Competitors vie for neither lucrative NBA contracts nor sizable office bracket pools in GSA’s March Madness-style Federal Building Challenge. An annual competition between sustainable buildings around the country, the contest awards the winner only bragging rights for a year. But in reality the stakes are high: educating the building community, government and public about innovations in design and construction that are saving billions of taxpayer dollars and curtailing water waste and carbon pollution.
For 2014, new or renovated high performing buildings were selected by GSA, then paired up in mid-March for the contest’s first round of public voting. The 8 match-ups featured several structures highlighted on this blog for their green features, often funded by American Reinvestment and Recovery Act dollars directed toward energy efficient modernization. The Edith Green-Wendell Wyatt Federal Building in Portland, for example, was pitted against New York’s Ted Weiss Federal Office Building, while the Wayne N. Aspinall Federal Building and U.S. Courthouse in Colorado took on Indiana’s Hammond U. S. Courthouse. On its blog, GSA furnished green creds for each competitor, egging on rivalries over geothermal energy wells versus renewable biomass, solar paneled versus green roofs or Energy Star versus LEED certification. But voters were free to choose their favorites and vote once a day, based on architectural style, city of origin or whatever criteria they preferred.
Some of the first contests were squeakers—the Senator Christopher S. Bond U.S. Courthouse bested the Cesar E. Chavez Memorial Building by only 2 votes (297 to 295). Others were blowouts—Thomas P. O’Neill Federal Building was trounced by the U.S. Coast Guard Headquarters (187 to 402). The latter victory turned the Coast Guard HQ into a hometown favorite here in D.C., where many have followed that colossal construction project at least since groundbreaking in 2009. A redevelopment of a historic hospital campus in Southwest, D.C., with daylit office space, advanced energy metering and submetering and the second largest green roof in the U.S., the Coast Guard facility exemplifies many of the building attributes the GSA wants others to emulate.
Second round competition was fierce, but D.C. HQ partisans and fans of three other buildings (50 United Nations Plaza, Tuscaloosa Federal Building, and Hipolito Garcia Federal Building) were able to keep hopes alive. Backers of each of the final four turned to social media to garner votes, and on April 3, the finalists were announced. Both are renovated historic buildings: Hipolito F. Garcia Federal Building and U.S. Courthouse is a historic landmark in San Antonio, and the 50 United Nations Plaza has survived San Francisco earthquakes since 1936. Which would prevail—Garcia with its high efficiency boilers and chillers, interior storm windows and 38.8% energy use reduction, or UN Plaza with its water-conserving and wildlife-friendly roof design?
Twitter and Facebook helped energize support for both competitors, and the GSA’s Pacific Rim Region organized a mini-pep rally on behalf of UN Plaza. Votes poured in, and on April 8, GSA crowned the champion: 50 UN Plaza (5,892-3,664). The value of the contest for the regional building community was clear in a statement by the UN Plaza project manager, Monsy Agleham, who said, “What an amazing experience to have this entire Region, crossing all business lines, the project team, both internal and external contractors, our tenants, as well as our community neighbors pulling together for our very own 50 UNP.” But of course the real winners extend beyond participants and voters to include everyone who learned more about green building design and construction through the GSA Challenge.