Washington is the Quiet Capital of Sustainable Design

The District of Columbia long has led the nation in green buildings.

Milken Institute School of Public Health, George Washington University, Washington, DC. Top Ten Award (2017), American Institute of Architects Committee on the Environment.

This weekend, as tens of thousands gathered in Washington, DC, to stand up for sustainability at the People’s Climate March, most probably weren’t aware of the city’s greenest asset—its buildings.

The District long has been the center of the green building movement. The U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC), founded in 1993, is headquartered here, as is the American Institute of Architects, whose Committee on the Environment (COTE), which launched in 1990, is the country’s oldest program promoting sustainable design. In January, the USGBC released its annual ranking of states with the most buildings certified through its LEED rating system, and once again Washington, DC, came out on top. The city isn’t formally ranked, because technically it’s a federal district, not a state, but last year the volume of certified green buildings per capita was nearly eight times that of the top state, Massachusetts, and over 11 times the average for the 10 leading states. The number of projects in DC (120) far exceeds some other states and rivals the median for all states (143), and the number of total projects registered reportedly is higher than any other city.

Sidwell Friends Middle School, Washington, DC. Top Ten Award (2007), American Institute of Architects Committee on the Environment.

Washington also routinely leads the nation for the most structures certified under ENERGY STAR, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)’s energy-efficient buildings program. In 2016, the District had 30% more ENERGY STAR buildings than its closest competitor and more total square footage certified than even the largest cities, including New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago. And the District also is the U.S. city with the largest percentage of green power purchases, due to an ambitious wind power plan, for which the EPA gave the city its Green Power Leadership Award in 2015. “The District of Columbia continues to lead the nation in the fight against climate change,” declared Mayor Muriel Bowser on the occasion. Three years earlier, her predecessor, Vincent Gray, announced that the District would become “fossil free” by 2030.

What accounts for DC’s dramatic progress? In 2006, Washington became the first city in the nation to pass a law mandating LEED certification for both public and private buildings, and its Green Construction Codes, fully adopted in 2014, are considered a national model. “This is a landmark achievement in the history of green buildings,” former USGBC CEO Rick Fedrizzi said at the time. Such progressive codes are significantly cutting energy use. Architecture 2030 founder Ed Mazria recently told me, “In large cities, new buildings and major renovations are coming in at half the consumption of the average building.” In DC, according to estimates the new code will save $46 million annually by 2030.

DC by far has the most buildings per capita that have won an AIA COTE Top Ten Award. From Lessons from the Leading Edge (2016).

But the District is going well beyond what’s required by code. As I wrote in December, the new National Museum of African American History and Culture has significantly raised the bar for the performance of museum buildings in DC and anywhere else. Now it is becoming clearer that the city could represent the cutting edge of sustainable design in other ways, although that fact is not commonly known.

Over the past two decades, AIA COTE’s Top Ten Awards have become “the industry’s premier program celebrating sustainable design excellence.” An independent jury selects the 10 most ambitious projects demonstrating a variety of rigorous performance measures, including physical resources, community impact, and occupant health and well-being. Last year, a landmark report, Lessons from the Leading Edge, which I authored on behalf of COTE’s Advisory Group, revealed that while California has the most Top Ten projects overall, the District of Columbia has the most per capita by far. In fact, at the time of the report Washington had twice the number of Top Ten projects per capita than any state, and as of this year DC’s number has increased by a third. Innovative projects here include the LEED Platinum Sidwell Friends Middle School (2007 Top Ten winner) and the recently-completed Milken Institute School of Public Health at George Washington University, which just won a Top Ten Award two weeks ago.

While many rankings have listed Washington among the “greenest cities,” it has never reached #1. Maybe it’s time DC got the recognition it deserves as the capital of sustainable design.

Postscript: Four months after this article was published, the US Green Building Council named Washington the world’s first LEED Platinum city.