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New Mapping Tool Asks: How Can Government Build More Sustainably?

California state government is the first to try out a tool from the U.S. General Services Administration and Environmental Protection Agency meant to give insight into which potential locations for new office space are more energy-efficient than others.

Buildings are getting greener and greener. Their roofs sport solar panels. Their appliances run more efficiently. Their light bulbs use less energy.

But there’s one more thing buildings can do to reduce their impact on the environment — move. Or rather, those looking to open new office space could choose locations that are easier to get to.

There’s a quiet push bubbling up through academia and a handful of government agencies that want to see that consideration become part of the normal conversation when deciding where new offices will go.

And the benefits, those people argue, go beyond environmentalism. When a building is easier to get to, it might attract a wider pool of job candidates.

The idea, according to William Eisenstein, director of the University of California Berkeley’s Center for Resource Efficient Communities, is that there are a few ways in which buildings create greenhouse gas emissions that aren’t quite as obvious as the amount of electricity it uses. If an office building puts a lot of waste into landfills, that contributes to greenhouse gas emissions. If it pumps in water across long distances, that demands energy.

More importantly, if an office building sits in a remote location or is difficult to access by multiple modes of transportation, then most of its workers might choose to drive there one by one — as opposed to, say, bicycling.

“As a default starting point, you can imagine that each person working in the building drives their own car to the worksite and then back home again,” Eisenstein said. “That’s kind of the most extreme scenario for the [greenhouse gas] emissions.”

In truth, Eisenstein said, no building is going to exist in this day and age that has literally zero impact on the environment — even with maximum efficiency, it’s going to take energy to do certain things. So one idea is to get a building to net zero emissions instead. That means finding ways to offset any unavoidable emissions.

“You can go plant forests, and forests sequester carbon in their growth, and we have formulas that can predict how much of that will happen,” he said.

Someday, all of the characteristics that amount to a building’s greenhouse gas emissions might be boiled down into an easily digested list — such is the vision of the U.S. Green Building Council’s California point man, Dennis Murphy. That might then influence decisions such as which projects receive grant money and subsidies, or maybe it could contribute to cap-and-trade calculations.

“All this stuff is going to resolve into basically a ‘nutrition label’ for a given project,” Murphy said.

Perhaps. But in the meantime, the movement to adopt a more holistic approach to understanding the environmental impact of office buildings is taking the form of a map.

Specifically, a mapping tool to help government officials find easily accessible locations for new office space. The U.S. General Services Administration (GSA), together with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), has been working under an executive order to construct a tool that makes it much easier for government officials to see how “efficient” the potential locations of government buildings are.

The EPA has had a database available on its website for two years that pulls together more than 30 variables to help give a greater insight into the characteristics of travel in a given area. More recently, it’s put together a “smart location calculator” that offers a simplified interface and gives users a few of the most important metrics.

The tool isn’t quite ready to go yet, but its creators hope it will be soon.

“I’m told they’re very close,” said Ruth Kroeger, an urban development specialist at the GSA. “I hope that [in] January we can sort of push it out the door and make it more available on a more long-term basis than whenever we need to do work with it.”

Before that happens, state officials in California are testing the calculator out for the federal government. That’s because the state has a couple of executive orders of its own that ask its agencies to keep the environment in mind when considering where to put new public buildings. 

“We had a relationship with the state already, and thought that because of the executive order as well as legislation on the books in California, that made it a great opportunity for us to test some of the things … in the calculator,” said Kevin Nelson of the EPA’s Smart Growth Office.

So Nelson and other federal government representatives came to Northern California for a couple of days in December to train state employees on a test version of the calculator. Though the federal agencies have heard inquiries from a few other states interested in trying out the tool, California is the first to use it.

Washington and Oregon might also work as calculator beta testers, according to John Thomas of the EPA’s Office of Sustainable Communities. They might not have government building-specific environmental mandates quite like California’s, but they do have policies in place that he said demonstrate a desire to reduce the footprint of state operations.

When put into practice, the concept that Suzanne Hague calls “location efficiency” tends to favor urban cores. According to Hague, the senior advisor for community development and planning at California’s Strategic Growth Council, if an office is located downtown, it’s also probably within walking distance of multiple existing public transit options like buses, trains and light rail. It might be easier to walk or bike to, and it might be closer to where its employees live. All of that lends itself to shorter, less carbon-intensive commutes.

Some locations have another advantage: proximity to the kind of workforce the agency wants to attract.

“The millennial generation that is coming up in the workforce is demanding more and more to live work and play in [urban areas],” she said.

Given enough time, that can end up benefiting the owner of the building. If the building’s location helps its tenants pull in a talented workforce that improves its operations, Hague said that might ultimately show up on the owner’s balance sheet.

That’s not to say that downtown is always the best place to open up a new office, Hague said. Siting choices necessarily involve a lot of considerations, from the price tag to the parking availability.

When it comes to government buildings, there’s also the consideration of who the building is serving. A Department of Motor Vehicles branch, for example, might not work in a crowded area like a city’s downtown.

“Obviously people are going to be driving there and they’re going to have a gigantic parking lot, and they’re going to need to do test driving; obviously a downtown location might not be compatible with that,” Hague said. “But we’re still saying that there are better and worse places.”

In the future, the smart location calculator and other applications that focus on the concept of location efficiency might be used for much more than just the siting of government buildings. The federal agencies and California are just focusing on that purpose because of executive orders and because California, as Hague put it, has a tendency to lead by example on environmental issues. In the past, the state has adopted energy efficiency standards that were the strictest in the nation — standards that wound up influencing the rest of the country.

When developing the smart location calculator, Kroeger said the GSA and EPA specifically worked to make the tool useful for decision-makers regardless of whether they work for the public or private sector.

“The model was intended to be useful without knowing anything about the workplace itself,” she said.

So the government might be the first step. Those pushing the concept of location efficiency forward hope that it will find its way into private industry as well.

“If we’re going to ask other communities to grow more sustainably, and in a more low-carbon way," Hague said, "we need to show them how it’s done."

Ben Miller is the associate editor of data and business for Government Technology. His reporting experience includes breaking news, business, community features and technical subjects. He holds a Bachelor’s degree in journalism from the Reynolds School of Journalism at the University of Nevada, Reno, and lives in Sacramento, Calif.