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Feiner on Sustainability

GSA's Chief Architect talks about the relationship between sustainability and toilet paper and unveils his secret for determining whether a Federal building is any good.

November 01, 2004 |

As Chief Architect of the U.S. General Services Administration, Edward A. Feiner, FAIA, oversees an inventory of more than 350 million sf of Federal space for courthouses, office buildings, national laboratories, border stations, computer centers, and special-use projects. The GSA pipeline currently has over $10.5 billion in design and construction.

Feiner is passionate about the role of civic architecture in elevating the quality of life in America's cities and towns. While he does not look the part of a bureaucrat — his trademark cowboy boots are out of fashion in the Federal Triangle, except perhaps among the Idaho delegation to Congress — he is a cagey gamesman who knows how to use his Bronx street smarts to win support for GSA projects.

Recently, we talked with Feiner about the GSA, Federal buildings, and sustainable design. Here are excerpts from that conversation.

On sustainability: "We view sustainability as an integral part of the process. It's not a feature, not an application. It has to be part of the genetics of the design. What we look for is something whose essence is superb design that is also sustainable.

"Design excellence was never intended to be that the building just look good. It has to work well, it has to be efficient, and it has to meet certain societal goals — things like energy conservation, best use of available resources, and impact on the community. The whole should be greater than the sum of its parts."

On the potential conflict between sustainable design and security: "I don't see it. I think they actually contribute to each other." Before 9/11, he explains, Federal buildings, especially in downtown locations, had to build right to the property line; after 9/11, setbacks were increased for security purposes, but this has yielded an environmental benefit. Feiner cites the recently completed Oklahoma City Federal Building. "We were able to get increased setback, and now we're able to provide funds for plant materials, and the vegetation will grow to the point where the bollards will actually be encapsulated."

On pushing the technology envelope: "We're experimenting [as with photovoltaics]. There are certain things we do where we want to be exemplary. We're not known for doing off-the-wall stuff. We usually do something that we see has some promise, but it doesn't mean everything is absolutely proven. I like the analogy of the Life cereal commercial, the one with Mikey: 'He likes it!' We want to participate in the dialogue that moves the state of the art forward, but that does not mean that we necessarily have to be the leader."

On the costs and benefits of sustainable design: "There are low-cost and no-cost issues. You can choose this carpet" — here, he points to the carpet in his office — "which is very sustainable, or you can choose another carpet that is not, at the same price. When we get into whether it's a gimmick or a real issue, it comes down to life cycle analysis.

"I was just at Costco, and I could have saved a lot of money buying a 10-year supply of toilet paper, but I have to look in my pocket and see if I have enough money to buy 10 years of toilet paper, and I say no.

"So, there are two components — first cost and life cycle. And although we all subscribe to the life cycle approach, that's not how the world really works. There's a public perception of how much something should cost. When we see how much it costs to do a building, even if there's a lot of life cycle benefits, if the cost is $300 a square foot and the public thinks it should be $200, then it won't fly.

"You have to be accountable to many constituencies — the American people, 535 members of Congress. So, if you put your credibility in the life cycle basket, you do risk the loss of support of your public, which ultimately is the most important."

On requiring LEED certification for GSA buildings: "Since the Reagan Administration, this agency has adopted the philosophy that we should use commercial standards. First, we adopted MasterSpec, and that was a major breakthrough. In 1993, the Design Excellence Program was also perceived as an imposition, that to be commissioned by the GSA to do a Federal building, you have to achieve a certain level of design, and talent, and capability. Do we have the right to ask for a higher level of performance? It's simple — yes.

"LEED was and is currently the most developed national standard or benchmark — let's say benchmark — for sustainable design. In the next 10 years that may change, and we would be ready to move in more of a performance direction. We are always willing to evolve as our industry evolves, because we are participants in a commercially based economy."

On GSA as a client: "As a government, we are trying to achieve much better energy performance, reduce our costs, and achieve certain legislative mandates. An agent should be there to achieve the highest level of performance that the owner is asking for. We are asking for environmental sensitivity and accountability in the performance of our program, just as we are asking for superb design and meeting our schedule and budgetary imperatives."

On the long-term impact of Federal buildings: "How does that building, which is emblematic of the United States Government, how does it contribute to a positive relationship between the public and their government? That is very important to us. Is this an image that shows that public buildings are possessions of the people? Are these buildings inviting? Are they buildings that the people are proud of? They'd better be, because they're going to be around for a couple of hundred years."

Feiner points to the cover of a telephone directory in his office. "I have a new acid test to measure the success of one of our buildings," he says. "If it shows up on the cover of the latest local phonebook, I'm very happy.

"If we can show by example a responsible and very positive way that we can affect the built environment, and if that can set some examples to leverage the much larger industry, then that is a very important goal."

On the role of the design and construction industry: "The other thing I can't emphasize enough ... the entire community — design, construction, planning — we have a responsibility that goes beyond just getting things done. The impact that we have on the quality of life not only for ourselves but also for future generations is a very important responsibility. We are the biggest industry in the United States, and we have a lot of talent in this industry, but with great talent comes great responsibility.

"That responsibility is to further certain societal values and imperatives, of which some are things like the prudent use of resources and creating a sustainable, humanistic environment. It should be a bulwark to make our way of life better."

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