Washington State Enacts Green Building Mandates

Published July 1, 2005

Washington Gov. Christine Gregoire (D) on April 8 signed a law requiring all publicly funded buildings exceeding 5,000 square feet–such as colleges, offices, prisons, and schools–to meet stringent “green building” standards.

Green buildings, proponents claim, are not only environmentally friendly but also save money in the long run by reducing energy costs. Supporters make additional claims ranging from improved student test scores to greater worker productivity and happier employees.

“We didn’t call this a green building bill,” explained Rep. Hans Dunshee (D-Snohomish) to the April 22 Seattle-Post Intelligencer. “We called them ‘high-performance’ buildings so people didn’t think they’re just hippie beads-and-incense buildings.”

According to a fact sheet published by one group advocating the new requirements, green buildings approved under the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) system would cost up to 2 percent more to build but would provide an “average cost savings of 39 percent for energy and 25 percent for water.”

Hidden Costs Pile Up

Real-world results, however, often fail to measure up to the promises of green building proponents.

In Arkansas, according to Realtor Magazine, green buildings cost between 7 and 10 percent more than regular construction projects. The state legislature recently enacted a green building mandate.

In Washington State, Franklin Elementary School in the Lake Washington School District was built following green building standards. The district’s director of support services, Forrest Miller, estimates costs were about 5 percent higher than typical construction.

Miller cited as an example an $180,000 “light harvesting” system of the type included in LEED standards. The system may ultimately save energy by adjusting the lighting based on what is needed to complement natural light, but the up-front cost was significant.

Ongoing Costs Not Included

That light harvesting system also illustrates the ongoing costs that are not factored into the LEED savings estimates. Because the system is complex new technology, it requires frequent maintenance, which creates a new ongoing cost.

LEED standards also recommend using natural light for heating. To make the most of sunlight streaming through the school’s windows, the school district has had to hire window washers at an additional cost of $5,000 per year.

Seattle’s new city hall, built to green standards, is also plagued by unexpected problems, according to a May 8 Fox News report. Shelves that were supposed to save energy costs by reflecting rather than absorbing light have instead created excessive glare, straining the eyes of city workers. A “green roof” of plants, which was supposed to produce oxygen and collect rainwater, has died. Hot water demands are only sporadically met, and indoor temperatures are often uncomfortably hot or cold.

“Tenants are uncomfortable, and we are wasting money heating and cooling air that is not reaching them,” concluded a city report, according to Fox News.

The problems with keeping workers comfortable are especially significant because green building proponents typically promise economic benefits that include future cost savings based on enhanced worker comfort and, therefore, increased productivity.

Difficult Tradeoffs Arise

Another example of promises failing to materialize is found in the Washington Environmental Council’s (WEC) fact sheet regarding Giaudrone Middle School in Tacoma. WEC promised Giaudrone would realize “energy savings of 35 percent.” After a year-and-a-half of operation, however, Giaudrone has the third-highest costs for gas and electricity of all middle schools in the district. Giaudrone now spends about 25 percent more than the average middle school in Tacoma on gas and electricity.

LEED standards track those set by another group, the Center for Resource Solutions, a San Francisco-based environmental organization. Its Green-e Standard defines renewable resources as “solar electric, wind, geothermal, biomass, and small or certified low-impact hydro facilities.” The standard for “low-impact hydro facilities,” in turn, was first set by the Low Impact Hydropower Institute.

Inherent in the renewables standard is a value judgment with which many environmentalists might disagree. The standard approves of biomass energy, which emits greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide, but disapproves of large hydro power facilities such as dams, which do not emit greenhouse gases. The standard thus gives relatively less weight to the threat of global warming than to the threat dams pose to salmon.

Some environementalists may be inclined to ask whether the potential impact on salmon is sufficiently great to justify replacing the approximately 50 percent of non-greenhouse gas-emitting energy that comes from hydro with other sources.

Todd Myers ([email protected]) is director of the Center for Environmental Policy at the Washington Policy Center.