White House Summit reflections

August 11, 2010

In this observer's view, the first White House Summit on Federal Sustainable Buildings, held last month in Washington, accomplished quite a lot in just two days.

First, the signing of a "memorandum of understanding" by 17 federal agencies provided tangible evidence of how far the federal government has progressed in green building in the last five years. Although most of the government officials present at the summit were pretty much members of the "green" choir, it was remarkable to hear them describe the many accomplishments their agencies and departments had achieved in implementing sustainable design and construction.

Who would have predicted five years ago that the Defense Department would become one of the most aggressive green building entities in America? Or that the GSA would embrace LEED as heartily as it has. With its purchasing power and political leverage, the federal government arguably has become the prime mover in green building in this country, perhaps even superseding the U.S. Green Building Council itself.

Second, the summit reinforced a fact that many in the environmental movement (and I include myself here) have trouble swallowing: that, despite the current administration's abysmal record on the environment, the Bush White House has somehow allowed the green building efforts begun under Clinton to sneak under the radar. To his credit, President Bush has not rescinded the "greening" Executive Orders of his predecessor—and the bureaucracy (notably the Interagency Sustainability Working Group and the Federal Green Building Council) somehow keeps plugging along.

Moreover, it could fairly be argued—and many of the loyal appointees at the summit certainly tried to make this case—that, by attaching rigorous metrics and reporting requirements to the Clinton-era Executive Orders, the Bush Administration has made them more effective. Today, every agency and department gets an annual "scorecard" from the Office of Management & Budget on energy, transportation, and environmental performance, and they take those ratings to heart.

Finally, the summit gave me renewed hope for the green building movement. It was gratifying to witness the degree of innovation, technical sophistication, and unrelenting dedication that I saw in our public servants. It's clear that many of those in the federal establishment have "gotten" the message: The old ways of designing, constructing, and maintaining government buildings must be thrown out, and a new order must take their place.

LEED has been the driving force thus far, but the more experienced players within the bureaucracy are already beginning to see that LEED can take them only so far. A much more integrated approach, one that looks toward what some have referred to as "restorative design"—providing 100% benefit to the environment, with no detriment to people—is called for.

Such a transformation will undoubtedly take years to formulate and implement. Then again, look how far we have come in so short a time.


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