White House Photo by Pete Souza
Gary Le Francois, building manager Transwesterns senior vice president, briefs Obama, Clinton on upgrade project.

President Obama and former President Bill Clinton have kicked off a $4-billion public-private program to upgrade a wide range of buildings to make them more energy efficient. Design and construction officials praised the initiative but said other measures could deepen its impact.

Unveiled on Dec. 2 as Obama and Clinton toured a Washington, D.C., renovation project, the plan follows earlier green-buildings efforts by the White House and private companies. In a nod to Capitol Hill realities, the program has no new federal spending or tax incentives, which would require approval from a Congress that has slashed budgets for programs such as General Services Administration new-buildings construction.

Industry officials welcomed the new plan. Jason Hartke, U.S. Green Building Council vice president for national policy, says, "This is a tremendous announcement … that's going to get people back to work." He adds, "It sits at this unique nexus of saving energy … saving businesses money and creating jobs. That's just a tough calculus to beat." Obama called the threefold benefits "a trifecta."

The federal part of the plan aims to carry out at least $2 billion in green buildings improvements over two years. Financing will come through contracts for energy-savings performance—an existing mechanism under which energy savings pay for green projects' up-front costs.

On the non-federal side, 60 companies, universities, labor unions, hospitals, cities and states have committed to upgrading 1.6 billion sq ft of building space. A key element is the financial firms' $2-billion pledge to fund the non-federal projects. That expands a Clinton Global Initiative commitment in June by 14 private or public entities to upgrade 300 million sq ft and provide $500 million to pay for the work.

Andrew Goldberg, American Institute of Architects managing director for government relations, says, "Having this commitment to do the funding means that a lot of architects, engineers and others are going to be able to get to work pretty quickly [on] a whole bunch of retrofits." Now, Hartke adds, "We've got to translate [the plan] into implementation."

Industry officials think the program could use some add-ons. Hartke suggests the Treasury Dept. take steps to make the deduction for energy-efficiency improvements to commercial buildings easier for taxpayers to use. AIA continues to lobby for energy-efficiency tax breaks, Goldberg says.

Another program supporter, U.S. Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Thomas Donohue, said the energy- savings contracts have great potential but called them "grossly underutilized." The Chamber of Commerce has proposed, among other steps, additional training for federal employees who work with the contracts and a presidential executive order directing agencies to use the contracts for most of their energy projects.