Henry Obasi

As a sustainable-design practice leader in HOK’s Washington, D.C., office, I’m part of a network of sustainable design specialists spread across the firm that constantly seeks out and shares information about green incentives, rebates, and benefits. How do we stay on top of it all to find the best options for each project?

Where We Look

Our first stop is the Web. To make sure everyone in our network is aware of all the federal, state, local, and utility incentives related to energy performance, our starting point is the easily searchable U.S. Department of Energyfunded Database of State Incentives for Renewables & Efficiency (DSIRE) at dsireusa.org. It’s updated regularlythere’s a “What’s New?” page for quick referenceand we search by sector, state, or technology.

Though DSIRE’s database includes some American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) funding opportunities, these options are covered more extensively on the U.S. Department of Energy’s website (energy.gov/recovery/funding.htm). In addition, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s and USGBC’s websites (epa.gov/greenbuilding/tools/funding.htm and usgbc.org, respectively) are helpful. (For more sources, see ’s September 2009 story on green project incentives at eco-structure.com/greenincentives2009.)

Next, we often check with utility companies, as they may provide their own rebates and incentives. Offering their larger customers incentives for energy-efficient initiatives and renewable energy systems helps the utilities shave peak usage, maintain enough capacity to meet peak demand, and postpone the need to build costly new power plants. Also, many water utilities offer incentives for water conservation, and municipalities across the country offer rebates for water-saving products such as aerators for faucets, showerheads, and toilets.

Speaking of municipalities, we regularly look at the local level. Across the country, cities are coaxing the building industry into making environmentally friendly choices by enacting new codes or legislation and creating incentive programs to make building green more appealing. For example, many cities with older infrastructure systems are experiencing combined sewer overflow problems. Here, stormwater can wash sewage into local waterways during heavy rain. Repairing this infrastructure could cost a municipality billions of dollars and take many years to complete; so one way that they’re combating this problem is by providing low-impact development (LID) incentives.

In Washington, D.C., the District of Columbia Department of the Environment (DDOE) offers rebates of $5 to $7 per square foot for green roof installations and other LID incentives. The District’s goal is to encourage building owners to keep stormwater on green roofs or infiltrated in site landscape features, rather than having it run directly into municipal storm sewers. LID features also include landscape elements such as bioswales and rain gardens. As a specific example, at the new 351,000-gross-square-foot Consolidated Forensic Laboratory, HOK’s team is channeling runoff water into rain garden planter boxes instead of the street so that it can be absorbed on the site instead of entering the District’s stormwater system.

Complementing these efforts on the code side of the equation, the District’s building codes now require 75 percent of a new building’s roof to be a vegetated or cool roof (either reflective or limestone ballasted), and a project that is built from lot line to lot line can avoid installing structural stormwater management features if at least half of the roof is vegetated with an approved system. For owners, stormwater fees are based on a site’s impervious surface areathe lower the percentage of impervious surface, the lower the fees. Thus, in addition to the green roof rebate and up-front savings on structural stormwater features, buildings with green roofs can save money during operations.

Most cities have green building, planning, and permitting agencies. You can get to know staff members by participating in your local USGBC chapter or other building industry associations. In my office, we have developed relationships with the staff at the DDOE, so that we can contact them to explain our projects and inquire about green incentives, and they often send us e-mails announcing new programs. Agencies such as DDOE often consult with firms like ours about pending stormwater legislation, fees, or building code changes, to get feedback and determine if they are pushing the envelope environmentally without discouraging people from building in the District.

When We Start

Researching and targeting possible opportunities should start early. Green incentives typically aren’t mutually exclusivewe have found that we can combine several if a project qualifies. At HOK, once we identify an incentive, we rely on our client’s financial analysts and tax specialists to determine whether they are desirable. If there will be additional up-front costs involved in designing a more energy-efficient envelope or HVAC system, for example, the client helps calculate whether the payback is worth the initial investment. Many organizations also take into account the marketing and public relations benefits of occupying an innovative green building. If the incentives are deemed attractive, we meet with the client to chart out exactly what the project team needs to do to qualify for them.

It’s helpful to identify incentives early to address any effects on compensation. For example, many green incentives are tax-based. However, since a public school or public agency does not pay taxes, those projects cannot get the tax benefits available for energy-efficient commercial buildings. The good news is that some tax benefits for public projects can be transferred to the professional design firm. In that case, a school district or government agency could negotiate to transfer the tax benefit to the primary architect in exchange for designing an energy-efficient building. The architect then gets that tax benefit or rebate as a bonus and, in return, charges the owner a reduced design fee. This, naturally, makes negotiating the architect’s professional compensation trickier, so these incentives should be identified as soon as possible.

Incentives also can be used to help secure project financing. We are working with a local developer who is planning an 800,000-square-foot mixed-use project to anchor an eco-district in D.C.’s southeast quadrant. The team is exploring strategies that could result in a building that uses 50 percent less energy than that mandated in the ASHRAE 90.1 standard. Meeting this will make the project eligible for up to $1.80 per square foot in federal tax incentives under the Energy Policy Act of 2005.

In addition, some technologies under consideration for the project, such as high-pressure gas microturbines and photovoltaics (PV), will be eligible for local rebates and incentives. PV and wind energy installations can earn up to $3 per watt in rebates from the District. The local electric utility is offering rebates for enhanced commissioning, and LID strategies such as green roofs will earn up to $7 per square foot through the Anacostia Watershed Society.

Our hope is that the advanced environmental attributes included in the building design will help our client obtain the leverage it needs to secure construction financing in today’s difficult marketwhile still providing an acceptable return on investment.

Anica Landreneau is a sustainable design practice leader in HOK’s Washington, D.C., office. She can be reached at [email protected].