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How green buildings build neighborhoods

People walk the labyrinth on the green roof at one of the American Psychological Association's buildings. The labyrinth is rather unique, but green roofs and other green building techniques are increasingly common in D.C.

DC, a leader in the green building movement, is getting more than just energy savings and good vibes from its green buildings.
Ken Kasprzak opens a glass door on the rooftop of the American Psychological Association’s green rooftop and slips off his chocolate-colored suede loafers.  “I like to really get into a spiritual frame of mind before I start,” Kasprzak says before beginning to walk in his socks through the stone labyrinth laid out on this rooftop high above the city. 

“It is lovely to sit or walk, or just be up here and breathe,” Kasprzak, a government affairs associate at the APA, adds, motioning towards the small, colorful succulent plants planted in a frame around the twisty maze to absorb excess water and nutrients from rainwater.  A few hundred feet away on the other side of the roof, a woman in office attire glances through her email on a laptop set up under the shade of a pergola covered in vines. 

In many ways, the APA’s roof is not typical of other green buildings in the city: not all have a stone path to walk or places where visitors can sit and relax. Very few are open to the public. But in other ways, Kasprzak‘s reaction to the transformation of his organization’s roof from gray and blah to colorful and environmentally sound is very typical.

In the early 1990s, architects from around the world began discussing how the building industry could become more sustainable. The result was a collection of certification programs designed to acknowledge and standardize environmental practices in energy and water efficiency, the most famous of which is the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) program run by the U.S. Green Building Council.

“The District has an impressive progressive legacy of green building policy and deployment,” says Bill Updike, interim deputy director of the urban sustainability administration at the District Department of the Environment.  D.C., he notes, was the first city in the county to pass a law requiring green building certification for both the public and private sector in 2006. Last year, the District adopted a green construction code which applies to all commercial projects that are 10,000 square feet and larger and all multi-family residential projects that are 10,000 square feet and larger and four stories and higher. As a result, Updike said, the district now has more LEED-certified and Energy Star-certified projects per capita than any other city in the U.S. 
That number is expected to continue growing.

Good green buildings are energy efficient. But they are also healthy buildings, Updike points out.  “They don’t have the toxicity levels that non-green buildings might have.”

The private sector in the District has taken up a competitive spirit in the process, Updike says, and has embraced the cachet of going sustainable.  “Nobody wants to build the last brown building on the block.”

“Any way that we can encourage green roofs to the system helps,” says Bethany Bezak, green infrastructure manager at DC Water, which oversees the treatment of wastewater and the management of drinking water for the city.

To some it may seem surprising that roofs and sewers would share an important connection. But because roughly one third of the District is hooked up to a combined sewer system, the city has begun to focus a great deal of attention on putting rooftops to work in the effort to capture and slow down rain fall before it hits the curb.

Combined sewers were cutting edge technology when they were first installed in the 1800s. In a combined system, one pipe handles both sewage and stormwater. Heavy rainfall can mean full pipes, which makes sewage back up into streets, creeks and sometimes basements.  While the District is working to install large underground holding tanks to alleviate the problem, green roofs are used to decrease stormwater at its source.  Plants on rooftops don’t just look pretty and keep buildings cool, they also absorb rain and filter out pollutants headed into local rivers.

Green Buildings for Low Income Residents
Amit Ronen, director of the George Washington University Solar Institute, sees another reason to focus attention on the rooftops of D.C. Green building projects which incorporate solar panels can also be a great long-term investment in reducing poverty. 

“If you give a lower income person a solar panel,” Ronen says, “you are giving them a permanent asset that will stay with them year after year and will go on to benefit the whole neighborhood.” In addition, “Installing and distributing solar on rooftops is inherently a local job producer.”

There are issues to be worked out in the way solar power is being brought to low-income communities in D.C., Ronen acknowledges.  Financing can be tricky when you are working with people who often don’t own their own homes, for example, which is an issue in D.C. for almost every income level. But, he says, the city also has some of the best policies in the country for increasing solar access in the urban environment, including some which allow even non-homeowners to tap into the positive aspects of solar power.

“There’s a perception that green buildings are all fancy new condos on 14th Street,” says Dan Guilbeault, chief of the sustainability and equity branch of DDOE’s urban sustainability administration. “I think we hear about those more because it’s a strong selling point right now to say you have a fancy LEED-certified building.”

But there are buildings of all kinds being built to green standards, he points out, including new affordable housing developments.

Ronen and Guilbeault also both note that the cost of building green and using solar has come down in recent years, which is especially helpful in the struggle to reduce monthly expenses for those with small budgets. Several studies have shown that families with lower incomes often have much higher energy costs than those with more affluence.
A rooftop gem
Back at the APA building, Kasprzak has finished walking the stone path and is talking with great pride about the way that his organization’s rooftop works. He points to brochures that detail how the “Green Roof Labyrinth” reduces runoff into the Anacostia River.

Under a wooden bench a small journal and pen have been left to collect the thoughts of visitors who often walk through Capitol Hill or past busy Union Station on their way to this quiet, open space high above traffic. 

“So happy to have discovered this rooftop gem,” one visitor has written.  

The APA labyrinth is open to the public during certain hours. Are you interested in green building and its benefits? Save the date for our next panel discussion, How Building Green Builds Neighborhoods, June 30 with our sponsor Nixon Peabody. More information here.

Read more articles by Alison Gillespie.

Alison Gillespie writes about urban environmental issues for a variety of publications nationwide.  She is also the author of Hives in the City, a nonfiction book about beekeepers working to keep bees alive in the cities of the Mid-Atlantic US.
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