The Challenges of Building Green Under DCRA’s Watchful Eye by Michael Kiefer

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Ed. Note: Michael Kiefer from GreenDCRealty will be contributing a monthly column about various aspects of real estate in DC.

GreenSpur of Washington’s exciting new green developers recently took on quite possibly one of the more challenging adaptive reuse projects I have seen in years in an effort to demonstrate that “carbon neutral” construction is possible at all levels, even with a dilapidated pre Civil War era home. This adaptive reuse home at 19 4Th St NE being just blocks from the Nation’s Capitol was to be emblematic of the challenges GreenSpur Inc was looking for, however rebuilding of it was the easy part, the real challenges didn’t come about until the layers of DCRA began to unfold.

As most are familiar dealing with local government agencies in large city there are the normal hurdles that one must overcome to get projects up and running and with DCRA the District’s building regulation department is no different, that is until you start proposing elements of sustainability and historical preservation. Preserving the historic makeup of Washington is something we all want to see and be a part of but we seem to be caught in the midst of some conflicts when it comes to proposing some really exciting opportunities to reducing a buildings total life-cycle impact on the environment. DCRA’s primary focus is to make sure that buildings are constructed properly however their knowledge of some fairly mainstream technologies such as geothermal HVAC systems presented this group with a few more challenges.

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Greenspur’s president Mark Turner is no stranger to the DC permitting process, he previously worked as Vice President of Construction for Abdo Development. Personally I was surprised when I heard that it took over 6 months, just to acquire a building permit when all you hear is that the Mayor’s office is seeking to find ways of expanding green development and green collar jobs here in the Nation’s Capitol. After acquiring the building permits DCRA proceeded to shut this firms job down twice for lack of permits, which as anyone who has ever attempted to build something in DC knows being shut down does nothing but cost time and money. From my discussions with Turner he mentioned that DCRA finally acknowledged that the proper permits had already been obtained and that it was an internal issue within their department that caused the delay.

Continues after the jump.

The real interesting part comes in when Turner sought the permit for the geothermal HVAC system and well drilling. Now understandably DCRA probably doesn’t see permits coming in all that often for well drilling under its purview but the explanation on why geothermal wells were not possible almost appears borderline comical but at the same time completely frustrating that the level of knowledge that exists in such a department is inappropriate. If you are not familiar with how a geothermal system works under a simplified view, there are two wells that go down a required depth in order to properly exchange heat energy with the thermal energy stored in the ground. DCRA’s initial explanation for not permitting the system was that it would make the neighborhood cold by extracting all the heat from ground forcing the neighboring properties to be colder. So this sort of makes sense when you are in the 3rd grade but as these wells go down several hundred feet that explanation pretty much loses steam to say the least. From Turner’s view, the green building review system needs some upgrading as the entire process for permitting the geothermal permit took over two months from start to finish.

When I asked Turner about his thoughts on the overall process he concluded that It’s a real shame in this economic climate that DC is not doing more to allow green projects of this nature or any projects for that matter to run more smoothly through their system. These are economic dollars and green-collar jobs that should stay in the city. GreenSpur loves the historic and architecture fabric of DC, it fits their brand and adaptive reuse story very well. Unfortunately, they have been forced to advise their clients on the difficult nature on getting anything processed in DC. “It really can kill the viability of a project, more so now than ever,” states Turner.

Despite all this GreenSpur does not regret the project, it was a huge success for us to tell and complete this story – in spite of the hardships. “We didn’t want a picnic project – we wanted to show people that carbon neutrality really is possible anywhere. Not only is it possible, but it can be in good taste and in context of an historic fabric of the neighborhood.”

As this home represents more than just an adaptive reuse it highlights how green development is ultimately possible even when confronting some interesting policy challenges. It is also worth noting that Mark Turner will be offering public open houses starting January 3rd – January 17th each day from 4-6pm in an effort to showcase how historic preservation and green building can be one in the same. He is also planning what he is calling the Big Green event on the last day of the open house with some guest speakers on the topic.

Flicker Photo Tour of renovation

45 Comment

  • Prince,
    You should email this to Jim Graham.

  • This is house porn.

  • This is really cool and something I’d love to learn about. But PoP, this column is begging for an editor and/or a rewrite…

  • Fire and replace 75% of DC government managers and staff. Then start fresh with people who know how to work.

