Study: Green Federal Buildings Cheaper to Maintain

Jan. 30, 2012

Surplus Buildings Drain $1.6 Billion from Federal Budget

Approximately 45,000 excess and underutilized federal buildings cost nearly $1.6 billion to operate and maintain every year, according to a new report from the National Research Council, an independent nonprofit research institution focusing on science, engineering, technology, and health.

Of the 429,000 buildings and 482,000 structures of other types (such as bridges, utility systems, and other infrastructure) in the federal government’s portfolio, more than half are at least 50 years old, according to the report. About $47 billion is budgeted annually for operating costs, but maintenance and repairs have been inadequate for years, leading to tens of billions of dollars in deferred projects.

The report recommends that federal agencies reduce their space requirements through telework and other strategies, allowing the government to trim excess buildings from its portfolio. Risk-based processes for prioritizing maintenance and repairs will lower the risk presented by building system deterioration, such as system failures that disrupt operations, higher operating and lifecycle costs, wasted resources, and hazards to occupants and property.

The study was supported by the National Academy of Sciences, a private, nonprofit organization for science and engineering researchers, and the sponsor agencies of the Federal Facilities Council, an arm of the National Research Council that counts many governmental and military agencies among its members.

Sustainably designed federal buildings cost 19% less to maintain than comparable conventional buildings, according to a report by the Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL).

The General Services Administration (GSA) commissioned the laboratory to complete post-occupancy evaluations for 22 green federal buildings in seven of GSA’s administrative regions across the U.S. Researchers collected data from utility bills to determine energy and water use, O&M costs, and waste and recycling spending. They also conducted a survey on occupant satisfaction and commuting.

Compared to national averages for traditional commercial buildings, GSA’s green facilities:

  • Cost 19% less to maintain
  • Use 25% less energy and 11% less water
  • Emit 34% less carbon dioxide
  • Have 27% more satisfied occupants

“To measure green building performance, you must look at the building holistically, which includes occupant and maintenance impacts in addition to energy and water use,” says the paper’s lead author, Kim Fowler, senior research engineer and buildings relationship manager at PNNL.

“One can design and construct a building well with the greenest of specifications, but if it’s not operated well or isn’t meeting the needs of the occupants, the grandest intents go out the operable window.”

Among the buildings studied is the United States Courthouse in downtown Seattle, a 2004 winner of GSA’s award for construction excellence. The courthouse’s sustainable features include radiant floor heating, high efficiency lighting, an energy management system, a natural gas boiler, and waterless urinals. Its state-of-the-art design resulted in slightly higher janitorial costs, but these were more than justified by operating costs that were 35% lower than the industry baseline.

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