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Science and the environment > 26. Green Building

To evaluate the potential for overlap or fragmentation among federal green building initiatives, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Department of Energy, and the Environmental Protection Agency should lead other federal agencies in collaborating on assessing their investments in more than 90 initiatives to foster green building in the nonfederal sector.

Why This Area Is Important

Economic, environmental, and health concerns have spurred interest in “green building”—construction and maintenance practices designed to make efficient use of resources, reduce environmental problems, and provide long-term financial and health benefits through lower operating costs and better indoor air quality. These practices are intended to help address issues posed by traditional construction and maintenance practices for buildings. According to the Department of Energy (Energy), in 2008, buildings in the United States consumed almost 40 percent of the nation’s energy and emitted about 39 percent of its carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas recognized as a major contributor to climate change. Also, Energy reports that the approximately 30 million to 35 million tons of construction, renovation, and demolition waste produced annually in the nation account for about 24 percent of municipal solid waste, although most of this waste could be recycled. Furthermore, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), exposure to indoor air pollutants, such as radon and formaldehyde, can lead to harmful health effects, from headaches to respiratory diseases.

In response to concerns about energy consumption, among other things, federal laws and executive orders have directed agencies to reduce energy consumption and meet other green building requirements in federally owned or leased buildings. For buildings not subject to these requirements because they are owned or leased by private, state, local, or tribal entities, laws have also directed federal agencies to foster green building. GAO refers to these entities and their buildings as the “nonfederal sector,” which accounts for most of the nation’s buildings.

What GAO Found


As GAO reported in November 2011, there are 94 federal initiatives GAO identified to foster green building in the nonfederal sector. In conducting its work, GAO sent questionnaires to the 11 agencies implementing the initiatives identified. As the table below indicates, 3 of the 11 agencies—the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), EPA, and Energy—implement about two-thirds of these initiatives.

Number of Initiatives That Foster Green Building in the Nonfederal Sector, by Federal Agency


Number of initiatives







U.S. Department of Agriculture


Department of the Treasury


Department of Transportation


National Institute of Standards and Technology


Department of Education


Small Business Administration


Department of Defense


Department of Health and Human Services




Source: GAO analysis of agency information and questionnaire responses.


According to GAO’s analysis of agency questionnaire responses, the 94 initiatives GAO identified share the broad goal of fostering green building. Specifically:

  • All of the initiatives foster at least one of six green building elements GAO identified (see table below). Three-quarters of the initiatives foster more than one element, and 21 initiatives across seven agencies foster all six elements.

Federal Initiatives Fostering Green Building Elements in the Nonfederal Sector

Green building element

Number of initiatives fostering each element

Energy conservation or efficiency


Indoor environmental quality


Water conservation or efficiency


Integrated design (collaborative planning at all stages of a building’s life)


Sustainable siting or location


Environmental impact of materials


Source: GAO analysis of questionnaire responses.

Note: Numbers total more than 94 because many initiatives foster more than one element.


In addition, GAO identified similarities among these federal initiatives that indicate potential overlap:

  • Many initiatives provide similar types of assistance, mostly through grants (47 initiatives) and technical assistance (45 initiatives) but also through other types of assistance, such as loans (9 initiatives), tax credits (5 initiatives), and tax deductions (3 initiatives).
  • Agencies reported that they expect the initiatives to directly benefit many of the same types of recipients, such as individual property owners or renters (55 initiatives), local governments (49 initiatives), businesses (47 initiatives), nonprofit organizations (45 initiatives), and state governments (42 initiatives).

The 94 initiatives may vary greatly in the scale of their funding. GAO requested funding information for all initiatives, but the information agencies provided was incomplete and unreliable for the purposes of describing the size of green building initiatives. Agency officials stated that many of the initiatives are part of broader programs and, as such, the agencies do not track green building funds separately from other program activities, even for initiatives that have as a component the direct fostering of green building. As a result, GAO did not report funding information for the initiatives in its November 2011 report.

