When it comes to the environmental performance of its facilities, the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA) is aiming low. Very low. In October 2009, President Barack Obama issued Executive Order 13514, which directs federal agencies to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions and waste, increase their energy efficiency and water conservation, support sustainable communities, and leverage their purchasing power to promote environmentally responsible products. (Read the full order here ).

The GSA, however, doesn’t just want to reduce its environmental footprint. It wants to eliminate it.

Speaking to the USGBC Federal Summit on May 18, 2010, GSA administrator Martha Johnson explained, "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."

With a portfolio that accounts for 362 million square feet, this small target is a big deal.

As a step toward the zero environmental footprint (ZEF) goal, last October, the GSA updated its federal building requirements to mandate LEED Gold certification for all new federal building construction and substantial renovations. While LEED Silver remains the required level of certification for construction lease projects of 10,000 square feet or more, and LEED certification does not eliminate an environmental footprint, it’s a step in the right direction.

Under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, the GSA received $5.5 billion for sustainable design–related investments. Of this, $4.5 billion was spent on high-performance modernizations and retrofits and $1 billion was spent on new green buildings. Some of this investment can be seen in "Red, White, Blue, and Green" starting on page 44. We look at five land ports of entry to the U.S., all winners in the GSA’s 2010 Design Awards. The biennial program recognizes high-quality design, art, and construction in federal building and nearly half of this year’s winning spaces were land ports, facilities that act as the face of the nation to the millions of people that pass through them.

Requiring LEED certification and investing in environmental upgrades are key strategies in reducing the government’s footprint, but much more work remains. To say that getting to the ZEF goal will require a lot of effort is a vast understatement. American bureaucracy isn’t known for operating at high speeds, and the process of working with the government is rarely described as easy.

In her speech last May, Johnson said that the ZEF target is the GSA’s equivalent of when NASA first set out to put a man on the moon in the 1960s. Speaking again on the goal at the GSA’s biennial Design Awards ceremony in Washington, D.C., this past January, Johnson explained that eliminating the GSA’s footprint will require clever, inventive, and progressive ways of merging sustainability and design. In both instances, however, her outlook was optimistic: While it will be challenging and time-consuming, with innovation, experimentation, and persistence, it will also be achievable.

I also think it’s quite inspirational. If good design—meaning beautiful, functional, high-performing, and inspirational spaces—is possible within the complexity of national bureaucracy, I think it should be achievable everywhere, don’t you?