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Leeds Stresses GSA's Commitment to Sustainable Building Design

As prepared for delivery

Remarks by
Stephen R. Leeds
Senior Counselor to the Administrator
U.S. General Services Administration
U.S. Green Building Council Groundbreaker Awards Ceremony
San Francisco, Calif.
October 29, 2010

Thank you, Panama [Bartholomy], for that kind introduction. It’s terrific to be here at the California Academy of Sciences. What a stunning building.

I assure you I’m not accepting this award just because my last name is Leeds. I’m delighted to be able to speak with you this evening and to accept this award on behalf of Administrator Martha Johnson. I know she wishes she could be here with us.

To be recognized as a groundbreaker by an organization like USGBC – itself one of the most innovative and path-breaking organizations around – is an incredible honor. Thank you.

In the time that I have here this evening, I’d like to talk to you about what the General Services Administration – GSA – is, what we do, the importance of the sustainability agenda, and where we see it going.

We often say that GSA is the federal government’s solutions expert. But I’m a recovering real estate lawyer, and that description is insufficient for my legal brain; I need a bit more information, so I’ll assume you do, too.

GSA provides a whole host of services, supplies, and buildings to the federal government. Our mission is to “use expertise to provide innovative solutions for our customers in support of their missions and by so doing, foster an effective, sustainable, and transparent government for the American people.”

We do everything from streamline the downtown Washington, D.C., federal shuttles to dispose of NASA’s space shuttles. And, when disaster strikes, GSA mobilizes the federal buying power to support FEMA’s emergency operations. Often, our people are among the first federal responders, setting up supply lines and tapping our contracting expertise.

Our client base is broad. Our biggest acquisitions client is the Department of Defense, and our largest real estate client is the federal judiciary.In addition to agencies, we provide services to senators, representatives, former presidents, and state and local governments.

We provide these services through our two main business arms: the Federal Acquisition Service and the Public Buildings Service. Services is our middle name. On the acquisition side of things, we do roughly $95 billion worth of transactions each year – $65 billion in purchasing and $30 billion in government charge card contracting and management. If we were a private company we’d be No. 135 on the Fortune 500, and we have a powerful impact on the annual $500 billion federal spend. In terms of our building portfolio, which I’ll get to more in a moment, we own and lease more than 350 million square feet of space across the country.

We also do governmentwide policy on issues ranging from the government’s 200,000 vehicle fleet to data-center consolidation to federal travel policy. And, we lead the government’s interface with the public,, and its associated e-government initiatives, as well as create innovative technologies and lead the government effort on cloud computing.

If you can’t already tell, GSA does a lot of everything. That’s who we are and what we do. In ordinary times, it’s a full plate, and we provide the vital backbone to the federal government. But these aren’t ordinary times.

Our country now faces new and daunting challenges. We’re pulling ourselves back from the brink of the worst recession since the Great Depression. We’re working hard to reinvigorate our economy and get our unemployed back to work. We’re experiencing rising energy costs and the challenge of being reliant on oil and coal to power our cars, our homes, and our workplaces.

There is a Native American saying that the Earth is not given to you by your parents; it’s loaned to you by your children. Everywhere we look today, we can be sure that the natural world we will leave to our children has more polluted streams, more de-nuded forests, fewer snowy peaks, and vastly less wildlife than the world my generation grew up in.

President Barack Obama understands the urgency of moving our country forward and safeguarding today’s workers while protecting the inheritance of future generations. He knows that this is not just a political flash in the pan; this is a matter of resounding national urgency. 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 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.” He continues, “The nation that wins this competition will be the nation that leads the global economy. I am convinced of that and I want America to be that nation." The president is serious. He’s determined to keep us moving.

And so, on Oct. 5, 2009, showing the administration’s commitment to sustainability, the president signed Executive Order 13514, Federal Leadership in Environmental, Energy, and Economic Performance. Ultimately, the challenge of achieving a low-environmental impact economy cuts to the very essence of our security. Continuing with the status quo threatens our economy; it poses grave challenges to our standing in the world; it limits our strategic flexibility; and it diminishes the generational security that we hope to give to our children. A low-carbon economy will grow jobs and strengthen our standing in the world.

