Eco-Diplomacy: Building the Foundation

U.S. embassies and consulates around the world are becoming showcases for American leadership in best practices and sustainable technology.


Embassy Managua will reduce energy purchased from the grid by 54 percent through an Energy Saving Performance Contract with Lockheed Martin to install a 1-MW photovoltaic array, replace interior and exterior lighting with LED illumination and improve the chiller equipment.
Gil Fiallos

The term eco-diplomacy, coined by the Department of State, means: “the practice of conducting international relations by facilitating and advancing a shared commitment to conserving natural resources through sustainable operations and responsible environmental stewardship.” It stands on three foundational cornerstones: environmental policy that defines a shared commitment; green buildings that act as tangible demonstrations and platforms from which to communicate; and operational results that record advances in performance.

In November 2009, President Barack Obama announced a U.S. commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020. The president knew this policy would require practical demonstration by government. He also knew that in its fourth assessment report, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change had pointed to the building sector as having the greatest potential, more than any other, to make quick, deep cuts to emissions at little or no cost. So he called on the federal building sector to lead by example.

To be sure, high-performance building technologies and strategies existed, and the seeds of a green initiative had taken root within the Design and Engineering office of the Bureau of Overseas Buildings Operations nearly a decade earlier. But it took this type of national policy—and setting a target—to create momentum for significant building and operational changes.

The new policy required an annual inventory of greenhouse gas building emissions from each federal agency. With this target now on everyone’s radar, professionals working on federal building stock focused on long-term operational energy efficiency in design and construction. But even the greenest structures still require proper operation to realize efficiencies—much as the driver’s habits and operations and the occupants’ behavior ultimately determine a car’s fuel efficiency. In fact, the very lowest-hanging fruit, the lowest-cost improvements that produce the optimum results, reside with the user.

Today the State Department has more than 20 embassies and consulates around the world that have earned the coveted Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, or LEED, certification. By reducing annual and longer-term costs and overall environmental impact through reduced GHG emissions, these facilities model eco-diplomacy and showcase U.S. leadership in green best practices and technology around the world.

The Policy Foundation

In 2000 OBO’s “green team” consisted of a couple of extremely dedicated professional staff within the Office of Design and Engineering. Over time, best practice became policy. This process began with a charrette, a collaborative session in which the full project design team brainstorms solutions to a design problem.

Design teams for the new embassies in Sofia, Yerevan and Abidjan studied those projects’ environmental contexts, including climate, site characteristics and program requirements, as well as appropriate architectural and engineering responses.

The charrette was instrumental in defining opportunities and constraints in each location. In Sofia, the project team designated an area for tree preservation, which earned a Design Innovation point in the LEED green building rating system and helped the project become the very first LEED-certified U.S. embassy and the first LEED-certified building in Bulgaria.

Performance is measured by metrics set by policy.

In 2006, OBO signed a pledge with more than 20 other agencies, committing itself to “implementation of common strategies for planning, acquiring, siting, designing, building, operating and maintaining High Performance and Sustainable Buildings.” In 2007, the pledge was codified through Executive Order 13423: Strengthening Federal Environmental, Energy and Transportation Management. OBO’s Green Team then began to reach beyond the Office of Design and Engineering into areas of site selection, planning and cost estimating, as well as construction, facilities, area management and even into other bureaus and offices.

In 2009, after Pres. Obama signed EO 13514: Federal Leadership in Environmental, Energy and Economic Performance, former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton launched the Greening Diplomacy Initiative and formalized the existing ad hoc Green Team into the Greening Council. The council is chaired by Under Secretary for Management Patrick Kennedy, who also serves as the department’s Senior Sustainability Officer, a required position in every agency.

This policy commitment by management encouraged OBO to aggressively strive for higher levels of building performance and operational efficiency, thereby establishing the first pillar of eco-diplomacy.

The Buildings Platform

Since 1999, following the tragic U.S. embassy bombings in East Africa, OBO’s mission and focus have been on providing safer, more secure facilities. Although security was the priority, OBO was an early adopter of LEED and most of the projects completed during this period used it as a tool. But it wasn’t until 2008 that LEED certification became a contract requirement.

Today more than half of the projects in OBO’s pipeline are on target for LEED Gold, a notch above Silver, which has been the minimum contract requirement since 2009. And recently the U.S. Innovation Center in Helsinki earned Platinum, the highest award in the LEED green building rating system. It was the department’s first facility overseas to earn Platinum and an important milestone for eco-diplomacy.

Eco-charrettes are now a formal part of OBO’s project development process. Such sessions deliver the greatest project performance benefits, because early planning decisions on how a site is organized, how buildings are formed and oriented, and what systems and materials are used for construction have the greatest long-term sustainability impacts.

Early energy modeling and water balancing are used to determine if technologies such as solar and wind power or rainwater harvesting are feasible. Results are compiled in a living document that is updated as the project progresses through concept design, schematic design and design development. With each phase, a higher level of detail and analysis is provided, concluding with a full life-cycle cost analysis of the project’s comprehensive sustainability strategy. OBO uses this calculation to determine which of the hundreds of possible approaches offer the greatest environmental and cost benefits to the project.

Sustainability is one of OBO’s guiding principles and the foundation of the bureau’s Excellence in Diplomatic Facilities initiative. Sustainability is also integral to each of the other 10 principles: Function, Site, Design, Engineering, Safety & Security, Architecture, Construction, Operations & Maintenance, Historic Preservation and Art. With these principles as the road map, our project teams are studying the cost-effectiveness of stretch goals such as net-zero energy and water, as well as LEED Platinum.

