District of Columbia: LEEDing by Example

leed-plaquesRecently adopted standards in the District of Columbia now require new buildings to meet LEED standards. That is, they must meet the Green Building Council’s energy-efficient, environmentally friendly requirements of building design and construction, operation and maintenance, and, what is less easy to control, interaction with the surrounding neighborhood. All new buildings in the District of Columbia must now meet LEED standards or their close equivalents, according to regulations established last spring, while those in neighboring Maryland must conform to less rigid but still challenging environmental requirements, also endorsed by the Green Building Council. Virginia is likely to follow suit soon.

Relatively few projects aim for LEED Gold or Platinum certification, more elite designations. Part has to do with reasons of cost, since meeting those standards can involve layering on all sorts of unanticipated expenses; one gets bragging rights for the special LEED status, but not much else tangible in the way of payback, since building codes are generally in line with LEED in many costly details of the physical plant, such as how much water a toilet uses or whether lights are programmed to go off when a room is not in use. (Most LEED regulations have to do with mechanical and electrical components of buildings.) Part, too, has to do with LEED’s difficult demands, especially in that fitting-in-with-the-neighborhood component. For example, we spoke with one architect who said he lost Gold certification in one outlying county because the schedule of municipal buses bringing workers to the building was not printed to LEED’s liking.

“We had one building that got Gold certification with no problem,” he said. “It sailed right through the process. We had another one, designed exactly the same, that was a nightmare getting approval for. Same standards, same firm, different inspectors, different outcomes. The system isn’t foolproof, and I’m not really convinced that there’s a need to have the merit badge. It adds so much cost and so much energy to any building effort.”

Still, that cost and energy is a requisite in much building work for the federal government. That will even be more so when, on November 13, new regulations by the Department of Energy go into effect that require that new and retrofitted federal buildings meet energy and mechanical requirements according to Green Building standards. The regulations are in concord with Executive Order 13514 and the Energy Independence and Security Act (EISA), and they are being followed by the GSA, which has overall responsibility for federal properties, whether in the District or far beyond.

The relevant DOE document states, in a somewhat circular fashion, “Under the regulations established today, if a Federal agency chooses to use a green building certification system for a new building or major renovation covered by today’s rule, the green building certification system for Federal buildings must meet the certification standards established in today’s rule.”

Dodgy phrasing aside, there has been some resistance to LEED standards on the part of firms and organizations within the building and construction materials industries, largely because of the increased expenses meeting those standards entails. Some of the resistance has to do with inadequate grandfathering of existing stocks of materials such as adhesives and flooring that met standards yesterday, but not today; some, of course, has to do with dislike of federal authority generally. Still, builders and architects have found LEED certification to be a widely understood stamp of approval, and even if it costs a client more, it’s a selling point on the part of those seeking to sell buildings, whether to the government or to private buyers.

Nonetheless, it’s not unusual for builders to choose to exceed the code, functionally meeting LEED standards without the paperwork. It appears, though, that paperwork may become increasingly difficult to avoid. In the case of the District of Columbia, the government requires the rating—a requirement that, all signs now suggest, is likely to become more widespread.

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