GSA is in a prime position to pull change through the government and to propel our country toward a brighter – and greener – future.

We act as the interface between the private and the public, the government and industry. We make, interpret, and relay market messages, and we can create coalitions and affinity groups from the public and private sectors to tackle these challenges. No other agency has the ability to so directly impact the products and services provided by the private sector.

Therefore, President Obama has identified our agency as a strategic asset to his administration and to the country, and he understands the absolute imperative of keeping our nation on track and moving forward. He has tapped GSA to be part of his green team – along with the Council on Environmental Quality and the Department of Energy – and has, through Executive Order 13514 and the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act, given us the opportunity and the responsibility to lead the government, the construction and automotive industries, and others toward a stronger, greener future.

The notable oncologist Dr. Martin Raber is fond of telling young doctors entering the field of cancer research that the “big limitation in the fight for the cure is imagination.” He continues, “If you are good at what you do, and you have great ideas, we will help you find the resources you need to make them happen.” The same can be said for sustainable design. The Recovery Act has helped give us resources to unlock the potential of our imagination and spur us onward.

So, how are we moving forward? We’re taking an enterprisewide approach, and we’re mobilizing our entire agency behind the goal of a zero environmental footprint. We don’t yet know how we’re going to get there, and we don’t yet know when we’re going to get there, but we do know what we must get there.

Administrator Johnson has called this our moonshot – the moment when we set our sights on a seemingly impossible task that electrified our creativity. When a young president announced in 1962 that America would put a man on the moon and return him safely to Earth, the experts thought it couldn’t be done. Yet, less than a decade, later we took that famous “giant leap.”

At GSA, we believe that this – finding a way toward a sustainable and net zero federal government – is the next frontier akin to the challenge that launched us past the bonds of our atmosphere. It’s a journey, and a challenge, with a rich history that forms the very core of our common history. When we left our trees, when we crossed the plains, and the desert, and the oceans, when we plumbed the deepest depths and touched the highest peaks, and when we finally left this planet and journeyed through the cosmos, at every step we have fulfilled our true nature and ignited the very life source of our humanity: discovery.

This time is no different. The scope of the challenge, the necessity of success, and the consequences of failure mean that there are, at this moment in our collective history, few areas of discovery more important to our planet and to the longevity of our society than sustainability.

The president understands, Martha Johnson understands, and GSA as an agency understands the imperative and the stakes involved, and we are unswerving in our commitment.

Along with other federal agencies and in line with the requirements of the executive order, we recently submitted a very aggressive strategic sustainability performance plan that calls for a 30-percent overall reduction of our greenhouse gas emissions over the next decade. We’re proud of this commitment, and it’s a first step – a critical first step – towards achieving our ZEF goal.

On our acquisition side, we’re partnering with firms both large and small to measure and disclose the greenhouse gas emissions in their supply chains, and we’re leading the government in greening our own supply chain. We’ve developed a carbon calculator tool that will help federal agencies identify areas of high-carbon consumption. And we’re using a phased, incentivized approach to pull sustainability into the operations of the nearly 19,000 vendors we work with who provide more than 12 million products and services to our clients.

Importantly, we’re being sure to bring the engine of our economy – small businesses – along with us by offering coaching and mentoring to help them gain the tools they need to measure their GHG footprint and compete on a level field for federal contract dollars. If we’re successful, this will be a powerful tool to help shape and change the supply chain economywide. We are also using Recovery Act money to invest in a new generation of fuel-efficient vehicles. As I mentioned, GSA manages more than 200,000 vehicles nationwide, and thus far, thanks in large part to Recovery Act funding, we have procured more than 22,000 hybrid and hybrid/electric vehicles.

Within our policy divisions, we’re helping to shape the workplace of the 21st century by improving access to mobile – low-commute -- work and by embracing the philosophy that work is what you do, not where you are. GSA is also involved in “beyond the shell” activities; we help establish and encourage sustainable building management practices, eco-efficient landscaping, and cutting-edge workspace design.

