Will a greener White House complex mean a more productive president?
Official White House photostream via flickr[UPDATE: A White House spokesperson called me to clarify that it’s parts of the White House complex, not the White House itself, that will be seeking LEED certification. Like many others in the blogosphere, I got swept up in the excitement of imagining hemp sheets in the Lincoln bedroom. Maybe next year — meanwhile, just mutter “complex” to yourself each time you read the phrase White House here.]
The benefits of green building are becoming clearer all the time: A study released this week suggests that employees in greener buildings are more productive and take fewer sick days than those in non-green buildings. The same day the study came out, news was spreading that the White House would pursue LEED certification — a goal that is, says U.S. Green Building Council president Rick Fedrizzi, “absolutely possible and viable.”
While the feds explore options including window films, waste reduction, and smarter energy use, I found myself wondering just one thing: If greener buildings mean more productive employees, will working in a LEED-certified White House mean Obama can finally get some shit done?
To find an answer to this carefully considered question, I decided to survey a few in the know. First I contacted Norm Miller of the University of San Diego’s Burnham-Moores Center for Real Estate, who co-authored the productivity study. He immediately answered my question in the spirit in which it was asked. “Clearly Obama is a slacker and he eats fast food and smokes, so just think what he could do in a greener White House,” Miller said. “Our health-care system and budget deficit would probably have been solved by now if the President had clean air to breathe and better natural light.”
Bill Walsh, founder of the Healthy Building Network, echoed the importance of clean air and natural light where productivity is concerned — though he wondered, given the fact that LEED’s clean-air guidelines offer credit for banning smoking, if we might “expect to see the President huddled under the portico smoking a butt.”
Urban-planning expert Tim Halbur of Planetizen had his own thoughts on the clean-air connection: “The interesting factor in the productivity story is the effect of air quality on health and feelings of well-being. Just getting dust, mold, and germs properly filtered appears to mean that 45 percent of people have 2.88 fewer sick days each year. Who knows what Obama could accomplish with an extra 2.88 days a year? Maybe bring peace to Israel, just with a little better air conditioning.”
And then there was former Sierra Club press secretary Eric Antebi, now a VP at Fenton Communications: “Hard to say how much it will help productivity, but it certainly couldn’t hurt. Unless he were to trip over a low-flow toilet and fall head first into a stack of low-VOC paint cans. That could hurt a lot.”
And do these keen observers have any ideas for how the White House could be greener? You betcha. “As I said in a recent Grist interview, living densely is the easiest way to go green,” Halbur said. “So Obama already has that going for him — he’s got zero commute. He walks to work by going down the hall. So he’s already in great shape. As we know, the worst culprit in carbon footprint is air travel, so I suppose if he swapped Air Force One and Marine One (the helicopter) for some sort of zeppelin that runs on solar power he’d be better off.”
Official White House photostream via flickrAlexander Lee, founder and director of Project Laundry List, says the answer is blowing in the wind: “A clothesline at the White House would herald a new age of leadership and demonstrate an understanding on the part of the Obamas that we need a new economy.” Lee says Americans’ post-War love affair with machines “has made us fat, kept us cut off from the outdoors, and chained us to a desk to earn enough money for all this stuff that is really detrimental to the environment and not necessary for a healthy, happy existence.”
Walsh of HBN had another innovative suggestion for the White House green team: “Maybe Van Jones can be brought back in order to get credit for using recycled materials.” (In fact, Jones’s former employer, the White House Council on Environmental Quality, is leading the LEED charge; at press time, I was still playing e-tag with a spokesperson to get their take.)
Whatever the upgrades, USD study co-author Miller concludes that a greener White House is long overdue: “Our prior President Bush probably did not realize why his brain functioned so slowly at times. We suspect now, after careful scientific study, that Bush’s vocabulary would have likely reached that of a tenth grader had he lived in a better environment.”