Sustainability leadership: An interview with GSA’s Ruth Cox

by Jason Hartke

Overseeing real estate, acquisition, and technology for the federal government is a lot of responsibility. That’s the job of the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA). In fact, with oversight of nearly 10,000 federally-owned or leased buildings, a total of 300 million square feet of office space, GSA is the largest landlord in the nation.

With cost-saving as a major priority, the leadership at GSA has helped usher in a new era of efficiency, innovation and performance. And it’s no wonder that green building has been part of that solution toolbox.

Recently, we had a chance to connect with a senior leader at GSA, Ruth Cox, the Regional Administrator of the Pacific Rim Region and GSA’s Senior Sustainability Officer, to talk more about the important work she’s doing and hear more about GSA’s continued efforts to save taxpayers money and deliver some of the best buildings in the country.

Q. GSA has had a strong and consistent record on green buildings. What’s your secret and how do you all do such a good job of keeping the momentum going?

A. As the federal government’s largest commercial real estate manager, we have a responsibility to help lead the government’s sustainability transformation. From energy and water efficient buildings, to a fuel efficient fleet, to smarter electronics disposal and green acquisitions, GSA is working to ensure that we are going green and saving green.

We take our commitment to the American taxpayer and to the President’s agenda very seriously and it starts from the top down. Our administrator, Dan Tangherlini, co-chairs a multi-agency team that’s focused on climate change mitigation. The team is looking at how best to drive broader adoption for sustainable business practices across the federal government.

I think one of the ways we keep the momentum going is through our continued commitment and the actual achievement of significant results. Since 2009, GSA has appropriated more than $5.5 billion under the Recovery Act to convert federal facilities into high-performance green buildings and construct energy-efficient federal buildings, courthouses, and land ports of entry. These projects are delivering lasting progress toward building a more sustainable national infrastructure, reducing the federal government’s consumption of energy and water, and increasing the use of clean and renewable energy sources.

Our folks have been implementing innovative technologies and are helping to evaluate emerging building technologies in a real-world context, and they’re getting tremendous results. As we see the fruits of our labor, people get excited and it starts to become a self-fulfilling prophecy.  The team becomes motivated to work even harder to increase energy efficiency, deploy clean power, boost our performance in waste management and green the supply chain. Ultimately, adopting sustainable practices is just good business. It not only helps preserve our environment, it also helps reduce operating costs.

Awards and recognition are also very motivating to our people. Take our own regional headquarters at 50 United Nations Plaza in San Francisco, for example. With Recovery Act funds, we undertook an historic renovation of a Great Depression era landmark that had survived a major earthquake, standing largely untouched since the 1970s, and transformed it into a modern federal office building. Among a growing list of accolades is its most recent naming by Building Design+Construction as a reconstruction Gold Award winner.

Q. As the Regional Administrator for GSA’s Pacific Rim, you oversee the agency’s operations in Arizona, Nevada, California, Hawaii, and U.S. Territories in the Pacific Rim. Region 9 has a very holistic approach to sustainability, from your fleet of vehicles and transportation, to your building portfolio, to better management of your supply chain. Can you tell us a bit about how those elements work together?

A. The holistic approach we took in developing our sustainability plan, where multidisciplinary teams with representation from different divisions and business lines work together to craft solutions, is the same approach we need to take in delivering solutions to our customers.

USGBC members are familiar with the integrated design concept with regard to collaboratively designing buildings. They understand the importance of viewing buildings as interdependent systems, as opposed to an accumulation of its separate components. We’ve taken this buildings concept and used its principles in other areas of our sustainability plan.

Take green procurement for example. Within GSA, there is an obvious tie between our buildings portfolio, federal acquisition service and our policy staffs when it comes to defining a sustainable supply chain. We’ve established a multidisciplinary team to work together to shape our green purchasing solutions. In our fleet operation which is housed in our Federal Acquisition Service, as we introduce more battery electric and plug-in hybrid vehicles, the Public Buildings side of the business needs to accommodate the need for recharging stations. The two lines of business collaborate in the planning and execution of fleet strategies. Our workplace transformation program is yet another example that brings together the expertise of staffs that specialize in space design, furniture and IT procurement, and mobility programs. By working as integrated design team, we are able to get better results for ourselves and for our customers.

Q. You have some great new projects in Los Angeles. What is your favorite aspect of the new Courthouse project?

A. Before we get to the new LA courthouse, I wanted to put a plug in our highly anticipated first LEED® Gold certified cafeteria at the 300 North LA federal building. We are very proud of that project, as well. The cafeteria was one of many sustainable projects funded by the Recovery Act and includes features such as the use of daylighting, energy and water conservation strategies, and sustainable furnishings and finishes. The cafeteria does not have the oversized, institutionalized dining area typical of 40-year old Federal buildings. It has a smaller, more efficient layout that frames the entryway lobby. Its day-to-day operations also reflect GSA’s commitment to energy efficiency and environmental stewardship with the use of energy star appliances, and both recycling and composting programs. The cafeteria is open to the public and is truly a welcoming gathering place for the 300 North Los Angeles Street federal community and community at large.  We hope that others will share in using it.

