Time to green this old (White) House -- again
What's already been done to make the White House environmentally friendly -- and what else could be done.
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"Talk to anyone who worked in the West Wing then, and they would say they washed their hands with cool water," says former chief usher Gary Walters, who spent 37 years at the White House before retiring two years ago.Skip to next paragraph
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Those who've been involved in past efforts to make the White House more eco-friendly say that for all that's already been done, there is plenty left to do, given how quickly technology changes.
"It's definitely time to revisit it," says Bill Browning, who helped launch the Clinton-era greening effort in 1993. "The green building movement has evolved quite a bit since then."
Mr. Browning, founder of the Terrapin Bright Green consulting firm, says that the staff members who manage the White House and its grounds — employees who carry over from one administration to the next — have been "the real champions of greening the White House. They made it their project during the Clinton years and kept it going during the last administration."
For all the enthusiasm about going green, though, there are practical limits.
Last year House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., announced a "Green the Capitol" program to zero out the Capitol's carbon impact by December 2008. But this month, the House quietly shelved the project because it couldn't guarantee that Capitol operations were carbon neutral even after purchasing "offsets" that finance projects to reduce greenhouse gases.
The White House historically has been a showcase for technological advances. In the 1880s, it was one of the first houses in the nation to have running water. In the early 1900s, it got an early air conditioning system (that ultimately didn't work.)
Mr. Walters says that both the Clintons and George and Laura Bush were surprised by what already had been done to conserve energy when they moved into the White House.
"We tried to do more than the average bear," he says, adding that the first lady's garden grew herbs during both administrations, and that limited container gardening was done on the mansion's roof to supply the White House with tomatoes, peppers, and other vegetables.
Architect Jean Carroon, an expert on green strategies for historic buildings, says that the White House isn't the "energy hog" that people might think. Older buildings often have thick masonry walls that provide good insulation and big windows that let in lots of daylight, she said.
Ms. Carroon says that it's important for the White House to demonstrate simple conservation steps that all families can take.
"It isn't about the flashy stuff," she says. "It's about being smart and making it happen. ... The message to most citizens should be: You don't have to be in the White House to implement amazing energy savings."
Steve Strong, whose Solar Design Associates designed and installed the solar systems during the second Bush administration, said he'd love to see the Obamas kick the effort up a notch by installing a solar array on the South Lawn.
"That would be a compelling national and international symbol," he says.