Washington — When the U.S. Department of State planned its new embassy in Panama City, it aimed to maintain the environment’s integrity and save energy costs in the process.
In what amounts to a “green” diplomatic effort, the U.S. Embassy in Panama is the second American Embassy built to meet the energy and environmental standards established by the nonprofit U.S. Green Building Council. The USGBC awards four levels of certification for so-called “green” buildings. Embassies in Sofia, Bulgaria, and Panama City have achieved the system’s most modest rating for sustainable features such as reduced water and energy consumption.
“From a builder’s perspective, the whole point of building is to reduce first costs, or the costs of producing a complete structure,” said Donna McIntire, sustainability program manager and founder of the State Department’s “green team,” whose mission is to limit inefficiencies in the use of energy and water at ambassadorial compounds. “But green building puts more emphasis on long-term costs. The government will operate these buildings for 20, 30 years or more in some cases.”
She said that, in addition to being cost-efficient, the new embassy building is “good foreign policy.”
A quarter of the materials used in the $67 million project were purchased locally. According to a USGBC report, the embassy’s energy costs are one-quarter below those of a traditionally built structure. Water use inside the embassy is one-third what it would be in a typical building, and outdoor water use on its 43-acre (17-hectare) property is half what would be expected with standard equipment.
The State Department has a total budget for the fiscal year that began in October 2008 in excess of $1.7 billion to manage 18,000 facilities in more than 280 locations around the world, as well as to build new facilities and rehabilitate existing ones. After the 1998 al-Qaida bombings of embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, the department’s Office of Buildings Operations (OBO) developed a standard design plan for new consular facilities, incorporating higher security and environmentally friendly design elements, said OBO spokesman Jonathan Blyth.
Sixty-five complexes have been completed with the new design since 2001. After 2001, OBO hired American firm Einhorn Yaffee Prescott Architecture & Engineering P.C. to improve the environmental and energy features in the designs, and 31 projects are under way to meet those standards.
Blyth said all new embassies will meet the USGBC benchmark.
The challenge in designing new embassies, Blyth said, is building facilities sufficient to house large staffs and sophisticated enough to protect them. Embassies generally require four years of advance planning. Sometimes, building and compound design is limited by underdeveloped local environments. For example, embassies can require use of diesel generators when the local power grid is unstable. In other cases, the new buildings are large and technologically advanced, requiring hefty operating budgets.
A recent OBO report finds that some newer buildings have more energy deficiencies than older facilities.
“The one thing about technology [is that] it has a cost,” said Donald Young, vice president of communications for the International Facility Management Association. Young said high-tech security and “green” features in new buildings can pose a challenge to building managers who initially might not operate new systems in the most cost-efficient way.
OBO building and design specialists have a total of $4 million to enhance 18,000 facilities with modern features — roughly $222 per building. Not a lot of money, said Jerry Yudelson, an author, speaker and engineer with a leading international firm in planning and designing green buildings. Yet, cost-effective solutions do exist.
“Revamp by relamp,” said Yudelson, suggesting the State Department install modern electronic ballasts (that automatically limit a circuit’s power flow) and pair them with compact fluorescent lighting.
McIntire’s green team suggests upgrades in water management, energy systems, even mass transit for employees. Embassies in Japan and Switzerland, for example, have received solar panels and efficient air chillers, respectively, as a result of such reviews.
To stretch the upgrades pot, the State Department is pursuing public-private partnerships. The Energy Security and Independence Act of 2007 obligates the department to reduce energy use at all embassies by 2015. It then can contract with a private company to upgrade the least-efficient compounds and pay for the work over time from energy savings.
“Personally, I have high hopes of public-private partnerships,” said Jan Hensen, a professor at Eindhoven University of Technology in the Netherlands and president of the International Building Performance Simulation Association. “But since my main interest is in long-term performance of buildings, I’m probably not unbiased.”