GSA Building Underperforms

Something very important popped out at me when I re-read the New York Times article about the green buildings not performing as anticipated.  The green building highlighted for poor energy performance is a General Services Administration building: 
"The building’s cooling system, a major gas guzzler, was one culprit. Another was its design: to get its LEED label, it racked up points for things like native landscaping rather than structural energy-saving features, according to a study by the General Services Administration, which owns the building."
Why would I bring up the New York Times article yet again to point out the GSA's ownership of the building?  The GSA received $4.5 billion from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act for construction and renovation of federal buildings.  The GSA also requires that all new projects be LEED Silver certified, with a preference for LEED Gold certification.  That means $4.5 billion is being spent on new GSA projects that could fail in the same manner as the building in the New York Times article. 
Next week we will look at why design professionals and contractors want to avoid ARRA green building project failures.  My colleagues at Crowell & Moring have done a tremendous job analyzing the ARRA, including funding for the investigation of fraud, waste and abuse.
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Comments (9) Read through and enter the discussion with the form at the end
Rob Watson - September 9, 2009 9:24 AM

Hi Chris--
My guess is that GSA is learning from their earlier forays into green & fixing the things that don't work. I wish that everyone who graduated from Harvard were brilliant (Vietnam?) and that all elected politicians and CEOs were moral and competent, but alas we do not live in that world. When mistakes are made as long as learning happens, then they are worth it.



Linda McIntyre - September 9, 2009 10:05 AM

I have not re-read the article since it first appeared, but the quoted bit implies that LEED is designed purely for energy efficiency. As I understand it, it's not. While I don't think native plants are a magic solution, an appropriate landscape design can make a building project more environmentally sustainable (for example, by requiring less irrigation and fossil-fuel powered maintenance than a lawn).

This is not to say that dubious point-chasing does not exist, just that the landscape approach in this instance might have its own justification that is valid under the terms of LEED, or for its own sake.

The building's energy efficiency measures might have been poorly designed, or it might be operated in a manner that undermines an appropriate design. But that issue is, or should be, separate to the landscape approach used in the site design.

I also agree with Rob Watson that, like all of us, GSA is learning from difficulties and mistakes.

Christopher G. Hill - September 9, 2009 10:52 AM

Nothing quite like the fox guarding the chicken coop! Interesting that the GSA has mandates that they cannot meet. If the GSA itself can't spend ARRA money wisely, then what are the expectations for state governments?

Mark Rabkin - September 9, 2009 3:27 PM

Rob - your commentary from is right on. The majority of us that have been playing in this space for some time are not as concerned with the trials and tribulations of a green building rating system, but how that system is helping to drive the construction and real estate market into recognizing the importance and increased value for sustainable development. The folks in the legal community, Chris C and Chris H (VA), Stephen (NYC), Shari (PA), Matt (TN), Steve S (CA), Rich (FL), Scott W. (LA) and me in the insurance community are working to help mitigate and address risk to avoid litigation and adverse marketing.

LEED ain't perfect, but we all believe that it is a step in the right direction towards achieving energy independence and freedom. We all try and contribute positively to the discussion in an attempt to address what we all believe is right and true and good; that we need to build smarter and change the way we think about the construction and maintenance of our built environment.

You are a leader in this debate and have been doing it for years. Don't be dismayed (and I'm sure you haven't) by the fact that anyone can start a blog and rip into what they feel is an overly arrogant organization because they are jealous for not thinking of it first.

I will be participating in the upcoming USGBC's Congressional Advocacy Day in DC and engaging lawmakers and their representatives on the role that "green" building plays in the creation of a new economic model based on the principles of sustainability. There are those among us that will continue to fight the good fight so don't ever feel like you are in this alone.

We are out here. You just might have to dig a little deeper to find us.

Tim Hughes - September 9, 2009 3:57 PM

The question is what is the definition of success and failure. If success is a project that is LEED certified, the GSA project in the article is a success. The project can be LEED certified and in theory and perhaps even in practice be an energy hog if it racks up points elsewhere. There are plenty of places the points for one area can conflict with another.

If the project needs to meet certain energy performance criteria as a condition of its funding, that is an parallel but ultimately different performance axis.

Out of curiosity, does anyone know what points this GSA building sought, especially related to energy efficiency? The question of modeling versus performance may take a black eye, but if they were not going after the EA 1 credits, the article is perhaps not picking on the best example project ...

Christopher G. Hill - September 9, 2009 5:08 PM

Good points all. The issue is that LEED does not necessarily equal energy efficiency. There are too many points to be gained from non-energy related areas. LEED is moving in the right direction re. energy efficiency, it just isn't there yet

Chris Cheatham - September 9, 2009 7:49 PM

@Rob Watson - Thanks for your comments. Thankfully, GSA was forward thinking enough to incorporate green building standards long before the stimulus projects came down the pipe. Hopefully, by discussing the mistakes that have already occurred, we can prevent others from making similar mistakes. I enjoyed your recent post at GreenerBuildings by the way.

@Linda McIntyre - You raise a great point; LEED is about more than just energy efficiency. How's the green roof book coming? I am featuring a green roof fire on Friday's post.

@Christopher G. Hill - Just to be clear, I am not saying that GSA can't spend stimulus money effectively. That hasn't been proven yet. Like you, I am more concerned with the administration of stimulus funds at the state level.

@Mark Rabkin - Thanks for the comment. Looking forward to seeing you when you are in DC!

@Tim Hughes - Good points. Unfortunately, I don't have the answer to your question.

Tim Hughes - September 11, 2009 6:59 AM

@Chris Hill - I guess we could criticize if the program was LED not LEED!
The percentages have definitely tilted more to energy efficiency and carbon. Under 2.2, maxing EA Credit would amount to 14.5% of the total available points. Under 3.0, it totals 17.3%.

The overall EA percentage increased from 24.6% to 31.8%. Sustainable sites increased too, which has definite implicit impact on overall energy usage.

Tim Hughes - September 13, 2009 2:31 PM

Hey Chris -- finally had a chance to get that question on the EA credit answered ... I linked your article too, don't see track back ...

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