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GSA Issues Recommendations On Green Ratings Systems

Exterior rendering of the Wayne L. Morse Courthouse, in Eugene, Oregon
The Wayne L. Morse Courthouse, in Eugene, Oregon, a U.S. General Services Administration building, was certified at the gold level in the LEED program. New recommendations from the GSA find LEED and a similar program, Green Globes, to be useful—but not exhaustive. Wikimedia Commons/M.O. Stevens

The U.S. General Services Administration has singled out two green building rating systems as being the most useful in evaluating the performance of government buildings, though some federal requirements are higher.

November 5, 2013—The U.S. General Services Administration (GSA) in late October completed a legally required review of green building certification systems and made a series of recommendations to the U.S. Department of Energy about two systems “most likely to encourage a comprehensive and environmentally sound approach.”

The GSA recommendation singled out the Green Building Initiative’s Green Globes 2010 system and the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) 2009 system as the two most applicable to federal construction and renovation projects. But it made clear that such certification systems are just one of many tools that could be used in evaluating building performance against federal statutory requirements, some of which are set at higher performance levels.

The GSA recommended that individual agencies choose a single system for all of their projects, achieve a minimum of either LEED Silver or two Green Globes for new construction and major renovation projects, but that they carefully select which credits within the systems to aim for in order to align with federal requirements.

“An educated user of LEED as a building owner or prospective building owner will say, ‘I want LEED gold, and I want you to get all of these specific credits because they align with what we are trying to achieve,’” says Kevin Kampschroer, the director of GSA’s Office of Federal High-Performance Green Buildings. “We say, ‘make sure that you are actually achieving all of the federal requirements in your use of LEED.’ That would mean getting all the energy points and all the water points—whichever system you are using.” But even with all of those points, he adds, “you still don’t quite get to where we want to be.”

Kampschroer explains that because the federal government builds such highly specialized, mission-specific buildings as prisons, embassies, and hospitals, no single green building certification system completely addresses all federal goals.

“They can be used as a construction guide if you want to, but we think the federal government generally does not do that, and we think that the way the federal government comes up with its specifications is better than just referencing LEED,” Kampschroer says.

“In a nutshell, [those programs] address the majority of what we are looking at,” Kampschroer says. “[But] they can’t be used as the only thing that we do. Neither system really deals with health in the building, workplace design, or security—all of which are federal requirements.”

Kampschroer says the certification systems are also useful in creating a type of checks-and-balances system because they offer third-party reviews of a project. Additionally, because the federal government contracts with architects, engineers, and construction companies familiar with the systems through private projects, they provide a common reference point. “They are both consensus-based systems, so they are keeping abreast of the market,” he says.

The GSA also recommended that the federal government continue to work with these certification programs to improve areas in which there is less alignment with federal standards.

“We think health in buildings should be addressed because it affects every kind of building—public sector, private sector—no matter what,” Kampschroer says. But, he adds, “We probably don’t think that a private sector rating system really has much to gain from looking at the federal government’s security standards.”

The GSA review that prompted the recommendations is required every five years by the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 (EISA). The GSA contracted with Pacific Northwest National Laboratory for a review of more than 100 rating systems, winnowing the list down to three that focus on whole-building performance.

A panel of building experts from within the federal government reviewed the systems on a credit-by-credit basis to determine how the systems applied to federal projects. Findings were opened to public comment before the recommendations were finalized.

A rating system called the Living Building Challenge was extensively reviewed but not recommended because it doesn’t address existing buildings and functions as a leadership standard that is deliberately not based on industry consensus.

“A leadership standard has real value in terms of trying to push the envelope of how buildings perform. So we wouldn’t be at all adverse to an agency saying, or the GSA saying, ‘Let’s try this and see what it means on a pilot basis.’ But for everyday work, it doesn’t align that well,” Kampschroer says.

Although the EISA requires a review every five years, the GSA recommends that certification systems be reviewed immediately upon the release of revised standards. The GSA would then develop a recommendation about the adoption of the revised standards within one year.



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