Skip to main content

Johnson Addresses U.S. Green Building Council Federal Summit

As prepared for delivery

Remarks by
Martha N. Johnson
U.S. General Services Administration
U.S. Green Building Council Federal Summit Remarks
Washington, DC
May 18, 2010

Thank you, Roger, for that kind introduction.

I have been lucky to enter government at critical junctures. My internship in 1971 was on the heels of landing a man on the moon. The government through the good work of NASA had secured the U.S. in a scientific leadership position. In 1992 when I joined the Clinton White House, the society was about to explode with the possibilities of a worldwide Internet and global positioning systems. The government, through the good work of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, had again spurred society forward.

And now, as I step back into government, it is happening again. President Obama has established sustainability as an issue of critical national concern, and I quote him:

“Countries on every corner of this Earth now recognize that energy supplies are growing scarcer, energy demands are growing larger, and rising energy use imperils the planet we will leave to future generations. And that's why the world is now engaged in a peaceful competition to determine the technologies that will power the 21st century. ...”

"The nation that wins that competition will be the nation to lead the global economy. I'm convinced of that, and I want America to be that nation."

His Executive Order 13514 on October 5 is explicit:

"As the largest consumer of energy in the U.S. economy, the Federal government can and should lead by example when it comes to creating innovative ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, increase energy efficiency, conserve water, reduce waste, and use environmentally-responsible products and technologies."

And so I ask, “What agency is positioned with a major responsibility for steering that consumption and those efficiencies?” The answer: the General Services Administration. The federal government occupies nearly 500,000 buildings; operates more than 600,000 vehicles; and purchases more than $500 billion per year in goods, systems, and services. GSA plays a prominent role in that, managing over 350 million square feet of space, operating a third of those vehicles, and overseeing a vast flow of goods and services via our schedules program, contracts, credit cards, travel services, and more.

In short, GSA is a fulcrum for the government’s sustainable performance. We can leverage our massive buying power to impact the government’s environmental footprint. We are broad, so we shouldn’t  – and don’t have to – limit ourselves to marginal or incremental change. GSA is also deep; our reach extends into all of government. “Government R Us.”

Specifically, the president in the executive order asked federal agencies to:

“Leverage agency acquisitions to foster markets for sustainable technologies and environmentally preferable materials, products, and services,” and to “design, construct, maintain, and operate high performance sustainable buildings in sustainable locations.”

To do this requires efforts on many fronts. First, he named GSA a key member of his green team along with the Department of Energy and the Council on Environmental Quality.

Second, the president has committed to reducing federal greenhouse gas emissions by 28 percent by 2020. According to Nancy Sutley, Chair of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, this will reduce federal energy use by 646 trillion BTUs, which is equal to 205 million barrels of oil, or taking 17 million cars off the road for one year.

Third, the president signaled through the Recovery Act funding to GSA that “greening” our real estate portfolio is to be a priority. That’s where our partnership with the U.S. Green Building Council Federal is so valuable and why I’m here to share our aggressive agenda with you.

Within this context, we at GSA are embracing a zero environmental footprint goal. We are setting our sights on eliminating the impact of the federal government on our natural environment. Yes, you heard it correctly. The word is “eliminate” not “limit.” I’m not kidding. Zero environmental footprint.

Every great advancement in human history has required a leap beyond the known. We made the leap to fire, then to electricity. We made the leap to the printing press, then to the telephone, the television, the computer, and the Internet. We crossed the hill, the valley, the mountain, the ocean, and then headed for the moon. But what if NASA had set its sights merely on getting a rocket beyond the reach of Earth’s gravity? What if NASA had set its sights on merely getting people into an orbit around the Earth? I believe with those goals NASA would have devolved into yet another program agency, attracting good but not brilliant talent, carefully choosing work that could be achieved, and pushing out predictable, next-step events that would not have been called Apollo or Mercury but, instead, something like The Next Tier or A Step Upward. The United States of America would not have gotten to the moon.

