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D.C.'s Tough Climate Standards Pushing Developers, Designers To Their Creative Limit

Washington, D.C., has the highest level of climate regulation of any U.S. city, according to a Green Street analysis, and it is only set to ratchet up in intensity as the District's building energy performance standards phase in.

Those regulations can be a challenge to follow, especially for owners of older buildings. The city's combination of climate regulation, restrictive zoning and widespread historic preservation can nettle some owners, but industry leaders said at Bisnow's Architecture & Design Summit last week that new partners, funds and creative design can help the industry meet the moment.

AKF Group's Shannon Kapla, HOK's Anica Landreneau, Quinn Evans' Julia Siple, High Concrete's Jamie Sweigart, Hickok Cole's Yolanda Cole and Smith Group's Dayton Schroeter speak during a panel at Bisnow's Architecture & Design Summit on Aug. 18, 2022.

"There's a lot of challenges, or really opportunities I would say, where I think we really have to transcend the way we approach sustainability and not so much thinking about buildings individually but thinking regionally," Smith Group Vice President Dayton Schroeter said at the summit, which was hosted at the Marriott Marquis Washington Aug. 18.

Schroeter has worked on major projects throughout the D.C. region, including Virginia Tech's Innovation Campus. He said the project team originally considered building the campus's tall buildings out of cross-laminated timber, a superstrong wood building material that is less carbon-intensive than steel that is gaining popularity in the region.

But he said regulations around fireproofing — a hot topic in the world of CLT — made that plan impossible, and the project team had to turn to different materials.

"There's diminishing returns, because the taller the building gets, the fireproofing requirements go up," Schroeter said. "It defeats the purpose."

Across the region, municipalities are searching for ways to make the building industry — which contributes 72% of the District's greenhouse gas emissions alone — more energy-efficient. D.C. has taken a mandates-and-penalties approach to the issue, with regulations scheduled to become more stringent over the next decade.

All new buildings and major renovations will have to be net-zero by 2026, according to a new law signed by Mayor Muriel Bowser this year, and the District's building energy performance standards already require owners of buildings larger than 50K SF to begin making their building 20% more efficient by 2026 if they did not meet the median level of efficiency for their property type, with the compliance cycle set to become more stringent every six years. 

Municipalities in Virginia, limited by state policy from mandating efficiency requirements, have adopted a carrot approach by awarding density to projects that embrace sustainability. But standards are still becoming more stringent in places like Arlington County, where officials updated the green building incentive policy to require LEED Gold, higher energy-efficiency and other benchmarks in order to grant new buildings additional density.

Those regulations have created a network of intersecting policies that are forcing developers and architects to become much savvier in order to stay in compliance.

Schroeter said he'd felt that challenge acutely in a D.C. project where his firm was attempting to add photovoltaic panels to a project that had already been retrofit with a green roof, limiting space for solar.

"The best and ideal way to deal with that is to create a trellis, and have the [panels] in the trellis, but then you’re getting into issues where you’re violating the zoning envelope," Schroeter said. "It’s a uniquely D.C. issue, and that’s something that we're dealing with right now."

Yolanda Cole, senior principal and owner of Hickok Cole, said she’s learned to bring neighbors on her side when attempting to weave between energy-efficiency and zoning. At her firm’s renovation of the American Geophysical Union’s Dupont Circle headquarters, Cole said Hickok Cole convinced community members to petition the Historic Preservation Review Board on her project’s behalf in order to allow solar panels to project about 4 feet over the property line, which Cole said isn’t ordinarily allowed.

The American Geophysical Union headquarters, located at 2000 Florida Ave. NW, redesigned by Hickok Cole

That engagement was key in achieving the vision for the project, which is net-zero, and Cole said the same process can be repeated elsewhere.

“Because the goal was net-zero and because people bought into the goal, that convinced the community,” Cole said. “The people who are in those neighborhoods, we can use them as our allies in these cases, as opposed to being on the other side.”

New regulations from the Securities and Exchange Commission may soon require publicly traded building owners to disclose the embodied emissions from their properties, which includes the emissions generated through building materials.

Some suppliers are already trying to get ahead of that, especially as materials costs rise. This year alone, some projects have seen 16%-21% inflation in construction costs, driven mostly by materials, said Bozzuto Construction Co. Pre-Construction Manager Christine Wu.

"It's been a challenging world that we are facing right now," Wu said.

Jacobs' Andie Moeder, Dantes Partners' Tessa Hall, Lighting Environments' Erin McDannald, Bozzuto Construction's Christine Wu, Perkins Eastman's Barbara Mullenex and FOX Architects' Bob Fox speak during a panel at Bisnow's Architecture & Design Summit on Aug. 18, 2022.

Jamie Sweigart, director of High Concrete, was blunt about the challenges with the historically carbon-intensive material his firm sells: “We want to be able to reduce the amount of concrete that we use.” 

Sweigart said his firm had been pushing to reduce the amount of concrete used in projects by as much as 50%, which they are achieving in part by incorporating add-ins from glass byproducts and other sources. 

“So far it's encouraging, it’s working,” Sweigart said. “We’re getting high strength.”

The region is also seeing a rise in public partners assisting with the green building transition that’s underway. Earlier this year, a 27-unit permanent supportive housing project received the first Navigator loan from the D.C. Green Bank, which provides gap financing for hard-to-finance projects with energy-efficiency features.

Others, like the D.C. Sustainable Energy Utility, recently opened a new fund to offer support to affordable multifamily properties seeking upgrades as well. 

Those efficiency-minded partners will be important as the region addresses new pain points that are already within sight. D.C. has also passed legislation banning most new buildings from using natural gas in favor of electric heating and cooling, and D.C.’s Construction Codes Coordinating Board is discussing new electrification requirements to further those goals. 

During the panel, HOK Sustainable Design Director Anica Landreneau said that D.C.’s grid is ready for the increased demand likely to come from electrification, citing a study Pepco released last year affirming its grid could handle the increased load.

In response, Cole said, “Let’s hope they’re right.”