Last Tuesday some of the city’s green building experts met to discuss how new building codes are changing the way the city lives and works. The event was produced by ElevationDC and sponsored by the law firm of Nixon Peabody.
Making D.C. a leader in the green building movement has instilled a lot of hometown pride and is helping make the city more livable, but there’s still room to expand and improve, according to a panel of experts assembled last week by ElevationDC for a discussion called “How Green Buildings Build Neighborhoods."
More than 75 people came to the event, which was sponsored by the law firm of Nixon Peabody and held at the firm’s new D.C. headquarters building on Ninth Street NW in Chinatown. Some in attendance admired a multi-story indoor “green wall” of houseplants flanking the firm’s huge open-access stairwell like living wallpaper near the reception area. The plants, which are watered with condensate from the building’s HVAC system, also help to improve indoor air quality. The interior design also includes LED lighting fixtures, ample natural light, and carpeting and paneling that do not off-gas any noxious vapors after installation. Nixon Peabody is currently working to get the highest level of certification available from the US Green Building Council, LEED Platinum, for its space.
Panelist Jay Wilson from the District Department of the Environment told the crowd that D.C. has become “one of the most sustainable cities in the U.S.,” due in large part to a “tremendous legacy of green building legislation,” including the Green Building Act of 2006 which required all new buildings in both the public and the private sector here to secure LEED certification. The District, he added, is second only to New York in the total number of LEED buildings – remarkable since that city has a much larger population size. There are lots of energy-efficient buildings here now with green roofs, solar panels and innovative new designs and materials.
Panelist Ken Wilson, principal with architecture firm Perkins + Will, said he remains proud of the District for emphasizing green construction. But, he noted, it has been a big shift for the city, and there have been glitches along the way. “As far as plan review, it did not go particularly smoothly,” Wilson said in reference to the rollout of some new green building codes. Still, he thinks the problems will eventually be worked out.
Emily Stiever, chief of staff for the solar group Community Power Network, noted that the landscape in D.C. is good for solar in both figurative and literal terms. There’s ample sunshine, many flat roofs and lots of enthusiasm for renewables. “There’s a lot of potential here,” Stiever said. “But also a lot of work that needs to be done.”
The city, she said, has some of the best solar incentives in the nation. But not all of the programs here are easy for families to use, especially low-income residents who typically spend a larger percentage of their income on energy bills. “We want to see more consistent, ongoing, easy-to-use programs that make these resources available to everybody so that ALL District residents can go solar.”
Herb Stevens, chief innovation officer for Nixon Peabody, came with slides depicting a new program that he’s been developing in conjunction with the owners of the building, Brookfield Office Properties, to allow both corporate entities to gather solar power and share it with a low-income housing co-op in Southeast D.C. The co-op’s 63 families will get half of the power generated, which will reduce each family’s energy bill by approximately $15 per month. If the program, which will begin in August, works well, Stevens hopes to expand to include more buildings, and more low-income housing residents, too.
“In D.C. pretty much everyone is on the green train."
One audience member asked the panel if it would be harder to make green building improvements outside of D.C., where the codes and laws don’t mandate it.
“We are in somewhat of a green bubble here,” Ken Wilson said. Other cities, in his experience, don’t always have contractors willing to try sustainable products or techniques and don’t have building owners willing to try new concepts, either.
“In D.C. pretty much everyone is on the green train,” Stiever said. But noting that any solar is good solar, her organization has found that people may be motivated by a host of different things when installing panels. In West Virginia, for example, being called green might actually be considered a negative thing. What residents there like is the energy independence that solar power offers. And in Virginia, communities often just want a way to wrest power away from an unpopular local utility.
“I think how you frame it is really important and it depends on your audience. Rather than trying to convince people of why they should do it, meet them where they’re at and figure out what’s important and resonates for them and then go from there,” Stiever said.