Blog Post

Sustainable Federal Buildings: What’s the Law?

A definitive guide to how the federal government builds green—and why its leadership matters.

This post is the second in a series on the federal government’s use of green building certifications. Coming soon: The Hidden Beltway Lobbyists Who Shape Green Building Policy.

 The U.S. Treasury Building, completed in 1869, is the oldest building to achieve the Gold level of LEED for Existing Buildings: Operations & Maintenance. Federal green building policies have a strong emphasis on the measured performance of existing buildings.

Photo Credit: Library of Congress, LC-DIG-ppmsca-07312.

Anyone who has ever filed an income tax return knows how extravagantly fussy the U.S. federal government can seem. Your yearly struggles over tax deductions pale in comparison, though, with the workaday world of a federal civil servant.

Take green building requirements: there are a lot of them. Even if you’re not a government employee, you need to have a passing understanding of these requirements.

That’s because the future of LEED in the federal government is at a turning point, and forthcoming decisions could affect the future of LEED in the private sector—where many corporations are already trying to find ways to build green without seeking a plaque. Do you know your EISA from a hole in the ground? If not, you’ve come to the right place!

Federal Guiding Principles

In 2006, sixteen federal agencies signed a memorandum of understanding known as the Guiding Principles for Federal Leadership in High-Performance and Sustainable Buildings (PDF). Signatories made a non-binding commitment to the following principles for new buildings and major renovations:


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  • Integrated design
  • Optimizing energy performance
  • Protecting and conserving water
  • Enhancing indoor environmental quality
  • Reducing the environmental impact of building materials

That list sounds a lot like some of the main credit categories in LEED—but these principles aren’t identical to LEED requirements for building design and construction. For example, the federal guiding principle regarding energy optimization includes annual performance measurement and benchmarking, which is about operations rather than design and construction.

Keep that distinction in mind as you read on.

GSA has offered guidance for federal projects seeking LEED certification, linking “crosswalk credits” to the guiding principles (DOC), but its recent certification review shows that there is not a one-to-one match.

Bush and Obama executive orders

George W. Bush signed Executive Order (EO) 13423 in 2007, requiring that all agencies’ new construction adhere to the federal guiding principles and that 15% of existing buildings incorporate them by 2015. It also requires each agency to develop and implement a plan for sustainable building, leasing, and operations and maintenance.

The order also requires agencies to share information online—case studies in the High-Performance Buildings database and technical documents on the Whole-Building Design Guide. (Disclosure: The High-Performance Buildings case study database is currently hosted by BuildingGreen on behalf of the Department of Energy.)

Barack Obama signed EO 13514 (PDF) in 2009, adding many sustainability requirements related to all agency business, including building operations and management. The order included new performance targets for:

  • greenhouse gas emissions
  • water conservation
  • stormwater management
  • land use
  • purchasing
  • waste management
  • a lot of other stuff

For new construction, EO 13514 requires that all new buildings, starting in 2020, should be designed to achieve net-zero energy.


The Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007, or EISA, sets targets for energy and water savings for all federally owned and leased buildings.

This law also sets some design standards for new construction (55% reduction in use of fossil fuels, starting in 2010, and 30% of water-heating demand from solar thermal technology).

Additionally, it requires the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA) to recommend a third-party building rating system for all federal agencies to use. The agency must renew this recommendation every five years: in 2006, it chose LEED.

We’re close finding out what GSA will choose next.

Existing buildings are where it’s at

Here are some other relevant EISA requirements:

  • Agencies can rent space only in buildings that have achieved an Energy Star rating in the most recent year before the lease is signed.
  • When doing major renovations or new construction, agencies have ever-stricter energy consumption targets, culminating in net-zero energy use by 2030.
  • Agencies have to pay frequent attention to the actual energy and water performance of their existing buildings—evaluating consumption, finding ways to save money, and retrocommissioning every four years.

The emphasis EISA puts on measuring actual building performance, along with the simple fact that almost all federal buildings are existing federal buildings, means that the certification the federal government uses for existing buildings is far more significant than the one it uses for new construction. GSA said as much in its recent review of LEED, Green Globes, and the Living Building Challenge.

That’s the case despite the prevailing emphasis that the green building community—and its detractors—put on rating systems like LEED for New Construction, rather than LEED for Existing Buildings: Operations & Maintenance (LEED-EBOM).

That hasn’t stopped certain industry interests from fightinghard—against the government’s use of LEED for New Construction (more on lobbying influences next week!).

Using LEED—and not

GSA’s recommendation about building certification goes to the Department of Energy (DOE), which should work with GSA and the Department of Defense to set an interagency policy.

DOE has not done so previously: that means that GSA’s recommendations about LEED have never been enforced, and agencies can do pretty much what they want in terms of certification. Here’s where things stand with the federal government’s major property owners.

The federal government's largest building owners don't all use LEED, and few have any rating system requirement for existing buildings.

Sources: FY 2010 Federal Real Property Report (PDF), “Public Policies Adopting or Referencing LEED” on, and original federal agency documents.

From this table, you can see why DoD and GSA work together on the recommendation to the Secretary of Energy: DoD departments own more than half of the federal building stock. Even the individual services—Army, Air Force, and Navy—each own more property than GSA does. If you can influence the building design, construction, and operations of these DoD and GSA properties and leave everything else alone, that’s still an impressive 58% of the federal building stock.

The other takeaway from this table is that not everybody is using LEED for new construction (and most agencies don’t have a certification policy for existing buildings at all). That’s because of what we mentioned above: GSA’s recommendation is just that.

DoD has its own stuff going, as we detailed in the first post in this series. Among this stuff is a very big loophole—the two words “or equivalent.” (And Congress has actually mandated that the military can’t achieve LEED Gold or Platinum, pending a cost-benefit report from DoD, although there are loopholes in that policy as well.)

Why GSA’s recommendation matters

In a sense, GSA’s recommendations would appear to be making little difference to how other federal agencies build green.

But we think this decision does matter in the larger scheme of things, and here’s why:

  • DOE should actually use the recommendation to make enforceable rules, and we’ll be watching to see if they do it this time.
  • This year’s emphasis on existing buildings is unprecedented and could cause other agencies and the private sector to take more notice of the importance of greening the building stock we already have.
  • We’ve confirmed with GSA that the agency will follow its own recommendation after the interagency review—though, oddly, it looks like they aren’t planning to specify a rating system at all.
  • Like it or not, LEED has been politicized by industry interests. GSA’s recommendation may be perceived as a message of sorts, and we’ll be watching closely to see how both special-interest groups and environmental advocates spin the news when it’s finally released.

Published March 11, 2013

(2013, March 11). Sustainable Federal Buildings: What’s the Law?. Retrieved from’s-law

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