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Sustainability Matters

US General Services Administration. Public Buildings Service: Office of Applied Science, 2008, 211 pages.

Reviewed by Cody Adams

Sustainability Matters presents the first comprehensive green building and practices primer put forth by a federal agency, and signals that the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA) intends to take the lead in fostering sustainable policies and implementing green innovations as formal best policy. The book, bound in style that mixes the presentation of a government report with the aesthetic and presentational value of other books in the sustainability genre, opens with full-page charts recognizable to any viewer of An Inconvenient Truth, displaying the apparent correlation between carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere and a precipitous rise in global sea and surface temperatures. This stark introduction comes as something of a relief after the outgoing administration’s fervent resistance to climate science, and sets the ground for the detailed approach to federal green-building that Sustainability Matters advocates.

Sustainability Matters
Image courtesy U.S. General Services Administration
Sustainability Matters
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As the book notes, the federal government is responsible for a vast amount of the built environment in the country, with 450,000 buildings comprising over 3 billion square feet of floor space, which is greater than the entire state of Nevada. For sustainability to take hold as a national prerogative, the GSA’s goal is to expand green building and operating principles to every branch of the government, meanwhile setting an example for the private sector. Having developed sustainable design strategies since the energy crisis of the 1970s, as a matter of primary importance to both the environment and national defense, the GSA plans to tackle the problem via five overarching strategies: (1.) Using an integrated team approach to design; (2.) reducing the total life-cycle ownership cost of facilities; (3.) improving energy, water, and material conservation; (4.) improving the health and safety of built environments; and (5.) promoting excellence in environmental stewardship. 

Sustainability Matters spends most of its length unpacking the above principles, and applying them to the diverse federal building types in a realistic fashion, keeping the budget balanced while complying with LEED standards. The GSA also focuses heavily on long-term performance and ongoing evaluations to assess and maintain efficiency. They also pose an important question not often raised in the private sector: why build at all? A study undertaken by the GSA found desks are often vacant up to 60 percent of the time, which prompts a consideration of the changing nature of the workplace, and how to build space efficiently around this fact. Flexibility is key, as is the need to creatively reuse and reorganize existing space to eliminate some of the need for new buildings. Likewise, according to GSA projections, 60 percent of buildings that will be utilized 30 years from now have already been built, and the largest impact yet to be made involves retrofitting existing built environments with sustainable technologies and practices.

The book is regularly interspersed with case studies of successful government projects, ranging from new construction, existing buildings, to operations and maintenance initiatives. These case studies bracket the at times wonkish considerations of Sustainability Manners, and provide a break to the reader when exacting details threaten to overwhelm. While these projects, such as a Regional Headquarters of the National Park Service and the John J. Duncan Federal Building, aren’t necessarily the flashiest structures out there, the variety of project types is satisfying and demonstrates a broad range of green solutions.  

To view the book online visit www.gsa.gov/sustainabledesign and click on sustainable design program documents. Limited hard copies are available by contacting Lance Davis at lance.davis@gsa.gov.

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