Zero environmental footprint is this generation’s moon shot. And so, it must be ours at GSA. It is not only the right thing to do environmentally (though it is), it is also the right thing to do from a business perspective, from a social perspective, and from a strategic perspective. Zero footprint will demand that we work harder than we have ever worked before. We will have to find innovative ideas like never before, and take risks that are absolutely not within our current comfort range. A zero environmental footprint goal for GSA will galvanize the work force and our partners, such as USGBC, and attract the best of the next generation’s smart, idealistic and determined talent. A zero footprint goal for GSA will pull change through our systems, and ratchet our priorities away from simply pawing and petting processes and towards solving society’s real needs. A zero footprint goal will electrify our confidence in our future.

Will we get there?

That is actually the wrong question. No one can answer that. No one can read the future. I prefer to answer the question, “Can we get there?” and to that I answer, as does our president, “Yes, we can.”  This challenge is about technology, of course, and the United States is a leader in innovative and emerging technologies. But this challenge is about much more than “green bling.”

This challenge is about invigorating the economy and growing green-collar jobs throughout the system, from designers and architects to engineers and facilities professionals.

This is about seeing challenges as opportunities and running headlong toward them: tackling the design difficulties of dense, urban green building and partnering with transport agencies and urban housing agencies to create transit-oriented development with smart site selection.

This is about committing to design excellence and management expertise.

This challenge is, in sum, about vision, willpower, determination, and a robust and shared culture of hope and drive. For that we have a powerful hand to play. Americans know about coming together, with our extraordinary diversity of ideas and approaches, and pooling our capabilities. We know how to converge on solutions – that is our national culture, built off of our deep roots as a democratic and open society. This spirit is perhaps best symbolized by the Statue of Liberty, which I recently learned is now 100 percent wind-powered. That says it all: This agenda is now an indelible part of our national tapestry. As President Obama has observed, innovation and discovery are in our DNA.

So what’s next?

GSA is already moving on this bold agenda: We’ve spent over $4.5 billion on modernization and retrofitting, and are spending $1 billion on new green buildings, including a net zero energy land port of entry. And we’re not done yet. Not nearly.

First, GSA has a number of tools that we can use to move toward a green and sustainable government. We can:

  • Use federal buildings as a green proving ground for new technologies and techniques;
  • Center our design process on the relationship between buildings and the people who work in them;
  • Practice with new technologies for smart grid modernization and embrace cradle-to-cradle design;
  • Aim for only green products on the federal supply schedule;
  • Move to a federal fleet that runs only on alternative fuels;
  • Incentivize green service providers to keep offering top-value, green services;
  • Cultivate public/private partnerships sympathetic to green;
  • Develop and implement technology to track purchases of green products across government;
  • Work on our metrics, and measure not just the utility costs, but also ground travel, employee commuting, and environmental impacts of the supply chain from start to finish. We can use this data to help agencies track progress and assess their greening strategies.

Second, we are exploring the cradle-to-cradle philosophy of product and service lifecycles.  William McDonough and Michael Braungart wrote a terrific book on this subject, titled "Cradle to Cradle," and we’re all reading it now. We welcome USGBC as an invaluable partner and resource for this exploration and reinvention of our design, use and reuse cycles. We need to synch up with your talent to accelerate our mutual learning and impact.  

Third, at GSA, we already know a lot about what works and what doesn’t in environmental management.

  • In the 1970s, we committed to reducing our environmental footprint, and now we operate on 22 percent less than comparable private sector buildings;
  • GSA planted its first roof in 1975;
  • Our first renewable energy purchase was in 1991;
  • In just one of our 11 regions, we have replaced over 50,000 light bulbs with new, energy-efficient bulbs.
  • GSA’s first Leadership in Energy and Environmental-certified building was in 2002, and by 2007, we had 22 LEED-certified buildings.Now we have 47 LEED buildings, and counting;
  • We are moving forward with the first net zero land port of entry building in New Mexico;
  • Compared with the private sector we have 22 percent higher occupant satisfaction and 16 percent lower operating costs.

