The Experts’ Green Building Business Case for Federal Buildings
In early August, I was invited to participate in a 12-person “Meeting of Experts,” convened by the National Research Council on behalf of the Office of Federal High-Performance Green Buildings, located in the General Services Administration (GSA). For me, it was a great chance to be a “fly on the wall” as experts from around the country talked about how the Federal government should be (and could be) promoting its green building program to an increasingly skeptical Congress and public.
The background document was a 2011 study from the National Research Council, focused on ‘levers of change’ that could make sustainability the preferred choice in all decision making at the Federal level. The subtext is that GSA is almost out of funds for new buildings and must focus its attention to managing 180 million square feet of existing buildings that it owns (and the approximately equal amount of space that it leases from the private sector.)
Something Completely Different
I thought it would be productive (and hopefully useful to others) for me to share some of my notes from this meeting with a wider audience. In books and articles over the past five years, as a green building consultant and author of a dozen green building books, I have written extensively on the business case for green building, but for the federal government, the business case is vastly different than for a private business.
The real bottom line is that 87% of the money spent in a federal building is for salaries and benefits, including health care, so that in making the green building business (or investment) case you have to talk largely about people and not, for example, about energy conservation, water use or all the green things you can do easily in new buildings. People costs are “the elephant in the room.” So enhancing productivity, job satisfaction, employee retention and health outcomes are critical to the success of federal green building programs.
The experts’ discussion was lively, informed and purposeful, and it lasted a day and a half. One key recommendation that was widely agreed upon is that we have to develop metrics for measuring the people effects of alternative green building strategies, such as daylighting, indoor air quality and access to public transit, among others, while not forgetting larger considerations of sustainability and ecosystem health.
Buildings That Get Back to Nature
Going beyond today’s design considerations, Bill Browning of Terrapin/Bright Green spoke eloquently about the role of biophilia in office operations, especially with his new report on the Economics of Biophilia, Why Designing with Nature in Mind Makes Financial Sense, which is a fabulous piece of research. Why aren’t we designing more living things, plants and water, into office buildings, so that people can experience their deep contact with nature while they work? As we get more connected with each other via technology, don’t we face a grave danger in becoming less connected with nature? What can designers do to overcome this disconnect, especially in the workplace?
A Multi-Generational Perspective
One key perspective for today’s decision makers: how will your decision today protect the next generation: your children and their children? If we can’t think seven generations out, can we at least make sure we’re leaving a healthy planet and healthy workplaces for those we can count and see? In this sense, probably the most fundamental thing we can do with our buildings is to protect the value of ecosystem services, the air, land and water that provide the ultimate support for human life. David Batker of Earth Economics (and author of the recent book, “What’s the Economy for Anyway?”) and Christopher Juniper of CORE in Denver have been doing lots of good work presenting this perspective to decision makers.
Another set of considerations, driven especially by the hottest summer on record, is how to build in resiliency to the existing building stock, not just from flooding and heat waves, but from other disruptions to the support systems, such as the grid. For example, if you rely on diesel generators for a three-day emergency, what happens when the emergency stretches on past three days, and no more diesel fuel can be delivered to restock the generator?
Cost and Value of Green Building
We had three really strong personalities presenting the “cost and value” perspective, to bring things back to the “real world”: Theddi Wright Chappell of Cushman & Wakefield, Peter Morris of Davis Langdon and Scott Muldavin of the Green Building Finance Consortium and senior advisor on sustainable finance at Rocky Mountain Institute. Scott in particular is skeptical about making the green building investment case based on value gains, from such considerations as rent increases, resale value and higher occupancy, but is more comfortable talking about green building as a risk mitigation strategy, thus bringing us to the key business consideration for any real estate investment: the balance of risk vs. reward.
New Ways to Work
Another important consideration is Activity-Based Working. The federal workforce, just like the private sector, is increasingly mobile. GSA has already recognized this and is starting to working with “hoteling” its employees, assigning more than one person to each desk in its headquarters and taking reservations each day for workspace. This raises important questions, including: What does this increased density and occupancy of federal workspaces do to energy use (it should increase, per square-foot, for example)? And especially, what are the management and policy implications, when all federal energy reduction goals are expressed in energy used per square-foot?
Do We Need to Take a Step Back to Move Forward?
Take a step back and look at how large buildings impact urban infrastructure, such as water supply, sewerage and stormwater management, and the green building design and renovation task gets even more complicated. The argument is clear that a more holistic framework is needed for decision-making. Certainly, the LEED rating system, including LEED for Neighborhood Development, addresses these issues in a comprehensive framework, but aren’t we missing opportunities every day to look beyond LEED for more restorative design thinking, such as that embodied, for example, in the Living Building Challenge?
Dr. Richard Jackson, distinguished public health professor at UCLA, and the foremost US expert on designing healthy communities, says that in the 20th Century, we solved each of these problems in isolation, but in the 21st Century, the primary characteristic of a good solution will be that is solves multiple problems at once, without making any other problems worse. Jackson is perhaps best known for his research and advocacy linking more walkable communities with improved health outcomes.
I could go on, but you get the idea that it was a great gathering of experts and a really healthy discussion about how the federal government should go forward with its program to green the buildings that make up the federal workplace.
The final element in the discussion is perhaps the most critical: what is the convincing narrative about how this approach is good not only for federal employees, but also represents taxpayer money well saved and/or invested?
More on that later! Meanwhile, I look forward to your feedback.
Jerry Yudelson, PE, LEED Fellow, is the author of 12 (soon to be 13) on green building, sustainable design, marketing green building services, building performance, water conservation and corporate sustainability. He has been a management and marketing consultant to more than 200 companies and leads the consulting team at Yudelson Associates, Tucson, Arizona.