The GSA has set ambitious goals for the renovation and construction of federal buildings.
Courtesy GSA The GSA has set ambitious goals for the renovation and construction of federal buildings.

With 352 million square feet of office space under its control and a construction budget of more than $1.3 billion last year, the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA) is one of the most influential architectural clients in the world. So the agency’s decision to boost its minimum requirements for LEED certification from Silver to Gold for most of its upcoming projects is more than a milestone for sustainable design. It’s also a business opportunity for architects.

To take advantage of that opportunity, GSA and AIA experts say that architects need to understand that the federal agency goes beyond these LEED standards, focusing not so much on point tallies in each LEED category as on the underlying concept of “long life/loose fit.”

Design leaders inside and outside of GSA say that the most sustainable building is not necessarily the one scoring highest on energy efficiency the day its ribbon is cut. Rather, it’s the most resilient one—the building that can adopt new technology and adapt to the changing nature of work, and do it for decades to come.

“The touchstone is ease of change,” says Jean Carroon, FAIA, LEED AP, a principal at Goody Clancy of Boston. “The people we work with at GSA are very knowledgeable about sustainability and LEED. On most GSA projects, the thinking goes well beyond the existing LEED standards. It’s a much more sophisticated conversation about extending the service life of the building and the potential for long-term flexibility.”

As the federal government’s main civilian property manager, the GSA builds or leases about 40 percent of federal facilities—some 9,600 buildings, according to agency spokesperson MaryAnne Beatty. Most GSA buildings are courthouses, office buildings, or border-crossing points, but the agency’s inventory includes virtually every type of government building except hospitals, prisons, and military facilities.

GSA installed its first green roof way back in the early 1920s and was an early adopter of LEED standards in 2000, says Lance Davis, AIA, LEED AP, GSA’s program manager for design excellence in architecture. At the end of 2010, the GSA had 59 LEED-certified properties, the most LEED-rated buildings of any federal agency.

In 2002, GSA tapped Carroon’s firm to transform Boston’s John W. McCormack Post Office and Courthouse, a historic landmark built in 1933, into a regional headquarters for the Environmental Protection Agency and office space for other federal agencies. The renovated building retained its noteworthy historic features and 99 percent of its original shell. Hidden behind the original Art Deco marble, terrazzo, wood, and ironwork are new systems that allow the building to accommodate more workers while reducing water and energy consumption, with 70 percent of the energy used coming from renewable sources.

The building’s new centerpiece is a fifth-floor green roof irrigated by rainwater that flows through solar-powered pumps. The garden transformed an unsightly array of air handlers into a haven for wildlife and workers. Heating and cooling systems are tucked into existing hidden mechanical spaces, making it easy to reconfigure workspaces as the building’s uses change, Carroon says.

Originally intended to achieve LEED Silver, the McCormack building was ultimately certified LEED Gold, says Davis, who cited the project as an example of best practices in sustainability.

The GSA’s new LEED Gold requirement applies to all new construction and substantial renovations. (LEED Silver remains the requirement for GSA-leased new construction of 10,000 square feet or more.) Davis says that the decision to boost GSA’s LEED requirement was driven in part by a growing pool of LEED-experienced architects and by improvements in materials and systems. “Most of our projects are already at the Silver and Gold levels,” Davis says. “The market has already moved there.” Of the 25 GSA projects certified in 2009 and 2010, 11 achieved Silver and 10 achieved Gold.

In September, about the same time the GSA announced the upgraded LEED requirements, the agency unveiled a sustainability plan that sets a long-term goal of achieving a zero environmental footprint and pledges to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 30 percent by 2020. The agency’s sustainability plan calls for reducing energy consumption in federal buildings by one-third, conserving water, increasing renewable-energy generation, improving stewardship of electronics, and reducing emissions from employee commuting and business travel by 25 percent.

Those goals may require more compact workspaces that can be adapted to multiple uses, as well as higher rates of telecommuting. “We’re redefining how we work,” Davis says. “We’re trying to redefine what is a workspace. Not everyone is in a cubicle. Not everyone gets an office.”

As workspaces shrink, it’s important to make them “places that people want to work in,” Davis says. One way to do that is with “a lot more daylighting. We still have a lot of work for our design teams to understand what good daylighting is and what’s just a big window with a lot of glare.”

As the bar for GSA projects rises, there are strong opportunities for architecture firms fluent in sustainable design. But that doesn’t mean that architects new to green building can’t break into the GSA’s pool of projects. Future projects appear in the privately published Commerce Business Daily and are listed on the government procurement website, Each listing describes the project’s location, scope, and estimated production schedule, as well as the range of award amounts, and sets out the criteria used to evaluate applicants. Firms usually have at least 30 to 45 days to submit a proposal, which goes through a two-stage review.

While the GSA’s paperwork demands may be greater than most private clients’, Davis says that the peer review process helps give small firms and firms new to government a shot at landing a GSA contract. “An integrated design process, understanding of sustainability, and willingness to put in hard work can be keys to success,” he says.