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D.C. Ranks No. 2 For Energy Star Buildings; What Does That Mean?

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The ASLA building’s green roof is a feature considered the building’s crowning achievement.
ASLA
The ASLA building’s green roof is a feature considered the building’s crowning achievement.

This week the Environmental Protection Agency released its annual rankings for cities with the most Energy Star certified buildings, and the D.C. metro area ranks number two on the list, just behind Los Angeles. But what does it take to make buildings energy efficient? One local building serves as an example of what it takes to earn an Energy Star label — and why D.C. could soon take the top spot on the EPA’s list.

A lot goes into certification

It should come as no surprise that a trade association dedicated to architecture would be proud of showing off its building. But the windowless room Mike O'Brien is showing off is hardly a showpiece — it’s little more than a closet holding an office chair and a computer. “So this is it,” he says, as he sits down.

O’Brien is the chief financial officer for the American Society of Landscape Architects, and despite the distinct lack of style or design around him, the room is a big part of what makes the entire ASLA headquarters a model for the EPA’s Energy Star program.

It’s the control center for the building’s automation system, a system that automatically turns lights and the heating and cooling system on and off depending on the time of day and who’s in the building.

“This essentially controls everything,” he says.

The ASLA headquarters — which is located on Eye Street, just north of Chinatown — earned its Energy Star certification in 2013 by scoring an 89 out of 100 on the EPA’s building performance scale. To get certified, a building must score a 75 or higher on the scale, which compares a property’s energy usage to other properties of similar type, accounting for things like occupancy and size.

Lauren Hodges, the communications director for the EPA’s Energy Star building program, says that many people assume that newest and shiniest buildings are the most energy efficient. The truth is more complicated.

“We have buildings that were built in the 1800s that have earned the Energy Star, and we have buildings that were built last year that have earned the Energy Star,” Hodges says.

A roof to be proud of

The ASLA building’s green roof is a feature considered the building’s crowning achievement. It captures almost all of the rain that falls on it — a relief to the city’s overburdened stormwater system — and is also expected to last three times as long as a normal roof.

But ASLA is also using it to showoff what landscape architects can do in terms of design: it includes two elevated, wave-shaped planting areas that flank a partially shaded sitting area that is often used for parties and meetings.

The walking surface is metal grating, and underneath that grating is more cultivated soil. It means 90 percent of the roof is covered with plants.

Green roofs are more expensive: A regular roof runs about $5 to $10 per square foot, while a green roof costs about twice that much. But Mike O’Brien says green roofs more than make up for that difference over time because they’re such good insulators, reducing heating and cooling costs for buildings by at least 10 to 15 percent.

“Think of it simply like this: It’s a hat on your head. In the winter time it keeps the warm air in and in the summer time it keeps the cold air from escaping," he says.

The ASLA building is one of the 435 Energy Star certified buildings in the D.C. metro area that helped the nation’s capital earn the number two spot on the EPA’s list.

Number one? That goes to Los Angeles, which has held the top spot ever since the EPA started publishing its rankings six years ago. But Lauren Hodges says D.C. is now nipping at LA’s heels.

“This year, they missed first place by only nine buildings. So, it’s exciting and all eyes are on D.C. this year because we’re thinking this might be the year that D.C. pulls out all the stops and finally has what it takes to overtake LA for the #1 spot next year," she says.

Hodges gives a lot of credit to a requirement in the Clean and Affordable Energy Act, passed by the D.C. Council in 2008.

“Put simply, what it does is it mandates that large buildings in D.C. measure and then publicly disclose their energy performance on an annual basis. So that’s been huge because it forces all these buildings to step on that scale and really see how they're doing," she says.

Surrounding jurisdictions are doing their part as well. In 2011, Arlington started an annual program called the Green Games, a friendly competition in the commercial office sector aimed at reducing energy use, waste and water. And Hodges says being the hometown of the federal government also gives the region an advantage.

“There’s a rule that says federal agencies can only lease space in Energy Star certified buildings, so that’s really motivated D.C.’s landlords to step up their games so they can attract and retain federal tenants," she says.

Going green good for the bottom line

Whether or not building managers and property owners are worried about impressing the EPA, they're all concerned with that other kind of green — their bottom line.

It’s why Michelle Good, the director of sustainability for property management firm Akridge, says it’s pretty easy to talk her clients into making use of the Energy Star program.

“Yeah, it’s a big part, and it’s a great benefit… being green to get green," she says.

And apparently, property owners around the country are listening: While there are 23,000 Energy Star certified buildings in the nation, the EPA says 350,000 buildings are using EPA’s Energy Star benchmarking tools in hopes of cutting costs.

Music: "Efficiency" by Frank French from James Scott's Ragtime

Video tour of ASLA's Green Roof in Washington, DC from ASLA on Vimeo.

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