Saving the Earth Inside the Office

By Alejandro Lazo
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 25, 2008

Larry Laque, an executive with Silver Spring-based Discovery Communications, felt something amiss last year as his company began gearing up to announce a 24-hour television channel devoted to an all-green lifestyle.

Discovery would be preaching environmental awareness around the clock on its Planet Green network, but Laque thought the company was not doing all it could do to recycle, conserve energy and pollute less.

So when the company's chief executive, David Zaslav, requested ideas to help market the new channel, Laque proposed an initiative to "green" the two-building headquarters.

Walking through those two buildings last week, Laque pointed to several changes the company had made. Green-handled, low-flush toilets had been installed in every restroom. Three 400-gallon tanks in the garage stored rainwater to irrigate the company's lawn. And numerous unnecessary light bulbs had been removed, such as vending machine lights.

"I do believe it is a lot of little things that add up," Laque said last week, standing in one of several sun-bathed conference rooms. "We are a big part of the problem, but we are also a big part of the solution."

Discovery ultimately decided to seek the highest level of certification possible through the District-based U.S. Green Building Council's Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) program -- platinum status. Only 62 buildings in the United States have won the designation. Two are in the Washington area: the Sidwell Friends School, on Wisconsin Avenue in Northwest D.C. and the Green Building Council's headquarters, on Massachusetts Avenue NW, just south of Dupont Circle.

The council's rating system has become the commercial real estate industry's benchmark for the design, construction and operation of environmentally friendly buildings. Businesses have rushed to embrace the system as fears of global climate change have become more prevalent and green credentials more marketable. Buildings are considered to be major energy consumers and big contributors of carbon emissions.

But even those who praise the LEED system say it is far from perfect. Developers get the same credit for taking steps that require relatively little effort as for those that require significant expenditures of time and money.

Nevertheless, the rapid acceptance of the Green Building Council's system has led to a transformation of the commercial real estate industry. New buildings are being erected to meet the new standards while real estate brokers seek accreditation from the council to better market existing office space to prospective clients. Green investment funds have been created by major real estate companies to pay for upgrades to existing buildings.

"I don't think any initiative that we have seen has been so quickly adopted and embraced in this business," said Mitchell N. Schear, president of Vornado/Charles E. Smith, a commercial real estate firm with a large presence in the Washington region.

The District and Montgomery County are among several local governments that have passed ordinances requiring that new construction adhere to the green standards.

The LEED system rates buildings by the number of points achieved in sustainable site development, water savings, energy efficiency, materials selection, indoor environmental quality and innovation.

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