State needs better reporting of ‘green’ building data

May 27, 2011 

A 2005 state law requiring that new public buildings of more than 5,000 square feet be built to “green” standards received a lukewarm assessment in a preliminary report this month by the Joint Legislative Audit & Review Committee.

The report reveals that many of the buildings are not achieving the energy savings predicted at the time of design and that it will take up to 30 years to recover the extra cost of the buildings from energy savings, not the few years that green building advocates insisted when the bill was debated six years ago.

Just as troubling is the fact that state agencies and school districts are failing on a large scale to submit performance reports for their green buildings, making it all the more difficult to evaluate the effectiveness of the law.

The powers-that-be blame budget cuts and other staff constraints for their lax reporting.

But it’s been known ever since the legislation was crafted that timely, accurate reporting is essential to monitor costs and potential savings garnered from high-performance buildings. Without the data, lawmakers can’t determine if the 1 percent to 3 percent construction premium on green buildings is worth it to taxpayers.

It’s essential that state agency and school district officials step up to their responsibility to comply with the law.

Here are some of the findings from the preliminary JLARC report, which is based on inadequate data to draw conclusions on the overall merits of the legislation.

 • Energy projections for the nine schools examined were 52 percent lower than the actual energy used once the buildings opened. However, most of the green buildings improved their energy efficiency over time.

The Seminar II building at The Evergreen State College, a high-performance building constructed before the bill passed in 2005, was included in the analysis because it has several years of operating experience.

It’s encouraging to note that Seminar II ranks lowest in energy use per square foot among the college’s major buildings on campus. The second lowest — the Communications Building, uses 70 percent more energy per square foot than Seminar II.

 • Only one of the green schools examined was the most energy efficient in its school district.

It appears that school districts that have staff dedicated to energy-savings and other conservation measures have a leg up on those that don’t. In other words, high-performance and conventional buildings alike benefit from making sure building occupants use energy wisely.

The 2005 green building legislation had more in mind than just saving energy. It was also designed to improve worker productivity and student performance by improving air quality and natural lighting and by using less-toxic wood finishes, carpets and paint. But studies by the National Academy of Sciences and others have pointed out establishing cause-and-effect relationships between attributes of green buildings and their effect on people is very difficult.

While once again limited by a lack of reporting, data on building materials showed that:

 • Recycled construction waste for 10 projects reporting totalled 96 percent.

 • Building materials for the 10 projects reporting included $10.9 million of recycled content and $16.9 million of local and regional materials.

Overall, the JLARC report could have been much more revealing, if the responsible parties had complied with the reporting components of the law.

There must be more accountability on the reporting front and consequences for not complying.

The state Department of General Administration, state Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction and Department of Commerce should heed JLARC’s advice and submit plans by the end of the year to strengthen project reporting and program analysis.

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