    I was in the real estate tax office once where a woman was asleep at the front desk and when she pulled her head up the “words” she spoke to me were so incomprehensible that a coworker of hers came over and asked her if she was all right and then took over working with me while she put her head back down. I have lived in this area my whole life, I know all the accents, this was no accent, the woman wasn’t using words.

    Fire them. that will be the only thing that will change this process.

    • Neener,
      Fenty has been doing just that, except these cronies are all protected by the unions… I’m no Fenty lover or apologist, but he’s tried. The DC government has been run as a jobs program for Ward 8-7 and PG blacks for years.

      • friendly reader ch dude,

        why not refrain from racial overgeneralization, dear old chap? does anyone go around saying how, oh, *every* occupation pre-1950 was a jobs program for white males for centuries? certainly not, as that would overlook all the women and folks of a nice shade of brown who were working various positions in those bygone days. the race of the employee here is unimportant, what is important is that cronyism has indeed been rampant in DC government, as it is in many spheres (“Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job” is a phrase that comes to mind immediately).

        • “does anyone go around saying how, oh, *every* occupation pre-1950 was a jobs program for white males for centuries?”

          Yes they do, it’s called affirmative action…

          But that isn’t the point.

          The point was not that blacks are inferior or any other racist point. I was merely stating a matter of fact. You can’t talk politics or city gov in DC with talking race. The fact remains that for 30+ years DC was run as a jobs progam for black supporters of Barry and his group. Race is important, because when subsequent admins try to clean up the mess, the first thing DC city workers drop is the race card. Look at Rhee and accusations that she is targetting only black teachers, or the Chilean woman at DC Parks who was racially attack at her confirmation hearing.

          FYI, English is my second language and I’m one of those other shades…

          • I was not specifically targeting anyone by race here but naturally this is the undercurrent of any discussion of DC bureaucracies.

            What blew me away once was talking to an imbecilic teacher who was so very bad at what she did. I cannot explain to you how utterly awful she was at everything. She would turn on the TV and watch broadcast TV in class. I don’t mean that she would play videos, I mean she would turn on the TV and switch the channels. Well she starts to tell me about DCPS in 1973 and the heroin use and dealers and all this stuff and then stories of her mother’s experience in the segregated schools and then she tells me that her class is so much better.

            Well her class was a filthy pit where no one learned anything, the majority of the parents pulled their kids out of the school after that year, and it was, from my perspective a total failure.

            but according to her bizarre worldview, it was better than when her mother was beaten up and called the n-word in a segregated school. It was better than when her high school art teacher became a junkie and shot up in the school bathroom. She once told me that she got her act together, got a good job and worked at that job year after year, unlike her brother who was homeless. but the thing is that none of us are poor, DCPS has a huge budget, the teachers get paid a lot of money and the city is experiencing a renaissance. However these DCPS employees compare themselves against the HOMELESS! They compare themselves against the most horrible stories of urban neglect from the heroin years! And that’s utterly stupid! Compare yourself against your peers working 15 minutes north of here in Takoma Park or 20 minutes south in Arlngton County. don’t think back to the 1968 riots and say wow! I only know three people who were shot this year instead of 8. Normal people don’t know anyone who got shot. Normal people never knew a teacher who did heroin. Normal people who are teachers are on the lower rungs of their family’s success level compared to their cousin the lawyer.

  • Bravo, Greenspur, for overcoming the hurdles of DCRA and for daring to be different and innovative! I only hope that other developers are reading these articles and acknowledging the market demand for more green homes. Let this be the end of the “McMansion” era!

  • Yes, PoP, it is your civic duty to make sure this gets into the hands of our elected representatives.

  • Great job Greenspur! As one who works in the renewable energy market, I would suggest to the DCRA to use some of their training funds and send their people to specific trainings whether it be geothermal, solar, wind energy technologies, etc.

  • saf

    It’s not just green projects. They just don’t want to ever issue permits for anything.

  • Hurray for historic preservation. I applaud your efforts. I also support historic punctuation but didn’t see much here.

  • Felicitations are in order.

    Congrats on your perseverance and hard work.

    Continued success to Mark Turner and GreenSpur.

  • Getting permits for anything is maddening in DC. There are some good people there, but finding them is a challenge at time.

    For example, don’t try to get anything done ater 3pm. When we finally had everything ready and approved for the diner’s building permits at about 3pm, I was told that we’d have to wait til the next day since everyone stops working at 3pm, even though they’re not sheduled to close til 4:30 or so. Another rep confirmed this on the same day, after I tried to express my frustration.