As the real property manager for the department’s entire overseas property portfolio, OBO knows that legacy buildings require a different approach, but can still drive powerful improvements in energy efficiency. Because our building portfolio is extremely diverse in geographic region, climate zone, building type and size, broad policy is the best catalyst to guide improvements.

We have buildings spread across six geographic regions and in all eight climate zones except Subarctic, with 70 percent of our building area in very hot/dry, hot/dry or warm/dry climates. Office and residential buildings make up 57 percent and 31 percent of the building area, respectively. Adding to the complexity is the fact that the department leases a significant number of the buildings in the portfolio, which can restrict our ability to make significant changes.

These factors make it difficult to implement and enforce overarching policy, but the policy does guide improvements in the operational performance of the legacy portfolio. As the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has reported, the greatest opportunity for greenhouse gas reductions lies in the building sector. A small change over a very large set of buildings has a much more significant impact than a large change in a single building. That is why policy is key.

New policy continues to define our shared environmental commitments. On Nov. 6, 2013, Pres. Obama signed EO 13653: Preparing the United States for the Impacts of Climate Change, and OBO is responding by conducting an environmental risk assessment of our buildings around the world and doubling our efforts to operate from renewable energy sources.

Danielle Sines, OBO

Operational Results

In 2008 OBO’s Green Team published the Green Guide for Embassy and Consulate Operations and just recently released the second edition, the Guide to Green Embassies: Eco-Diplomacy in Operation. By implementing these guidelines, post staff can contribute to the department’s progress in achieving federal performance goals; building awareness, knowledge and skill capacity overseas; and strengthening our missions as platforms for eco-diplomacy.

The Green Team realized early on that you can’t manage what you don’t measure. Operational success requires a baseline, tracking and reporting. Backed by reporting requirements outlined in internal department policy, OBO launched an online utility management system to gain more and better data from posts to prioritize efficiency projects and document operational performance. The newly added utility dashboard is proving to be an engaging, interactive and illustrative tool for posts to compare and benchmark performance against peers (i.e., buildings of similar use and climate zone).

Performance is measured by metrics set by policy, primarily concerning energy and water use, as well as GHG emissions. Cost of operation is also an important metric. The department’s 2013 utility expenditures were dominated by electricity at 46 percent, with diesel a close second at 37 percent. Water and sewage constituted just 11 percent of the 2013 bill, but the fully burdened cost of water is rarely charged and therefore often overlooked. Water and energy are critical to the security of mission operations.

Energy and water audits of 25 percent of each agency’s building assets are required every year by Section 423 of the Energy Independence and Security Act (EISA 2007). Under its Energy Audit Program, OBO has conducted more than 20 audits of facilities showing the highest energy use and/or cost in the online database.

Audit results fell into three categories: (1) changes that can be implemented quickly and at no or low cost by post; (2) medium-cost retrofits that require an OBO building permit and funding via OBO’s Repair and Improvement program, in which they must compete against other worldwide priorities that involve life-safety or security, and thus rarely score high enough to be funded; and (3) high-cost retrofits that are substantial enough to form the basis for an Energy Savings Performance Contract.

The Green Team realized early on that you can’t manage what you don’t measure.

Under ESPCs, which require no upfront capital costs, leverage third-party financing and guarantee energy cost savings, the contractor is paid by actual savings on the utility bill over a long-term contract. The department has signed a memorandum of understanding with the Department of Energy’s Federal Energy Management Program to access FEMP’s technical assistance to ramp up use of this type of contract. In 2011, as part of a major energy announcement with the Clinton Global Initiative, the Better Buildings Initiative and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Pres. Obama called for $2 billion worth of energy upgrades in federal buildings over two years using ESPCs.

OBO has more than 20 renewable solar power projects underway at our facilities overseas, totaling 6.4 megawatts of power when complete. The largest of these, a one-MW array, is part of an ESPC being executed by Lockheed Martin at Embassy Managua. The solar array, plus new LED site and interior lighting, a nighttime generator and upgraded transformers, will result in a 54-percent reduction in grid-purchased power by post and a savings of $36 million over the life of this project.

While these three foundational elements—environmental policy, green buildings and operational results—underpin eco-diplomacy, they also address an even broader agenda to advance energy and water security, reduce pollution and promote sustainable economic development.

Our embassies and consulates are our front door to 180 countries. Unique, powerful platforms to showcase advanced and innovative American design, technology and building codes, they are physical representations and tangible demonstrations of American values and the best in American architecture, engineering, construction execution, art, culture and sustainability.

OBO has long pursued sustainability and environmental stewardship, now defined as eco-diplomacy and directly aligned with OBO’s Guiding Principles for Excellence in Diplomatic Facilities. The bureau has been applying the tenets and the principles of sustainability to its platform of eco-diplomacy for the last decade, as it works to reduce its resource consumption, conserve energy and water, and provide enhanced indoor environments for staff and visitors at U.S. embassies and consulates around the world.

Donna McIntire is chief of the energy and sustainable design unit for the Bureau of Overseas Buildings Operations. She is an architect and has been a leader in the green building industry since her early work with SmithGroup, where she designed the very first Platinum-certified building using the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED®) green building rating system. She also served as buildings and climate change officer for the United Nations Environment Program.