How the GSA transformed federal buildings into high-performance green buildings

by FM Media
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KEVIN KAMPSCHROER from the US General Services Administration divulges how the best value and highly improved performance was ensured when moving its portfolio toward high-performance green buildings.

The economic distress of 2007 was no one’s idea of a good time to be in real estate. In the US, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (Recovery Act) provided a glimmer of hope for a reeling design, construction and facilities industry. This law provided an unprecedented opportunity for the US General Services Administration (GSA) to focus on existing buildings – over 81 percent of the Recovery Act or ‘stimulus’ funds were reserved to move GSA’s portfolio toward high-performance green buildings.
How did GSA assure that it got the best value and improved the performance the most for the money? The answer lies in a crucial shift in:

  • how we allocate the work
  • how we write and communicate goals to the people doing the work, and
  • how we measure the performance.

GSA has nearly 1800 buildings that it owns and operates. To spread the money as broadly as possible – an even distribution – would have barely covered basic controls retrofits with lighting in some buildings. In performing our due diligence, we discovered that we had over US$20 billion (measured in construction cost) of designs for major retrofits already at least 50 percent complete. These comprised ‘shovel-ready’ projects.
Spending all the US$4.5 billion on 60 or so major retrofits would also not have met our portfolio management goals. Performance analysis of the 1800-building portfolio eliminated 300 buildings where the government’s future need was slight. Another 500 buildings’ performance didn’t meet threshold criteria for long-term viability.
Our optimisation analysis used both economic (net present value) and sustainability. We analysed energy conservation, for example, in both financial terms (dollars saved) and in energy conservation (kilowatts per hour saved). Since market pricing varies so dramatically across the US (at the time from US$ 0.035 per kilowatts per hour to US$ 0.31 per kilowatts per hour) this financial suboptimisation identified high yield conservation opportunities.
Similarly, we put a value on lighting improvements that took into account the effects on personal performance. Eight selection criteria, including two on risk, were used in all. The result was an allocation designed to put people back to work quickly and transform federal buildings into high-performance green buildings.

GSA had been using prescriptive specifications for buildings, based on a design/bid/build process. The time between completion of design and construction start could stretch out for years. In one case, the design had been mostly completed nearly a decade before anticipated construction. Yes, the projects were shovel-ready, but were they shovel worthy?
There was no time to analyse all 43 major renovation designs in detail. Rather, we devised a set of performance goals, just a few pages long. We then challenged each team to see if they could increase the performance of their existing design. All did, with improvements ranging from 30 percent to 200 percent. Two examples tell the story.
The design team for the Edith Green Wendell Wyatt Federal Building in Portland, Oregon (problem: deteriorating façade replacement) created a sustainable solution of four façades, each designed to react to the conditions of the compass. They were able to double the energy savings, however, by restaging the project, and completely replacing the mechanical system with a radiant heating and cooling system.
They realised that even with doubling the swing space costs (moving everyone out in a one-phase plan, rather than the original two-phase plan), the reduction in construction time would more than make up the cost, and allow the replacement of the mechanical system, which otherwise would have had to operate during construction.
Because of a quirk of timing in the design contract, the original specifications for the renovation of the GSA Headquarters Building referenced the energy code of 1989: 20-year-old energy specifications. The design decisions were complicated by the building’s historic status – never renovated since 1918 – the existence of over 1900 window air-conditioning units and the significant deterioration of the window frames.
The breakthrough was to restore the windows to their original use (rather than preserve them as is) and make them operable. In Washington, DC, despite hot, humid summers, for nearly half the year the conditions are suitable for natural ventilation. And the building was originally designed without air-conditioning. This decision doubled energy conservation. When coupled with dozens of others, including electrochromic glass on the southern façade, the result was a 65 percent reduction.
GSA repeated this process 43 times. Forty-three times the original design teams improved their plans. So why, if the teams were capable, did they not do their best work the first time? While there is no one single answer, the common theme was simple: the designers said, in essence, ‘You didn’t ask for [our best].’ The use of prescriptive specifications, and the perception that the government wants the lowest possible price resulted in suboptimal designs. The openness to new ideas and the use of five pages of performance criteria sparked far better designs across the board.

Measurement in a performance contract is a problem because the teams that design and build typically do not operate the building afterward. People who occupy the building rarely use the building in exactly the way that, for example, energy models predict.
The key is to link contractual incentives directly to measured performance. While this is not particularly popular with the design/build teams, our collective experience is that it can profoundly change the risk dynamic between owner and builder, and reduce overall risk while increasing performance.
The Research Support Facility of the Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory was the first net zero energy building designed and delivered for the US Federal Government. The keys to its success – and it is being measured as successful – were entirely based on using performance goals rather than prescriptive specifications.
The owner outlined the end result; the design/builder determined the strategy. The owner included performance incentives based on a scheme that rewarded higher performance within a fixed budget. The incentives focused on both budget and performance. After the first year of operation (of a required three-year evaluation) the design/builder is on track to earn the maximum incentive. The incentives also kept the design/build team on site after operation to ensure that operations understood the design plan – a huge value to the owner.
At GSA’s Federal Center South project, the design team has begun redevelopment of an underutilised warehouse. It will result in a 19,400- square metre gross office building. The project includes seismic upgrades, conversion of existing landscape into low-impact sustainable green space, the use of innovative integrated mechanical systems and the reuse of extensive 100-year-old wood framing members from the existing building.
While the project appears to be on track to exceed GSA’s aggressive high-performance goals, its most unusual feature may be a contractual one: the design/build team agreed to risk 0.5 percent of its original US$66 million contract award if it does not meet or exceed those goals.

The combination of a portfolio-based strategy and the use of performance contracting is yielding significantly higher performance and value than the old systems were. Gone are building-by-building isolated decisions – they suboptimise portfolio performance. Also gone are prescriptive specifications – they suboptimise team and building performance.

Kevin Kampschroer is the director of the office of federal high-performance green buildings at the US General Services Administration (GSA). He has created the framework for which GSA responds to the challenges of greenhouse gas emissions reductions and of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act’s mandate to move GSA’s federal building inventory toward high-performance green buildings.

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