Thirty-one floors up on the Bangkok skyline, on December 14, aid veteran Jim Bednar was in the middle of a touching reflection on his decades of Foreign Service when the lights went out. It was exactly 7:00pm, and Bednar had just been sworn in as Mission Director to Sri Lanka, his ceremony taking place at a USAID-veteran-studded side event during the Asia Region Mission Directors’ Conference.

But it was not a power outage that plunged the group into darkness, though rolling blackouts may be commonplace in many of the countries where USAID works.  It was, instead, the automatic “lights out” system kicking in at the new joint USAID-State Asia Regional Training Center, or ARTC, the state-of-the-art facility that was receiving its first outside guests for a soft introduction to the premises.

USAID Assistant Administrator for Asia Nisha Desai Biswal and RDMA Mission Director Olivier Carduner cut the ribbon at the introduction ceremony for the new joint USAID-State Asia Regional Training Center, or ARTC, in Bangkok, Thailand. Photo Credit: Nipattra Sanguannuan/USAID

The roughly 50 invitees, among them Assistant Administrator for Asia Nisha Desai Biswal, and Embassy/Bangkok Charge d’Affaires Judith Cefkin, had just received a presentation on the ARTC’s unique features and the painstaking design process the building went through in order to secure recognition as a minimal-carbon-footprint premises. Knowing the drill, they began waving their arms in delight to trip the sensors so the ceremony could continue.

It was, in a sense, the most apt anecdote for an evening dedicated to USAID’s effort in Asia to “walk the walk” as a green leader, not only as the Agency works to encourage fast growing and high-polluting countries such as China towards environmental awareness and eco-friendly policies, but also in how it approaches its own facilities and operations.

“Very importantly,” said Regional Development Mission for Asia (or RDMA’s) Supervisory Executive Officer Mike Trott, “we wanted to play our part, but also serve as an example in the hope of spurring more use of green technologies in the fast-growing Asia region.” Trott was critical in pushing for both the training center and RDMA’s main office installation– located a few floors down in the new Athenee Tower– to adhere to the strictest green standards.

In fact, just a few months earlier, RDMA’s offices became the Agency’s first overseas facility to be awarded the prestigious Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification for its commercial interior. Trott, and others familiar with the design process, expect the new ARTC center to fare no worse when it its own intense certification process is completed in the coming months.

The strenuous requirements put on a contractor to receive LEED certification are reflected in the fact that only four buildings in Thailand can currently claim the accolade, with USAID being the only one to achieve certification for its interior design.

In the RDMA mission, which received its silver certification in October, and in the upstairs training center, sunlight floods nearly every corner of available space, reaching even the low cubicles in the interior; and energy-minimizing lights are hooked into sensors, which dim considerably during daytime hours. The urinals are waterless, the water fixtures are low-flow, combining to reducing water consumption by 20 percent.

Building use and construction, as it turns out, account for 30-to-40 percent of global energy use, and generate around the same percentage of greenhouse gases. Those towers where we work, shop and live have tremendous potential to achieve dramatic reductions in energy use and emissions.

But Trott and others are quick to point out that LEED is not just about energy savings, it’s also about environmental and human health. All the building’s furniture, fixtures and carpet are made mostly from local recycled materials and its wood products from harvested Forest Stewardship Council certified wood, “which is tracked from birth to final sale,” according to Trott.   Furniture as well as products used in the construction must use only environmentally safe compounds.  Additionally, in a region where air quality is a rising concern, the air circulation system brings in higher rates of fresh air than most offices, and even the construction process had to adhere to strict standards, resulting in far fewer sick days for construction workers.

Perhaps the most interesting feature is that LEED requires that 75 percent of construction waste, materials typically thrown into a landfill during most refurbishments, must be recycled.

At the ARTC event, RDMA Mission Director Olivier Carduner said that conceptually, the new training center embodied the Agency’s new reform agenda, USAID Forward, particularly regarding efforts to make better use of Agency talent.

The idea for the center, Carduner said, came when a brainstorming session with Washington identified the need to have a regional hub to train the growing numbers of DLIs, or new foreign services officers entering the Development Leadership Initiative program, as well as other USAID staff being hired en masse over the past few years, against a backdrop of falling training budgets that had limited training in the past.

“Washington asked RDMA for its ideas and participation in determining how best to meet the challenges of training up the USAID staff, recognizing that Bangkok had some unique advantages,” Carduner said. After studying the ARTC option, it was determined that training for the region could be conducted at nearly half the cost in Bangkok compared to Washington, a savings of some $21 million over four years.

Carduner also pointed out that the ARTC, a joint USAID-State project, was in line with the whole-of-government development approach championed by the Obama Administration. “The idea is not just to share the space [with the Embassy], but to coordinate training to the benefit of all concerned and at effective costs,” he said.

Soft operations are set to begin at the training center in January, with a more ambitious “Phase II” proposed to follow.  “This would involve on-site instructors (for example, USAID staff on Sabbatical) to teach the basic USAID courses […] for the many new staff in the same time zone, and a staff to assist with curriculum development,” said Carduner.

As fate would have it, both Carduner and Trott will miss out on seeing the facility in full swing; both AID veterans are departing post in the imminent future. But Bangkok has, in a sense, completed the circle for the old friends, who started their Foreign Service careers on the same day three decades ago in the predecessor to the DLI program and, after crisscrossing continents and posts, were reunited in the Thai capital.  Their legacy, among other things, will undoubtedly be this beautiful eco-friend building that will serve as a model both for USAID’s partner countries struggling under the weight of human pollution and its effects, and for the Agency, which is making real efforts to practice what it preaches– to really “walk the walk,” as folks around RDMA, with their sun-filled rooms, clean air and picturesque city views, are fond of saying.