    I’d be hesitant to try anything out of the norm (again). We salvaged and moved an entire building from upstate NY, and tried to get guidance from the DC permit folks before hand. Questions posed over several visits before the diner’s move resulted in mostly blank stares, followed by referrals to other clerks who then referred us back to the original person. If you try to do something really “green” and out of the normal cycle, you may run into hurdles.

    The result? I quickly exhausted all of my vacation time at my day job, with not much to show for it. It’s extremely frustrating, and highlights the need for a major overhaul.

    Again, there are some very hard-working DCRA folks, but there are a good number of others who create needless delays, confusion, and roadblocks due to ignorance, attitude, training, or something else.

    -Matt Ashburn
    Capital City Diner

    • So did Capital City Diner finally open up after all your troubles this past summer ?

      • We’re finishing up the construction now (Pepco didn’t install power til last week, so were having to build-out using a generator). If all goes well with DCRA inspections, we should be open in a month or so. Hopefully sooner, but it really depends on the inspection and license application process that follows the inspections.

        P.S. Re: the troubles on move-in day: We figured out why there was a conflict on whether or not we had permits to move the buidling. During the move-in, DDOT told DCRA we didn’t have permits to move the building, despite it arriving with a full police escort and us having a receipt for the permit fees. It turns out that the permit clerk who issued our permit didn’t enter our address in the system. So, when they attempted to verify the permit the day of the move, it wasn’t found.

  • House looks beautiful. I wonder — is it really big enough for 2 units? (Note the electric meter)

  • Gorgeous home…kudos to Greenspur for their dedication to the project. My hope is that this kind of attention to the difficulties in building green greases the skids for more like it in the future.

  • Gorgeous reno. But was it absolutely necessary to put the meter on the front of the house? Was there no room for it on the side or in the back?

  • with all the complaints about dcra and general gvt operations the council oversight & budget hearings should be packed come mar-may! please neighbors back up the rhetoric with action. nothing changes w/o it. check for scheds. btw, tweet this to @dcra (

  • This story is fascinating to all of us. Channel 9 news is doing a story on this tonight at 11. Please check it out!

  • Let me guess, they also rejected it based on the possibility that the molten center of the earth would freeze and the earth would no longer continue it’s orbit around the earth. DCRA is a cluster and they really need to get their stuff together if they don’t understand geothermal.

  • excuse me, its orbit around the sun

  • DCRA has been a strong advocate for the Green Building Act and has trained and retrained all of our review staff to stay up to date on these fluid regulations. You can see the types of initiatives we are taking to ensure these processes are completed as quickly as possible – and we give special expedited status to green projects – on our Website,a,1343,q,643219.asp.

    The geothermal permit referenced in this post did not take six months – it was actually issued the same day we received it on May 20, 2009. In fact, we have issued more than 8 permits for various stages of this project since it began in March 2008. Without going point by point, let’s just say the post had some serious flaws and completely inaccurate generalizations. Has there been a learning curve? Sure. But trust me, we do not have 3rd Graders working in our Center.

    Congratulations to the developers and we hope to see more projects from you in the very near future.

    Anyone who has any issues or questions regarding building permits – green or otherwise- can contact me directly at [email protected] at anytime.

    • I would like to thank Michael Keifer and Michael Rupert for both writing and responding to this story – which I think is an important one for the city. I would also like to thank Stella Tarnay and Neil Albert who were both big supporters of this project and were a big help when things appeared to be at a standstill in the process.

      I also fully recognize that many of the city leaders are pushing some very aggressive and helpful initiatives as it relates to the “green” agenda for the city. I think we are all on the same team, when it comes to helping DC lead the nation and world on sustainability. I think we are in a unique situation to do so.

      Hopefully, this story is not taken as a slight against DC leadership, it’s a story about what actually happened at the agency level. Despite being assured we were going to be given preferential treatment for this green project, the reality was it was very difficult to get this project approved at the agency level.

      We filed for our first permit (demo) on 8/15/08 and our building permit on 9/22/08 we got approval for these permits on 10/14/08 and 2/25/09 respectively. So from start to finish it took us over 6 months to get the required building permits which did not include the geothermal approvals which occurred at a later date. We were also erroneously shut down twice during this period for lack of permits – the second time they actually put the stop work order on the permit they accused us of not having. I know the records show that we received the geothermal permit the same day we applied for it, but I can assure you that it was not that easy for our contractor to obtain this permit – it took a lot of back and forth with DCRA. But I also recognize we may have been one of the first ones to apply for a residential geothermal permit in the front yard, so perhaps there was a learning curve on both ends. I understand the process has gotten much better. The point being from our first application to our final approved permit there was a time span of almost 9 months. We accept responsibility for some of this time, but I can tell you with all honesty it was a difficult and lengthy project to get approved.

