Independence Day

Photos by Nic Lehoux

id_01Last December, the government mandated a new energy policy that ups the ante on requirements for federal buildings. Now the design and construction community are working together to determine what compliance means.

Sustainable building design has become a term so deeply engrained into the construction industry vocabulary that it’s hard to imagine a time when it wasn’t discussed. But in reality, the term-du-jour was virtually non-existent as recently as the turn of the century.

Increasingly since that time, architects and engineering firms have recognized that buildings in the United States consume vastly greater amounts of energy than our counterparts in other regions of the world. And in many cases, they have taken the initiative toward the design and production of energy efficient buildings that perform at a higher level, whether a client mandates it or not.

But late last year, the U.S. government legislated a step toward responsibility to the environment and set a measurable bar for future expectations as they relate to energy consumption.

The bill signed into law on December 19, 2007 and immediately, the 822-page document changed U.S. energy policy in many areas. Among them: a set of new standards aimed at promoting energy efficiency in federal buildings was put into effect.

id_02As a result, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) established regulations that require all new federal buildings to achieve at least 30 percent greater energy efficiency than that of the prevailing building codes. These new building design standards are also 40 percent more efficient than the preceding Code of Federal Regulations and will help federal agencies meet Executive Order #13423, which mandates increased federal energy efficiency.

Over the next ten years, estimates show that these energy efficiency standards could save more than 40 trillion Btu and reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 2 million metric tons.

Certainly, the savings and efficiency efforts are admirable, but they’re currently leaving federal agencies and the design and building community facing an information gap. While EISA establishes efficient systems requirements on federal agencies, it does not provide the answers on how to get there. So, what does this “lead-by-example” energy efficient buildings initiative really mean in the world of materials and how they figure into the overall compliance profile of these new regulations?

Clear as mud
id_03Only a few months into the adoption of the energy efficient buildings standards, it’s still unclear what specific new materials will need to come into use, what construction techniques will be favored, and what technologies will help ensure that buildings meet the new energy efficiency requirements.

“It’s a whole new world,” says Tim Christ who led the design team for Morphosis on the General Services Administration (GSA)–owned U.S Federal Building project in San Francisco, Calif. “It’s a constantly shifting landscape. The federal legislation associated the Energy Independence Act—nobody really knows what that means right now. How one gets there is still the 64 thousand-dollar question.”

In the past decade, the GSA has used its position to advance and showcase innovation in sustainable building design in big-budget, high-profile projects.1 In recent years, sustainable design has become the foundation of building design excellence in GSA projects. Since 2003, the GSA has required all its buildings to receive certification through the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED green-building rating program.

Design on the San Francisco Federal building began in 2000, and Christ says his team was spurred by the GSA to think ahead of their time. “We weren’t under any kind of regime to do LEED or anything,” he recalls. “We were working under Title 24 and California requirements at that time and we were doing a lot of DOE II modeling, but we were doing it as a matter of diligence. It was an exercise that was initiated by the design team. We were interested in the climate and how we could create a high performing building that could conserve lots of natural resources. But in terms of meeting federal targets, we exceeded anything that was on the books.”

Time and comprehensive measurement of building systems’ performance will tell which goals—federal and state requirements, LEED, and the architect’s own standards—the Federal building will meet. Currently, the structure is not LEED certified, and resident office workers have not embraced all the building’s green strategies (no mechanical heating or cooling; elevators that stop at every other floor). Such lessons in livability will need to temper the forward-thinking mentality of architects working on next-generation federal projects.

Today, as Morphosis is just beginning to work on a border station federal building project with GSA and the DOE, they find themselves struggling to apply the new energy efficiency standards. “We are really just now interpolating what the standards need to be in terms of exceedance of what has been published – like for example, what ASHRAE has in force,” says Christ. “The GSA is still scrambling to catch up.”

The long and short of it
In the short-term, there are some specific energy efficiency provisions that focus in on aspects of construction and how they fit into the compliance issues.

However, the more aggressive energy efficiency standards now required in these regulations are expected to encourage federal builders to use an integrated approach when constructing new buildings. The new standards aim to address energy efficiency by looking at a building’s entire performance, instead of relying on individually prescribed requirements for individual building components and systems.

Issues like site design and building orientation will be central to the design and planning and solar analyses will likely be used to evaluate how natural light will be delivered to the site. In addition, spaces will likely be engineered with solar walls to produce more energy and also provide more shade when necessary. This means that while the wall itself continues to contribute greatly to overall building performance,2 daylighting measures will move to the forefront on consideration as the community looks to incorporate more than triple-glazed glass to reach mandated energy efficiency goals.

To that affect, the American Institute of Architects (AIA), in conjunction with the Federal Facilities Council, is holding a Federal Buildings Workshop in Washington D.C. July 22 and 23.3 “It will be the initial venue for the ongoing dialogue on these requirements and how the building community can work together to achieve them, and facilitate knowledge and technology transfer between the public and private sectors,” says Andrew L. Goldberg, senior director of federal relations at the AIA.

On July 22, a council forum will give some background on what agencies and the private sector are doing to reach energy goals. Presentations will include case studies from private sector carbon neutral buildings, lessons learned in implementation of energy management programs, and what agencies have already done toward these building design requirements and how they have worked.

The next day, a select group of participants will gather for a working session to begin the discussion of how the building community can work together to achieve the EISA energy efficiency requirements. Senior-level representatives from federal agencies and the private sector will examine the resources necessary to achieve these energy efficient building goals, the anticipated long-term challenges, and opportunities to share experiences.

“If you have a clean slate, and use what we know about design and modern technologies, it is very possible to design these [federal buildings] in a very energy efficient way,” says Tom Bergan, manager of Federal Legislative Relations at the AIA. “But at this point there is nothing concrete enough to be applicable to building construction. That’s what these next few months will be about. If something is crafted into law in December and we start doing the real work on it this spring and summer, let’s hope by say, next December there will be something really tangible to talk about.

On some floors, only cross currents and passive ventilation control the indoor temperature.

About the Author

Lisa Marquis Jackson is a freelance writer based near Dallas, Texas.


1See MM’s profile of the Bannister Federal Complex in the September 2007 issue, available at
2See MM’s reporting of wall performance testing in the June 2006 issue, available at the URL above.
3For more information, contact Lynda Stanley at