It’s certainly not the “same old, same old” for Robert Peck, a two-time manager in the U.S. General Services Administration, one of the world’s biggest development databases.
This time, new floodgates of revenue, labor and cheaper materials have converged to allow the massive updating and greening of an aging inventory of buildings.
During the Clinton years, Peck oversaw public buildings for the GSA at a time when big government construction projects attracted little attention. High wage rates and material costs also made it tough to stretch an approximately $1-billion annual capital expenditures budget over hundreds of millions of square feet.
In August 2009, Peck returned to the role of commissioner of public buildings for the GSA. But this time, it’s more like Christmas and everything’s on sale. He was able to put $5.5 billion in Recovery Act funds under contract by Sept. 30.
And, unlike before, contractors were scrambling for the work, and material costs had come down.
“We’re getting more work done for the money,” Peck says. “In the late 90s, we put out large bid packages and maybe got one bidder. We’d hear, ‘I’m tapped out and can’t find subs because they’re all busy.’
“That’s not happening this time.”
Such a tight deadline to spend such a huge windfall also means Peck gets to bypass a lot of procedural red tape and employ strategies like those he used at his most recent job as managing director of Jones Lang LaSalle, a global real estate services firm.
The door’s have opened on the green front, too. “The recovery project permitted GSA to go into green technology on a proving-ground basis, and it’s fast evolving,” Peck says.
One experiment is on the installation of 60 solar panels on the Emmett J. Bean Federal Center in Indianapolis. “We’re using four different kinds of photovoltaic panels so we can see which one works best,” Peck says. “We’re big enough to see if it really works, but we’re not betting the farm on it.”
In another beta test, four storage tanks of harvested rainwater will be used to flush toilets and water a green roof for a building in Indianapolis.
At the Fort Snelling Whipple Federal Building in Minnesota, “we’re installing geothermal wells,” Peck says. “We’re giving it a shot.”
The Recovery Act specifically calls for GSA facilities to become “high-performance green buildings,” which gives the government an opportunity to overcome an overly cautious attitude, Peck says. “We’re proceeding prudently,” he adds. “It’s all creating jobs that otherwise wouldn’t be there.”
In the two GSA regions covering 10 Midwest states, $1 billion in Recovery Act funds created 120 projects in 51 cities, putting 9,000 people to work.
As a landlord to government agencies with a development database of 1,500 buildings with 180 million rental sq ft, “asset by asset, we need to make net income,” Peck says. “[The Recovery Act] has helped accelerate the backlog of capital repairs. The average age of our buildings is 46 years. One building in Galena, Ill., predates the Civil War.”
As a long-term holder, GSA also can justify its green investments. “In the private sector, if you don’t see a return in five to 10 years, you’re not going to put in the investment,” Peck says. “For the GSA, the payback is 10 to 20 years.”
Although the GSA is performing four times the contractual work of a typical year, Peck says the GSA staff has hardly increased. “We use CMs to take some of the burden off,” he adds.