A closer look at the history and sustainability of Georgetown's Dumbarton House

The Dumbarton House is a mix of history and sustainability.

At Dumbarton House in Georgetown, historical preservation is a priority. But the Federal-era home and museum is also concerned with another kind of preservation: the protection of natural resources.

“We want to save money and put it towards our actual mission rather than towards overhead costs,” says Bridgitte Rodquez, membership manager for The National Society of The Colonial Dames of America, the group that owns and operates the house and is headquartered there. “And we are a part of the community and the environment.”

Talk of going green often conjures images of solar panels and hybrid vehicles. Dumbarton House’s sustainability program, however, demonstrates that there are dozens of smaller, less overt ways for an organization to become more eco-friendly.

Perhaps the most significant components of the museum’s sustainability program are its efforts to make its utility use greener. To that end, Rodquez said, Dumbarton House buys all of its electricity–enough to power 15 average homes– from wind-powered sources. The facility also participates in a program offered by Washington Gas that offsets the carbon emissions created by the gas it uses. Surprisingly, buying gas through the offset program was less expensive than buying it outside of the program, Rodquez says.

“Why wouldn’t we plant some trees on the eastern shore of Maryland, if it’s going to be cheaper?” she says.

Recycling is integrated into all the facility’s policies and goes far beyond the standard soda cans and water bottles. All paper products—from the towels in the bathroom to the paper in the printers—are made from recycled materials. Such changes shouldn’t cost more money, Rodquez says. These days, paper products made from 100 percent recycled materials can be less costly than conventional products, she explains.

And changing behaviors around the workplace has created even more savings. Office policy, for example, now calls for printing on both sides of the paper whenever possible and reusing packaging supplies.

Together, these changes have dramatically reduced the office supply budget, dropping it from $10,000 to a little more than $2,000 each year.

The group is also posting more activities online in order to cut down on paper usage and transportation. They are depending more on conference calls than on in-person meetings, scanning and emailing accounting materials rather than printing and sending and encouraging online giving.

To save electricity, the organization is phasing in compact fluorescent light bulbs as existing bulbs die and incorporating energy-saving LED lights into some of its exhibits, Rodquez says. Motion-detecting lights have been installed in some places, to prevent lights from burning power when they are unneeded.

Dumbarton House’s sustainability program started when some eco-conscious staff and board members suggested the museum look into greening its operations. As these early efforts took hold, the organization’s leadership decided to make its status as a green group more official. The group created–and the board approved–a formalized Sustainability Action Plan and a Space Plan that called for the reuse of as many original materials as possible during the recent renovation of the non-historic parts of the building.

And the staff members aren’t the only people feeling good about Dumbarton House’s green efforts. Last year, the museum was one of nine area organizations to win the Mayor’s Sustainability Awards, which “recognize outstanding businesses and organizations for their environmental stewardship, innovative best practices, pollution prevention, and resource conservation.”

The house is currently in the process of evaluating whether a greener HVAC system would be a feasible investment and Rodquez is always keeping her eyes open for any new sustainable possibilities.

“We’re constantly seeing what’s available,” she says.
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