      Again we applaud the city’s efforts at many levels and even for taking part in this conversation. We know this is only one small project in the bigger picture, but it’s a project that meant a great deal to us and our story. We certainly learned a great deal on our end and hopefully there is something others can take away from it as well.

      Look forward to the next one. . .

    • I should say that Mike Rupert is definitely one of the responsive, hard-working folks at DCRA that I referred to earlier. He’s very helpful and can assist with navigating what can seem like uncharted territory, and I can’t say enough good things about him.

      If you haven’t already, you can follow Mike’s DCRA Twitter account at

  • DRCA and HPO folks are clueless. I ran into a TON of issues trying to install green features into my house. They simply didn’t understand the technology, didn’t have the inclination (or perhaps aptitude) to look into them.

    It’s delayed me 4 months now. I’m about to give up on actually doing the right thing with this house because it’s getting REALLY cold and the $500 electric bills are eating away at my budget.

  • Not to stand up for DCRA or its horrible permitting process, but perhaps parties publicly criticized by real estate editorials should be given an opportunity to respond on PoP. Two sides to every real estate story in DC.

  • Unfortunately, DCRA is just like every other DC gov agency. A few hard working and well meaning folks, like Mike Rupert, swimming against the wave of incompotent cronies from the Barry years. Good luck Mike, you are fighting a good fight and I pray for success.

  • this house is absolutely stupendous. the before and after picture is eye-popping, almost like hitting warp speed on a spaceship (lol). The interior photos on the flickr page are house porn at its most delectable. Kudos all around…

    Much respect to the DCRA rep for responding to the charges. I hope that this blog continues to lead to that kind of dialogue, but hopefully next time the builders can post on their troubles during construction and get a prompt reply here to address any issues.

  • oh my gosh this house is magnificent.

  • Kiefer addressed the key issues on green buildings in DC – we’ve got to push DC to follow Chicago, Austin, Portland, San Fransisco/Sacremento, Gainesville on accelerating green buildings, net zero energy and zero energy buildings. Scott Sklar, The Stella Group, Ltd. or

  • Just wanted to make note that PoP Advertiser, Urban Pace, is the brokerage company representing this property.

  • Ahem…””HipChicinDC”” shouldn’t Urban Pace proofread their website more?

    The description on the website says “Home by GreenSpur; learn more about ‘carbon homes’ at“— “CARBON” homes? Isn’t this supposed to be a “carbon-neutral” home? I mean..after all, that is kind of the WHOLE point and all…Serious FAIL!!

  • I think “carbon neutral” is what they are going for, but not sure what exactly that means, whether it refers to the reconstruction of the house or the energy use from here on out.

  • Very interesting article, Kudos to the author. I think reflects a larger challenge that needs to be addressed with DC government, which is establishing metrics that are publicly available to discern how an agency is performing. For instance with DCRA, metrics such as number of applications, average days per permit, approvals/denials, missed decision deadlines, etc would be valuable and easy metrics to track. This data should be publicly available, so that not only the Mayor’s office, but the citizens of DC can judge the effectiveness of an agency or attempts at improving government.

  • Micheal Kiefer made an excellence observation on green buildings in DC. People like to talk “green” but when it comes to action they drown in the ocean of bureaucracy. Why not to follow examples of cities in the US that successfully implement green buildings (like Austin, TX for example)? Maybe local media should educate public on the topic? There is an visible lack of information in this area.

  • I know this is a late post, but DCRA got some heat on this and turns out they weren’t too far off I bet.

    Geothermal wells could change the temperature of the earth, huh? This Geothermal Heat Pump Design Manuals actually says yes, wells heat up the earth (not the Planet Earth, but the earth in the local area around the well). The effect is cumulative over time. See page 7-8 of this pdf:

    Bottom lines. Heat pumps have a local, cumulative effect on the temperature of the earth surrounding the wells (6 degrees over 10 years) the closer together and more numerous the wells, the greater the effect (if all the neighbors did it, yes ground temperatures would change). These temperature effects have to be anticipated when calculating the depth the wells have to be drilled to.

    I’m betting it was this concept that the DCRA engineers were discussing with the applicants.

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