About one-third of the 94 initiatives GAO identified have goals and performance measures specific to green building and about two-thirds do not; therefore, the results of most initiatives and their related investments in green building are unknown. Agency officials reported various reasons for not having goals and measures, such as challenges in gathering reliable performance data. As GAO previously reported, leading organizations commonly define clear goals and related outcomes, measure performance to gauge progress, and use performance information to assess the results of their efforts and the related investment.[1] Achieving results for the nation increasingly requires that federal agencies work together to identify ways to deliver results more efficiently and in a way that is consistent with their multiple demands and limited resources.[2] Agencies and programs working collaboratively can often achieve more public value than when they work in isolation.

GAO identified some instances in which agencies have begun to collaborate to assess results. For example, under the Partnership for Sustainable Communities, the Department of Transportation, EPA, and HUD plan to adopt a common set of performance measures for HUD’s Community Challenge Planning Grants Program, which makes funds available to state and local governments and other entities to promote affordable communities through green building, among other activities. Furthermore, Energy chairs the Interagency Energy Management Task Force, which includes 10 of the 11 agencies implementing the 94 initiatives GAO identified. Since 1988, this task force has served as the interagency group for collaborating on green building in the federal sector, measuring progress, and acting as a forum for addressing challenges to green building and developing common solutions for the federal sector. However, GAO did not identify a governmentwide effort to collaborate on green building issues, including shared goals and common performance measures, for the nonfederal sector that is comparable to the task force’s efforts for the federal sector. Without such an effort, agencies with green building initiatives for the nonfederal sector may be missing opportunities to, among other things, identify the potential for inefficient or costly duplication, overlap, or fragmentation across these initiatives, and to reach agreement on governmentwide goals and measures for assessing the overall progress of their efforts to foster green building in the nonfederal sector.

[1]GAO, Executive Guide: Effectively Implementing the Government Performance and Results Act, GAO/GGD-96-118 (Washington, D.C.: June 1996).

[2]GAO, Results-Oriented Government: Practices That Can Help Enhance and Sustain Collaboration among Federal Agencies, GAO-06-15 (Washington, D.C.: Oct. 21, 2005).

Actions Needed

Without comprehensive information about each individual initiative’s progress toward fostering green building, and without collaboration across federal agencies to establish green building goals and ways to measure progress, Congress, agency heads, and the public have incomplete information about the results of individual and overall federal efforts to foster green building in the nonfederal sector and the efficiency of these efforts. Governmentwide collaboration to identify performance information could, among other things, help inform efforts to evaluate the potential for inefficient or costly duplication and overlap across the more than 90 federal initiatives—implemented by 11 agencies—to foster green building in the nonfederal sector. To help assess the results of investments in individual federal initiatives to foster green building in the nonfederal sector, as well as their combined results, GAO recommended in November 2011 that the Secretaries of Energy and HUD as well as the Administrator of EPA

  • lead an effort with other agencies that are implementing green building initiatives to collaborate on identifying performance information, such as shared goals and common performance measures, for green building initiatives for the nonfederal sector.

Such an effort could help identify opportunities for enhancing efficiency and reducing costs to administer these initiatives.

How GAO Conducted Its Work


The information contained in this analysis is based on the report listed in the related GAO product section. See pages 348-350 of the PDF version of this report (appendix III) for a list of the programs GAO identified that may have similar or overlapping objectives, provide similar services or be fragmented across government missions. Overlap and fragmentation may not necessarily lead to actual duplication, and some degree of overlap and duplication may be justified.

Agency Comments & GAO Contact

GAO provided a draft of its November 2011 report for review and comment to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Department of Defense, the Department of Education, Energy, the Department of Health and Human Services, HUD, the Department of Transportation as well as EPA, the Department of the Treasury’s Internal Revenue Service, the National Institute of Standards and Technology, and the Small Business Administration. Energy, HUD, and EPA agreed with the recommendation. HUD, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Department of Defense, the Department of Education, the Department of Transportation, the Internal Revenue Service, and the Small Business Administration provided concurrence or technical comments which were incorporated as appropriate. The Department of Health and Human Services and the National Institute of Standards and Technology did not provide comments on this issue. As part of its routine audit work, GAO will track the extent to which progress has been made to address the identified actions and report to Congress.

For additional information about this area, contact Frank Rusco at (202) 512-3841 or or David J. Wise at (202) 512-2834 or

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