As far as the new LA courthouse is concerned, my favorite aspect of the project is that we planned it as an integrated design project from the beginning. The courthouse was one of the very first projects I became involved in when I joined GSA in August 2011. I’ve had an opportunity to see firsthand how all the different disciplines came together during the design process: our architects, engineers and project managers were joined by building managers who will operate this LEED Platinum facility once complete; our sustainability experts drove performance requirements; and our customer representatives provided a courthouse operations perspective.

Using the integrated design approach speaks to the evolution of GSA as an agency and how we are now executing our buildings projects. We recognize that it’s critical to include multidisciplinary collaboration from conception to completion so that we can achieve the optimal performance. You can incorporate all the latest technologies but if you don’t operate and maintain the building appropriately, and if the tenants don’t behave in a manner that’s consistent with those investments, you won’t get the performance or return on investment that you intended, and in our case that the taxpayers deserve.

This project also gave us an opportunity to use some of the experience and expertise that we’ve gained from GSA’s Green Proving Ground (GPG) program. GPG leverages the agency’s real estate portfolio to evaluate emerging building technologies in the areas of energy management, building envelope, lighting, HVAC, and clean power generation and facilitates the adoption of these cutting-edge technologies in our federal buildings.

Q. You were recently named Senior Sustainability Officer for the GSA. That’s a relatively new role in the government.  Can you share with us your role, responsibilities, and your goal for the next two years? What does President Obama expect from you and your team?

A. This appointment grows out of Executive Order 13514, “Federal Leadership in Environmental, Energy, and Economic Performance” and I am just one of many Senior Sustainability Officers (SSO) that have been appointed within the federal government. I’m responsible for ensuring the President’s sustainability policies are firmly and consistently manifest in day-to-day operations across GSA. Working closely with sustainability champions in GSA’s Public Building and Federal Acquisition Services and 11 different regions, I help coordinate programs for energy and water efficiency, clean power generation, lowering fossil fuel consumption in the fleet, greening the supply chain, diverting waste and transforming federal workspaces to shrink the federal footprint.

I lead GSA’s Strategic Sustainability Advisory Group, working closely with the White House Council on Environmental Quality and the Office of Management and Budget on the Agency’s Strategic Sustainability Performance Plan and annual Sustainability Scorecard, and to support our customer agencies in meeting their sustainability goals.

I think the more important role that I play, and probably a distinct role for me as SSO, is that I am deeply involved in pushing policy into practice within GSA. I work closely with the policy organization in our DC headquarters to ensure field operations are reaping the maximum benefits from our investments. This is an extremely exciting opportunity for me as it allows me to share the experience gained as the Pacific Rim Regional Administrator and development of our regional sustainability plan. We were the first region to write a tactical plan to operationalize sustainability. It highlights the ways we’re working with state and local governments, universities, and the commercial sector to identify best practices and see where there are opportunities for collaboration.

I’m thrilled to be able to assist other regions in embracing similar approaches and ensuring again that GSA gets the best return on our sustainability investments.

Q. When Al Gore spoke at Greenbuild in 2011, we teased him about “inventing the internet” but as I understand it, you really were responsible for laying the foundation in the tech sector for public networks and communications.  Can you tell us about how your private sector experience with technology has prepared you for this opportunity to advancing sustainability across the entire GSA?

A. I wish I could take credit for the convergence of computing and communications, but I was just a very small cog in an enormously large wheel. I served as a high tech marketing executive at Hewlett Packard and Tandem Computers during a very transformative period and was responsible for introducing new technologies and building high growth businesses. In 2004, I found myself thinking about the fact that we needed to make more investments and take a new approach to economic growth around technologies that could improve our quality of life—in energy efficiency and clean power generation. I believed America really needed to lead in this area. That thought prompted a career change and ultimately led me to where I am today.

What I bring to GSA’s sustainability effort from my experience in the technology industries is a focus on job creation and economic growth. As GSA implements the President’s sustainability policies, we also have a great opportunity to affect economic growth and establish ourselves as a worldwide leader of innovation and green technology.

Our efforts not only help mitigate the effects of climate change but also help create jobs in the sustainability market sector for American engineered, American manufactured and domestically fueled products and locally delivered services. GSA, with its 360 million-square-foot portfolio and its over $50 billion supply chain, has a unique opportunity to drive innovative solutions into broad deployment.


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