Joseph Crea

Forging stronger, lasting relationships with our global allies is ongoing work. These efforts to advance peace and security on our world require creativity, empathy and, ultimately, action. This sensitive, nuanced, important work, ideally, should be done in some of the best, healthiest spaces in the world.

The newly certified, LEED Platinum Embassy of Finland in Washington, D.C., is an excellent place to start. Built in 1994, the embassy was the first in the world to achieve an Energy Star award and soon achieved LEED Gold for Existing Buildings. 

Today under Ambassador Ritva Koukku-Ronde, the Embassy of Finland has achieved LEED Platinum for Existing Buildings, making it the first Platinum embassy in the United States. It’s a wonderful bookend to the U.S. embassy in Finland, another LEED Platinum building.

We had an opportunity to sit down with the Ambassador to talk about what this building means to her colleagues in D.C., its representation of the Finnish people and the role LEED-certified spaces can play in terms of advancing diplomatic relations. 

Q. In 2014, Finland was one of the Top 10 Countries for LEED, and it was also home to the first LEED Platinum building in EuropeWhy do you think people in Finland care so much about green building and sustainability? How does this embassy reflect these values? 

Green building is very natural to us Finns. We have a harsh climate and lack of fossil fuel resources, so it has simply made sense to minimize energy consumption. In Finland we have long traditions in energy efficient construction and solutions, as well as in wood-building. In addition, acting on climate change and developing the cleantech sector are top priorities in Finland.

When the embassy was designed in the early 1990s, sustainability was not as widely considered as it is today. However, by favoring local building materials and maximizing the use of natural daylight inside the building, the Finnish architects managed to develop a green building that was ahead of its time. In subsequent years, finding ways to decrease the building’s environmental impact became a priority reflecting Finland’s commitment to environmental sustainability.

Q. This embassy has been focused on energy efficiency and sustainability for over two decades—long before it was cool to be green. What has been the pillar for the embassy’s long commitment? What or whom has been the secret of your success?

The current greening process began in mid-2000s when our property manager at the time, Markku Nieminen, started to investigate the electricity and gas bills and wonder how the embassy could minimize its consumption. Mr. Nieminen started with simple procedures like changing the light bulbs into LED lights and installing water saving devices in the restrooms. The next major step was adjusting the building’s operating times to correspond with actual use, eliminating wasted energy when the building was unoccupied.

The secret of our success is the commitment of the whole embassy staff. The building’s green status doesn’t come from a certificate. It comes from its tenants—the people committed to living up to the environmental standards required for such a prestigious certification. LEED impacts all aspects of our daily functions and it is crucially important that the staff is committed and follows the green policies and practices. At the embassy we all recycle, switch off our computers and printers at the end of the day and many of our staff members walk, bike and use public transportation to travel to work.

Q. The embassy is really the home for the Country of Finland in the United States. All diplomacy happens here, from negotiations to diplomatic receptions and meetings, plus you open your doors to thousands of tourists every year. What does this building communicate? What does it tell these people about sustainability? How do people, be it employees of the embassy, visiting dignitaries and tourists, respond to the space itself?

I like to think that our embassy is like Finland in miniature size. It is green, modern, innovative and transparent. Whenever we host events, whether they are large receptions, art exhibitions, seminars or more intimate meetings, people are always very impressed about our building. The embassy is a bit understated when you approach it from Massachusetts Avenue, but the building opens up in a whole new way once you are inside. Our guests love the large glass wall, use of natural daylight and how light the structures look. The building still looks very modern and quite different from many other embassies in Washington, D.C.

Q. Madame Ambassador, you have held leadership positions in global development, finance, and natural resources. What advice do you have for the 200,000 LEED professionals around the world who want to see green building make an impact in the way we do finance, urban development and community planning and dedicate natural resources?

Green building is very natural to us Finns because it just makes sense. It is good for the environment and people, and it is also smart financially. We invested $150 000 in renewing the free-cooling system and the heating system, and now we save that amount annually in energy bills. In our Finnish experience, investing in energy efficiency is no rocket science, and it always pays itself back within a short time.

Yet significant financial savings are not our main goal. Our most important goal is to make the building as environmentally friendly as possible, and in that way increase the awareness of energy efficiency issues among the visitors and our partners. In my opinion, sharing best practices and giving clear examples why going green is a smart choice are the best ways to make an impact on our surroundings.

Q. You moved from LEED Gold for Existing Buildings to LEED Platinum. What was the hardest aspect of making that leap? What are you most proud of?

We created very comprehensive green practices and policies when we first applied for the LEED certification in 2009. We have naturally carried on these practices and monitor very closely, for example, what kind of cleaning products are used and that the staff recycles properly. Motivating our staff to follow the practices and policies is one of the easiest tasks.

Since the LEED process takes into consideration so many aspects of the building’s operations, I would say one of the most challenging things is collecting the data. Our property managers have done wonderful work keeping track of all different aspects, ranging from water bills to occupant comfort surveys. It is not easy for a 20-year old existing building to achieve the LEED Platinum certification, and I am extremely proud of this accomplishment as a whole. The recognition proves that even a rather small organization can achieve great things if the whole staff believes in the issue.

Q. U.S. Ambassador Bruce Oreck has been a champion for the League of Green Embassies. Did you feel just a little big of competition to make sure that your Embassy in D.C. was LEED Platinum, just as the U.S. embassy in Helsinki is LEED Platinum? How can friendly competition and collaboration be a part of modern diplomacy?

There was some friendly competition between us and the U.S. embassy in Helsinki. When it was time to renew our LEED certification we set a clear goal to strive towards the Platinum. We were very happy to hear that the U.S. embassy strived for the same goal. This certification has built a unique transatlantic link, and we are proud to share leadership in this area with our friends at the U.S. embassy in Helsinki.

I think that in our interlinked world collaboration is a very important part of modern diplomacy. Sharing best practices is a natural way to improve everybody’s wellbeing. We are excited to work with other embassies and hope that as many diplomatic missions as possible, both in Washington D.C. and around the world, have sustainability high on their agenda.