Speaking at Pennsylvania State University on Feb. 3, U.S. President Obama continued to explore the theme of innovation presented in his State of the Union address on Jan. 25, with a focus on buildings and energy efficiency. Specifically, the President introduced the Better Buildings Initiative, which focuses on making commercial buildings 20 percent more energy efficient over the next decade. The Initiative seeks to build upon the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act and the President’s proposed Homestar legislation that encourages homeowners to make energy-saving upgrades to their homes. (For more information on Homestar, see this article in our sister publication, EcoHome)

Three main targets of the Better Buildings Initiative are 1) to achieve a 20 percent improvement in the energy efficiency of commercial buildings through cost-effective upgrades by 2020; 2) reduce energy bills by about $40 billion per year through energy efficiency facility upgrades; and 3) Save energy by reforming outdated incentives, instituting a new competitive grant program, and challenging the private sector to commit to making progress toward the above goals.

The President’s proposal outlines five steps to achieve the goals set above:

1) The creation of new tax incentives, making the current deduction for commercial building upgrades more generous.

2) Increased financing opportunities for commercial retrofits. The Small Business Administration is working to encourage existing lenders to take advantage of increased loan size limits, and the President’s budget proposes a new pilot program through the Department of Energy to guarantee loans for energy efficiency upgrades at hospitals, schools, and other commercial buildings.

3) “Race to Green” for state and municipal governments that streamline regulations and attract private investment for retrofits.  The President’s budget will propose new competitive grants to states and local governments that streamline standards to encourage upgrades and attract private-sector investment.

4) The Better Building Challenge, which challenges CEOs and university presidents to make their organizations leaders in saving energy. Partners who commit to a series of actions to make their facilities more efficient will in turn become eligible for benefits such as public recognition, technical assistance, and best-practices sharing.

5) Training next-generation technology workers. Through existing authorities, the administration will seek to improve transparency around energy efficiency performance. It is launching a  Building Construction Technology Extension Partnership modeled  on a similar manufacturing partnership, and will provide more workforce training in areas such as energy auditing and building operations.

Several factions of the architecture and design community quickly commented on the President’s proposal and remarks. In response to the President’s announcement, USGBC president, CEO, and founding chair Rick Fedrizzi said “For all those committed to the idea that green buildings can create jobs, save energy, and save money, this is a great day, and the entire green building movement is incredibly grateful for President Obama’s leadership in this critical step forward for America. It is major steps like these that are necessary to address the challenges facing our environment.”

Jason Hartke, vice president of national policy at USGBC added, “The 5 million_ commercial buildings and the 120 million existing homes in the U.S. today are, by and large, squandering away precious energy and resources. With policies like the one introduced by the President today, our homes, hospitals, schools, and offices can be turned into structures that will lessen our dependence on fossil fuels, increasing natural security.”

At the AIA, 2011 president Clark Manus, FAIA, noted “as a profession, architects are already helping make the President’s goals a reality,” and noted that the AIA, in addition to the International Code Council, is taking an active role in promoting efficient building codes such as the International Green Construction Code (IGCC). (Read more on the AIA’s efforts toward developing the IGCC here). “Because of their leadership role in the built environment, architects are in an ideal position to help implement the President’s Initiative. In order  to reach the President’s ‘Better Buildings’ goals, there is a crucial need for design experts to apply their experience, innovations, and talents to current practices so that one of the major sources of energy use—the building in which we work—can be addressed.”

Edward Mazria, founder and CEO of Architecture 2030 further challenged the architectural community to lobby its Congressional representatives to push forward the proposed redesign of the current commercial buildings efficient tax deduction to a transferable commercial buildings tax credit that can be sold or transferred in order to make efficiency renovations.

For more information on the initiative, visit