Great Collaboration

“Brilliant!” was the response from Les Shepherd, chief architect for the General Services Administration, when I proposed a collaboration between the agency and Metropolis to create the challenge for our 2011 Next Generation Design Competition. I was emboldened to approach Les’s office by an article I read on the New York Times’s Green blog about the Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory, in Golden, Colorado, which was completed in July and claims to be the largest zero-energy building in the county. Earlier this year, an executive order from President Obama set forth a plan for all agencies, working together, to save up to $11 billion in energy costs by 2020. The feds are clearly pushing the green envelope.

All of that made me think about the vast holdings of the GSA. The agency manages a staggering 9,600 properties—roughly 362 million square feet, providing work space for 1.1 million federal civilian employees and countless visitors. What if, together, we challenged the most environmentally and technologically savvy generation of designers to think about bringing one GSA building to net-zero performance? Their ideas could make a huge difference to the environment and the quality of life of millions of federal employees.

As the GSA worked to identify the building that would be the focus of our competition, another piece of inspiring news came across my screen. The GSA administrator, Martha Johnson, announced an ambitious new goal for the agency: an environmental footprint of zero. It became clear, that this would be our challenge too: to push green design to its highest performance, at every scale of the building, from its urban context to the smallest product inside. Materials, resources, spatial configurations—no detail can be ignored.

The building chosen for our Next Generation challenge was constructed during the Johnson administration, which gave us such milestones in American democracy as the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and also dramatically reduced the nation’s poverty rate. As Joseph A. Califano Jr. wrote in 1999 in the Washington Monthly: “This reduction of poverty … was a focused, tenacious effort to revolutionize the role of the federal government with a series of interventions that enriched the lives of millions of Americans. In those tumultuous Great Society years, the President submitted, and Congress enacted, more than 100 major proposals in each of the 89th and 90th Congress.” The revolution needed the support of a lot of new buildings, all of which were representative of our home-grown modernism.

In 2000 the dean of the Yale School of Architecture, Robert A.M. Stern, led an early attempt to figure out what to do with these buildings, holding a forum called “Architecture of the Great Society.” The proceedings (you can find them on the GSA site) mentioned “sustainability” just once. (The word green is nowhere to be found.) How priorities have changed in ten years! Indeed, this could be the time when the new green revolution, fostered by our federal government, finally takes root. The next generation wants it. They will work hard to make it happen. We will all benefit from their youthful energy, imagination, design skills, ideas, and enthusiasm.

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