The Emerald City

Federal government buildings are getting greener. By Kimberly Palmer

Big, green changes are ahead for the feds. The 2005 Energy Policy Act requires a major energy overhaul in federal buildings: more solar energy systems, more energy metering, and an overall energy consumption reduction of 20 percent per square foot by 2015—all within the next decade.

The metering requirement—all energy use will be metered in all federal buildings by 2012—will enable building managers to respond quickly to energy fluctuations, says Mark Ewing, director of the General Services Administration’s energy center, which helps agencies meet their environmental goals. If the managers see energy use spike, they can turn down the air conditioning or encourage workers to turn off unnecessary lights.

Since the Act also calls for solar energy systems to be installed in 20,000 out of the 500,000 existing federal buildings by 2010, Ewing is also working on installing more photovoltaic technology, through solar walls on buildings and solar hot water panels. He’s developing a “membrane,” or thin metal sheet, that would sit about three inches away from the wall of GSA’s headquarters building in Washington, DC, and heat trapped air under the sun, reducing the amount of energy the building’s heating systems need to heat the building.

The plant that purifies the landfill gas that NASAé─˘s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. will use to heat its buildings. The flight center has been heating its buildings with energy from landfill gases since 2003.

Some federal buildings already incorporate energy-saving technologies. In 2003, NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. became the first federal building to turn the methane gases from a local landfill into heat. Steam created from the gases heats 31 buildings, saving $3.5 million over ten years and reducing fossil fuel emissions—reductions which NASA estimates are equivalent to planting 47,000 trees or taking 35,000 cars off the road each year.

“You’re not competitive in today’s world if you’re not reducing [energy costs]. They’re a significant percentage of operating costs,” says James Lee, president of Opus East, the Washington, DC-based unit of the real estate development company Opus Group, which is constructing several federal buildings under the new standards. But saving energy doesn’t have to be complicated, he says. Simple changes, such as replacing old lighting systems that tend to generate a lot of heat or installing light sensors can have a big impact, both on the environment and a building’s operating costs.

An image of what the Social Security Administration building in Birmingham will look like when ité─˘s finished in late 2007

Opus is building a new Social Security Administration building in Birmingham that will feature one of the largest green roofs ever built for a federal building when it’s finished in late 2007. It was also designed to enable all employees to work no more than 40 feet away from a window so they can take advantage of as much natural light as possible.

The Environmental Projection Agencyé─˘s new building in Denver. It will be finished by the end of this year (1); An inside view of NOAAé─˘s building, which features lots of natural light (2); A projection of the building for National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administrationé─˘s National Weather Service in Riverdale Park, Md., which will be finished in mid-2008 (3)

New Opus buildings in Denver and Riverdale Park, Md., for the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Weather Service, respectively, also feature expansive green roofs, as well as other green designs such as windows that can either absorb or reflect heat and common areas lit up by natural light – features that also contribute to a more pleasant work environment. If following the new law also means working by a window and eating lunch on a green roof, employees can pick up some of the unintended benefits of the Energy Act – just another reason to embrace energy conservation.