D.C. aims to create sustainable ‘living building’

December 13, 2012

Seeking to further distinguish the District as a national leader in urban sustainability, officials plan to create the city’s first “living building,” joining a green certification program that promotes the highest level of architectural sustainability.

The Living Building Challenge focuses on seven aspects of a site — location, water and energy use, health, materials, social equity and beauty — to create a structure that is environmentally friendly and enjoyable to use.

“It’s a matter of design, using photovoltaics like solar panels, geothermal energy, using biomass . . . it’s a building that produces as much energy as it uses,” Brian Hanlon, director of the D.C. Department of General Services, said. “We have to think of them as organisms in the urban environment.”

In 2006, the District passed one of the most stringent green building laws in the country, requiring that all District public buildings meet the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED certification standards of environmental performance. More than 300 buildings have since been granted LEED and Energy Star certification, with hundreds more in the works.

Hanlon pointed to other sustainable D.C. efforts, such as Canal Park’s storm water management system and the “green” building plans for a new Ballou High School, but said it is time to take the next step and create a place for net-zero energy use. City officials said a public school may be renovated as part of the “living building” project but have not decided on a location.

The Living Building Challenge was one of 12 pilot programs to win a total of $4.5 million in grants from the city’s fiscal 2013 budget Thursday as part of the Sustainable D.C. Budget Challenge. The competition encouraged city agencies to create projects that would bring the city closer to achieving its 2032 sustainability goals.

Mayor Vincent C. Gray’s Sustainable D.C. initiative includes 11 areas for environmental and economic improvement, such as cutting citywide energy consumption by half, bringing locally grown food within a quarter-mile of 75 percent of city residents and developing three times as many small, District-based businesses.

Other winning projects include planting community gardens at recreation centers, building mobile mini-parks, converting a coal power plant to use renewable energy, composting and creating a public school curriculum for sustainability. The Sustainable D.C. Budget Challenge’s 32 entries were judged on cost-effectiveness, potential for quick results and the ability to meet the sustainability goals, among other criteria, Office of Planning officials said.

“It’s not about the environment, it’s about how we do business here,” Office of Planning Director Harriet Tregoning said. “We’re trying to use our resources more intensely, making sure we get the most out of our storefronts . . . buildings, roads.”

Each plan has a different timeline for implementation, but all will be tested throughout the coming year, each aiming to be successful enough to expand. Gray (D) said he hopes to be able to include the chosen projects and more in the fiscal 2014 budget.

“The city hopes to take the lead in what it means to be sustainable . . . to test the feasibility of major new investments and demonstrate a new way of doing business in the city government,” Gray said.

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