Federal buildings, old and new, go green

Thursday - 12/22/2011, 5:26am EST

Jared Serbu, reporter, Federal News Radio

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Two more large federal buildings are going green. One of them is among the oldest buildings in the federal inventory: the Treasury building in Washington. The other is one of the newest: Defense Department's Mark Center in Alexandria, Va.

The main Treasury building, located right next door to the White House, is the third oldest building in the federal government's real estate inventory. It was built over a period of 33 years, between 1836 and 1869. Only the White House itself and the U.S. Capitol are older.

"When you think about a green building, you probably don't think of a century-plus old national historic landmark that's lined with columns and made of thousands of tons of granite," said Dan Tangherlini, Treasury's assistant secretary for management. "We're hoping we can change that impression."

The Treasury building was certified Wednesday as meeting the LEED Gold standard after a series of renovations and environmentally friendly improvements. The U.S. Green Building Council, which manages the LEED program in the United States, says it's the oldest building in the world ever to have gotten any type of LEED certification.

Dan Tangherlini, assistant secretary for management, Treasury

"Some of the improvements that helped the Treasury Building earn LEED certification include our efforts to establish enhanced utility metering, increase the use of natural day lighting to reduce energy consumption and establish sustainable cleaning and landscape programs," Tangherlini said. "We also increased the number of employees in workspaces, or as we like to call it, 'tight-sizing,' and the one that usually gets most of the attention is we installed new fixtures in the restrooms to cut our water use."

A growing number of existing structures

The Green Building Council says the Treasury building is one of only 32 federal buildings that's earned a LEED certification for an existing structure, as opposed to building to LEED standards to begin with. But they expect that number to keep growing.

The Council's Amy Boyce said several hundred more federal buildings are registered for certification.

"And just this month, for the first time since LEED was started, the square footage of certified existing buildings surpassed the square footage of certified new construction," she said.

Across the Potomac River in Alexandria, Va., is one of those newly-certified new buildings. The DoD's Mark Center has been in the headlines mostly for the traffic headaches it's expected to create. But this week, it too received a LEED Gold certification.

The Army built the Mark Center to consolidate 6,400 DoD employees who had been working in leased office space elsewhere in Northern Virginia as part of the 2005 round of base realignment and closure (BRAC) decisions. The Army required any new construction from the 2005 BRAC round to meet at least LEED Silver standards.

Going gold was harder than expected

But Joanne Hensley, the Army Corps of Engineers' deputy program manager for the Mark Center construction project, said they decided they could do better. Though getting to Gold wasn't as easy as they expected.

"It was a challenge, because then we had to go back and figure out how we were going to do these extra things," she said. "For example, we decided to go for the credits for alternative transportation, which was for bicycle storage and changing. But you have to have showers. And because of the size of the building and the number of people, we had to come up with 32 showers for men and women, and they had to be within 200 feet of the entrance. So we were scrambling. And then, if you have that many showers, it impacts your water usage."

Other steps the Army Corps took to earn its LEED credits on the Mark Center project included energy efficient lighting, heating and air conditioning. It'll use 30 percent less energy than a traditional building. The energy it does use will come from renewable sources. And, DoD designed the building to use 45 percent less water than a traditional structure.

Even if employees are less happy with their commute at the Mark Center, Hensley said, they should be happy with the building itself.

"I've heard nothing but positive comments about it," she said. "They're all apprehensive about coming here because of the issues they've heard in the news, but it's a beautiful building. It's very clean inside. Eleven of our 43 LEED points were for indoor environmental quality. We've used low-emitting materials and construction to keep the air quality high. We've got big windows so that people get more of the day lighting, and it's just a nice building."

Although the Mark Center and the Treasury building both announced LEED Gold certifications this week, they're measured against different standards: one for new construction, one for existing construction. The Green Building Council's Boyce said trying to decide which is greener is like comparing apples and oranges.

"New construction is more of a snapshot in time, and you would hopefully keep going with continuing improvement," she said. "Ideally, you start with the best building you can and you keep improving. But there's a lot of buildings out there that are already existing, and we need to engage those. Performance is really where the savings are coming from."

In Treasury's case, it expects its LEED improvements — both to the building and to its day-to-day processes — to save serious money. About $3.5 million in reduced annual costs will come from a 43 percent decrease in water use, a 7 percent decrease in electricity use and a 53 percent cut in steam use.

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