And, with the help of terrific partners like the U.S. Green Building Council, we are developing new and fantastically creative ways to make our building portfolio a world-class collection of low-footprint, high-efficiency monuments to sustainability.

I am incredibly proud to say that in our Strategic Sustainability Performance Plan, GSA declares that going forward, every new construction and design project must meet Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design gold certification. While we will use LEED as one of our measures of eco-efficiency rather than as a design tool, this ensures that sustainability and green construction become indelible pieces in our design process.

Although I’m sure you already know the numbers, bear with me while I recite my litany of statistics, courtesy of Professor Amory Lovins. Buildings use 69 percent of U.S. electricity, 40 percent of all domestic energy, and, internationally, 16 percent of global fresh water. They emit 38 percent of fossil fuel carbon dioxide, and have the slowest turnover of any major capital stock; they operate on a 50- to 100-year timeline.

In addition, the federal government is the nation’s largest consumer of energy, using 1.62 quadrillion Btus annually – enough to power nearly 41 million homes for a year. Our utility and fuel bill last year alone was $24 billion dollars.

My point here, one that you all know well, is that we cannot provide a pragmatic solution to the problem of U.S. GHG emissions unless the federal government leads in creating a built environment that works hard for its occupants, and for the environment, on its last day, as well as its first and every day in between.

A quick review of just a few of GSA’s hundreds of projects shows where we’ve come and gives an indication of where we’re going.

Of course, you all know the San Francisco Federal Building, an 18-story pillar of sustainability that includes a breathing exoskeleton, a sky garden, and an energy footprint 50 percent lower than comparably sized conventional office buildings.

Our agency headquarters is also undergoing a renovation that will incorporate green and white roofing, rain- and gray-water capture and reuse, network controls to harvest daylight, and natural ventilation.

At the Wayne Aspinal Courthouse in Grand Junction, Colo., and at the San Luis II Land Port of Entry in Arizona, our design teams have retrofitted and modernized the structures to create net-zero buildings, saving the taxpayer thousands in utility costs.

And we’re trying other things at sites too numerous to mention. We’re looking hard at new ways of using wind, sun, earth, and geothermics to create highly efficient spaces for a highly modern, highly productive work force.

But our buildings are also being used, as GSA Public Buildings Service Commissioner Bob Peck puts it, as “green proving grounds,” where new technologies can be put to work, rigorously tested, and evaluated. For example, at our Maj. General Emmett J. Bean center in Indianapolis, we have teamed with solar panel contractors to create a photovoltaic laboratory where five different types of panels are being given field trials.

GSA owns, leases, or manages nearly 2 percent of U.S. commercial real estate, and our portfolio is spread across every state, and every climate, in the country. We have broad shoulders and a large denominator, and can afford to, in the words of our administrator, "fail fast, fail forward, and fail fruitfully." Every notable advance has been the product of trial and error, step and misstep. This challenge is no exception, and we must be willing, indeed eager, to face incremental failure and learn from it.

It is clear to me that our nation – our society – is in the crucible of one such moment as we struggle to coalesce around a sustainable way forward. I read a press account recently that quoted the notable Princeton philosopher Kwame Appiah and examined the evolution of social moral moments. A question he raises is how future generations will judge us. What will our children and grandchildren look back and think about us? What will they think about this moment in time when we broke from the past and embraced a common-sense approach to our buildings and our environment?

I hope they look back at us with pride, and say that at this time, in this moment, we encouraged new veins of discovery and tapped new wells of imagination.

As I mentioned, we’ve done a lot. But we aren’t done yet. Not nearly. This is a national moment. This is GSA’s moment, and this is the time when our creativity can realize its potential. This is the time when our imagination can be opened. This is the time to ask – and to answer – “what if?” This is the time to experiment and to find the solution. This is the time to embrace discovery and to build a bridge to our green tomorrow.

Thank you

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