Fourth, we must reinvent the notion of risk-taking. We must be willing to fail, and fail fast, and fail fruitfully. We need to be able to win some quickly, lose some quickly, learn from our mistakes, and then share our successes and failures with partners such as USGBC. GSA is big enough to tolerate more risk. We can, as Public Buildings Service Commissioner Bob Peck puts it, be the green proving ground. Our roofs, walls, HVAC systems, waste disposal channels, and landscaping can be grand experiments for what works and what doesn’t. And we’ve already started: On the roof of the Maj. Gen. Emmitt J. Bean Center ,we are experimenting with four different types of solar panels, and we are testing different ways to use the power that they generate.

Fifth, we are bringing better business thinking to government. While Harry S. Truman created GSA in order to consolidate buying and find lower prices for government purchasing, the 1990s procurement reform moved us to a new model – not of lowest cost, but of best value. The next chapter – the one we’re about to write – is about finding “green-value.” That is better business thinking.

GSA is, in many respects, the government’s business arm, and through our sheer size, we have a noticeable impact in markets. We need to be explicit and intentional stewards so that our influence in markets moves us greenward. We can learn from the stories of similar efforts by large corporations. Look at Wal-Mart and UPS, and the market impact that they can have across the board.

Wal-Mart is eliminating excessive packaging, making their trucks more energy-efficient, reducing solid waste, and putting more organic food on shelves. Each of these sends a large and powerful signal that can shift behaviors in the market. Wal-Mart has also experimented with heating stores via used cooking oil and, while not profitable in one store, they see profit potential in scaling that project up. We should all keep an eye on such activity.

Or take a look at UPS, a company that has used new technologies to shave – in one recent year – 28.5 million miles off of its fleet’s odometer and thus save 3 million gallons of gas and 31,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide. How? By eliminating left turns from their delivery routes.  It’s that simple. And that savings is significant enough to hit their bottom line. You can bet other transportation companies are noticing how straightforward it was in that case to wring out savings and subsequent profit.

At GSA, we are searching for better business practices and models for predicting, seeding, measuring, and innovating so that we can offer the government the advantage of such ideas.  Organizations excited by innovation and measurement (such as the USGBC) should be in this game with us.

Sixth, and I say it again and again, this is about partnership. We must move to greater integration of thinking starting with the design stage and moving through a building’s, product’s, or service’s entire lifecycle to use and to re-use. We need to share ideas from cradle to cradle.

And so we need to find new harmonics with the USGBC and other related interested organizations. Your LEED rating system has had a tremendous influence on government; we are eager to improve and tag our buildings as LEED-certified buildings. I should note that the Department of Defense’s new building in Northern Virginia will be largest federal LEED-certified building on record. How can we further learn, practice, innovate, boost, and promote the work of getting to zero environmental footprint together?

Seventh, and finally, we serve the same customer. The executive order is a challenge to everyone.  GSA is committed to focusing the green building framework on the intersection between smart buildings and the people who work in them; we aim ever higher to provide buildings where our customers are more productive and happier and where the operational costs are lower. GSA can also help government make the right buying decisions; we can help navigate the field of new and risky services and solutions. You can continue to help with standards, expertise, advice, and innovative ideas which will support and steer the right buying decisions.

Today I ask you to work with GSA as we design, innovate, measure, and make gains on the ambitious goal of a government that functions with a zero environmental footprint. Challenge us, provoke us, and share with us your best and not-so-best practices. We want your feedback, and we’ll listen.

And as we ask you to challenge us, we have a challenge for you: Try new things, take risks, and be bold. Use the tools that we develop together. Find new partners, and leave no stone unturned. Be aggressively creative, and for goodness’ sake tell us about it.

Sustainability is the way of the future and failure is not an option. We’re not just shooting for the moon; we’re shooting for a sustainable planet: Earth.

sustainable buildings