Climate Shifts for Tackling Climate Change

April 17, 2007

By Amanda Webb

In the absence of concerted federal leadership, cities and states have been taking the lead in addressing the issue of climate change. But now, with the help of the American Institute of Architects (AIA), the federal government is stepping up to the plate.

The day after his State of the Union speech in January, President Bush signed Executive Order 13423, which mandates green building targets for all executive branch agencies. Topping a long list of goals, it calls for a 3 percent annual reduction in energy intensity, defined as energy consumption per square foot of building space, and increased use of on-site renewable energy.

Why the recent change in attitude? “There’s been a growing understanding in the government and executive branch that dependence on foreign oil is something that we need to grapple with,” observes Kevin Kampschroer, director of research and expert services for the Public Buildings Service in the General Services Administration (GSA).

Following the executive order, the GSA raised the energy intensity targets listed in its contract language. Although the agency, which is the nation’s largest public landlord, previously required that its own new construction be LEED certified, it also now states a preference for leasing space in buildings constructed in a more sustainable way.

Other possible changes affecting federal space requirements are afoot on Capitol Hill. In February, AIA president R.K. Stewart, FAIA, appeared before Congress to give voice to the group’s recommendations on energy efficiency in federal buildings.

Stewart emphasized the critical role that the built environment plays in climate change, noting that the buildings produce nearly half of the greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to global warming. “You can argue about the way to change, but architecture is the biggest contributor, so the opportunity to change is there,” he says.

Like Executive Order 13423, the AIA’s recommendations specifically address federal buildings—but they take a slightly different tack by going directly to Congress. “It has the ability to make sure that funding exists,” Stewart explains.

The AIA is proposing an immediate 50 percent reduction in fossil fuel use, with further reductions every five years until 2030, by which point new federal buildings would be carbon-neutral. These numbers coincide with those proposed by the 2030 Challenge, which the U.S. Conference of Mayors adopted last year for municipal buildings [RECORD, August 2006, page 30].

A surprise to some observers, neither the AIA’s recommendations nor the executive order require that federal buildings seek LEED certification, which is commonly required by state and local governments. The executive order mandates that new construction and major renovations of agency buildings comply with the Guiding Principles for Federal Leadership in High Performance and Sustainable Buildings. Signed by 19 federal agencies, these principles establish broad goals that cover many of the same areas as LEED but place greater emphasis on encouraging sustainable practices in ongoing building operations.

The GSA believes that it needs to address more specific operational issues that the LEED systems do not. “Building the building is merely the first step in its life. If you don’t take care of the building, you’ve lost an opportunity,” Kampschroer explains.

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For its part, the AIA feels that endorsing a single standard would work against its attempts to further the development of all standards. “No standard that exists today addresses these issues in as all-encompassing a way as that we, as a profession, think that they need to be addressed,” Stewart says.

The AIA is already pursuing the next step with its recommendations by seeking a congressional sponsor to draft legislation that can be attached to a larger bill addressing energy use or climate change.

The critical aspect of the steady stream of action in Washington, Stewart says, is that it signifies a sense of empowerment. “Before, there was debate about whether or not something was happening. Now, people agree that something is happening, and, most importantly, they feel like they can do something about it.”

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