also in 2010, federal agencies will be expressly prohibited from leasing space in buildings that have not earned the Energy Star label. So we’re still two years off from seeing the results of these requirements.

The government is going to have to be more aggressive in getting the private sector to deliver greener buildings. Energy efficiency is going to be a major issue because of the requirements mentioned above. Right now, some architects are looking at the 2030 Challenge and thinking that carbon neutral in 2030 is an unrealistic goal. They use the excuse that they’re just doing what the owner of the building wants.

We’ll also start to be better predictors of energy use. We always want to know: did the building end up being energy- and water-efficient in the long run? Metrics will play a huge role in that, as will post-occupancy performance studies, such as the Green Building Performance study (PDF) that GSA just released. People will start to see green buildings as better than those that came before, and we’ll get what we ask for. If energy efficiency is the priority, that will be the result. Sometimes it may be attained at the cost of water efficiency, but project needs have to be balanced. And I think that we’re going to see more support for the integrated design process, where all parties work to achieve common goals, not just turn everything over to specialists to work in isolation.

USGBC: What resources can our members use to find out more about government opportunities or working on a government project?

DH: lists government contracting opportunities.
The Facilities Standards for the Public Buildings Service are at
To see GSA’s LEED certified buildings and learn more about the sustainable design program, visit
The Whole Building Design Guide features guidance on government projects of all types.

USGBC: And of course, there’s always USGBC’s Government Resources page.  

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USGBC’s Federal Summit Spotlights
Government Leadership

In May, USGBC hosted its annual Federal Summit, with over 200 participants from a variety of federal agencies. The summit focused on how the federal government is playing an increasingly visible leadership role in how the design, construction and operation of green buildings can address climate change and energy use. Updates were given on the Energy Policy Act of 2005, the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007, and President Bush’s Executive Order 13423, “Strengthening Federal Environmental, Energy, and Transportation Management” (January 24, 2007). Nine break-out sessions focused on the legislation, how to comply with requirements, updates to LEED, new technologies and techniques for verifying building performance.

To start the day, the acting director of the Office of Federal High Performance Green Buildings at GSA, Kevin Kampschroer, opened his speech by announcing that there has been a 90% increase in green government buildings between the 2005 and 2007 Energy Policy Acts. He attributes that to two things: better occupant metrics so that more attention is being paid to interior air quality and occupant satisfaction, and green building projects no longer being seen as risky investments, creating better funding opportunities and lower interest rates.

Jim Connaughton, Chairman of the U.S. Council on Environmental Quality, discussed how his office went about implementing Executive Order 13423, “Strengthening Federal Environmental, Energy, and Transportation Management.” He realized that to make changes stick, they would need buy-in at all levels, so they institutionalized changes from the bottom up. He wanted to demonstrate the feasibility of the changes and give ownership of the process to those who would be implementing it. For example, in greening their purchasing process, rather than provide a list of acceptable products, he educated and empowered those responsible about how to evaluate and green the supply chain so that they would have the knowledge, plus experts to turn to if necessary.

Similarly, Dan Beard, Chief Administration Officer with the U.S. House of Representatives described how the Green the Capitol initiative began by reaching out to House employees, two-thirds of whom work in Member offices. Beard was enthusiastic about the pace of the changes, saying they’ll be carbon neutral ahead of their December 2008 goal.

Luncheon keynote Joe Van Belleghem, a partner in Three Point Properties, is building the Dockside Green project in Victoria, British Columbia. The 15-acre mixed-use harborfront development project is a LEED registered project and is targeting Platinum certification under the LEED for Neighborhood Development pilot program. Dockside Green’s holistic design envisions “a largely self-sufficient, sustainable community where waste from one area will provide fuel for another.”

» Learn more about federal legislation and initiatives on green building.

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