By Donella Meadows
–February 17, 1994–
“Before I ask you to do the best you can in your house,” said President Clinton last Earth Day, “I ought to make sure I’m doing the best I can in my house. We’re going to identify what it takes to make the White House a model for efficiency and waste reduction. Then we’re going to get the job done.”
The first part of that promise — identifying how the White House could operate in a less wasteful, more environmentally responsible way — has just been fulfilled. It was an enormous job.
The White House is more than a private residence; it is also a museum, a hotel, several cafeterias, a restaurant that caters to heads of state, a conference center, a botanic garden, and an office where more than a thousand people work. It receives 1.5 million visitors a year. Its operations spread over four buildings, which are historical sites, which are in heavy use 24 hours a day, and which must be guarded with the highest possible security.
A member of the design team told me, “They have a heck of a lot of lightbulbs and faucets and toilets. They use an unbelievable amount of paint.”
Take the Old Executive Office Building, the gray granite hulk (where most of the president’s staff actually works) that sits beside the White House. It has a floor area of 600,000 square feet and 1700 windows, all single-glazed. Out of those windows hang 785 air conditioners. The building once had a built-in passive cooling system, which chilled air by passing it through channels in the enormous thermal mass of the walls, then into rooms, out transoms, and up into two high glass domes, which served as solar chimneys. Now the transoms are gone. The wall channels have been stuffed with wires and pipes. “But,” says Bill Browning of Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI), “there are other ways to keep that building cool.”
Browning is part of the team of “green” architects, landscapers, and experts in energy, water, and waste who are planning the White House retrofit. Ninety of them came together last summer for a three-day design charette, after which 20-30 people continued working out detailed plans. They poked through the buildings, watched maintenance procedures, pored over original blueprints, reviewed historic documents and old photographs.
“The overarching goal,” says the Fall/Winter RMI newsletter, “is to go beyond the symbolic to enhance the economics, energy efficiency, and livability of the entire building. This … will require whole-system analysis.” The team went beyond quick fixes, such as screwing in more efficient light bulbs (which was done all over the White House last week). They thought about insulation, windows, indoor air quality, appliances, office equipment, landscaping, recycling, transportation.
“All these interact,” says the newsletter. “For example, landscaping, lighting design, ‘green’ computers, and superwindows can help reduce the cooling load. Finishes and maintenance practices affect indoor air quality and ventilation needs, so there are recommendations on non-toxic finishes for the painters and green cleaning products for the janitors.” The most rigorous requirement is cost-effectiveness. “We’re working under tight payback criteria,” says Browning. “When the project is complete, the changes must save more money than they cost.”
A 90-page green plan for the White House is now finished. The process by which it was developed will be packaged and distributed by the American Institute of Architects to anyone who wants to undertake a similar project, of any size. Most of the measures the plan calls for will hardly be noticeable — better windows, low-flow faucets, more efficient appliances, more use of natural light. “The light quality will be noticeably better,” says Browning. “The work spaces will be more comfortable, with better air quality.” There will still be a splashing fountain out front, but it will no longer be heated year-round, and its water, instead of running down the drain, will be reused for landscaping. Altogether the plan should reduce energy and water use by 30-50 percent.
The next step is to retrofit some “pilot spaces,” in both public areas and private offices, as demonstrations of what can be done. That work is already underway. After the demonstrations will come the whole job, the total upgrade, which will have go on with minimal inconvenience to Bill, Hillary, Chelsea, Socks, and their staff. The retrofit is expected to extend over 20 years (the landscaping changes will take the longest time) and to cost millions of dollars. It should be a good investment — the White House will not only cause less pollution, use fewer resources, and put out less solid waste, but after the payback period of at most 10 years, it will run on a permanently lower budget.
The U.S. government owns 500,000 buildings. It accounts for 2.3 percent of the energy used in the nation. Last year’s federal utility bill, paid for by you and me, was $10 billion. “If it’s possible to retrofit the White House,” says the RMI newsletter, “why not the Pentagon? Or your local post office?”
The only reason I can imagine not to, the only reason not to appropriate the funds for this demonstration of economic and environmental good sense, might be that Congress would insist that its own buildings get done first.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1994