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GovLoop Member of the Week: Don Horn, Director, PBS Sustainability Program, Office of Federal High-Performance Green Buildings, GSA Public Buildings Service

Thanks so much to Don Horn for taking the time to be interviewed.

Don Horn is Director, PBS Sustainability Program, Office of Federal High-Performance Green Buildings, GSA Public Buildings Service

What is your current position? I’m director of the Sustainability Program for the Public Buildings Service of the General Services Administration, so it’s green federal facilities. This includes all of our sustainable design implementation within the PBS, influencing everything from designing new buildings to constructing, leasing facilities, maintaining etc. We look at all aspects of building’s lifecycle and try to reduce impact on the environment.

PBS is the landlord for other federal agencies, so we acquire and manage space for other agencies to occupy. We manage space for a million federal workers, about 350 million square feet of space between owned and leased buildings.

How did you end up being in Seattle? I was just looking at my calendar and it’s been 18 years since I started with GSA. I decided that moving to Seattle is what I wanted do, and my boss said it would be fine. We look at innovative workplace solutions – we have an entire program dealing with that. The concept is to look at the way a workplace can support what you do need to do. We have changing work patterns, mobile work through email, videoconferencing, travel, etc., so it doesn’t become as important where you’re working from. My boss and two staff are in DC but I’m out here. We have video conferences and frequent conference calls. Even within different agencies in DC, there’s much larger trend toward conference calls, so if you call in they don’t where you’re calling from.

It’s been 2 ½ years for me out here in Seattle, and it took a year or year and a half before some people realized I moved.

Can you say more about how you got into this career? My first eight years in GSA were in the historic preservation program. I’m an architect by background. In graduate school, I worked in a research group in Georgia Tech, the Center for Architectural Conservation, had several contracts within GSA. I was developing assessment programs for federal buildings. After I got my masters degree, GSA came calling.

I was the one who had developed this particular historic preservation program, and they decided they needed a full-time person to implement the program.

I thought I would work for the government for 2-3 years and then go back to work in the private sector, but I quickly realized that projects take a long time in the government. It can take 5 years or longer for a project to go from design to completion. Some projects were completed 6-7 years later. After 8 years with preservation program, I decided I wanted to try something different.

There was an executive order that agencies should start managing sustainably. It was one of the “greening the government” executive orders under President Clinton in 1999.

At the Environmental Division, the director of the division decided she needed an architect to start the sustainability programs for GSA, and I ended up switching to that program.

We’ve heard that the stimulus package will be affecting what you do. Can you say more about that? The GSA has $5.5 billion in stimulus funds, and $4.5 is for converting existing federal facilities into high-performing green buildings – to improve energy efficiency, water use, and other aspects. This is a huge increase over prior years.

How and why do you make buildings more efficient?
The most obvious payback or return on investment is making buildings more efficient through energy conservation, because you’re not spending money on energy bills.

A long-term energy efficient strategy is a primary consideration. Improving the performance of the building includes looking at heat loss, poor insulation, windows, color of the roofs—i.e. dark roof will make the building hotter. Then there’s considering adding photovoltaics to buildings, and some wind power possibly; and looking at the efficiency of equipment systems, improving HVAC performance of the building, replacing older equipment that’s not as efficient with new. You have to look at duct leakages, tuning everything up to perform better.

With water conservation, low-flow fixtures are mostly standard today, but now there are ultra low-flow; and you can put infrared controls on water, and even have waterless urinals. Cooling towers use a lot of water for HVAC purposes—we’re looking at how you can use water other than potable water for things like flushing toilets, irrigation, etc.

Another major aspect is occupant comfort and satisfaction. The largest investment in a business is in your employees. If you can attract and retain good employees, you get a very big return as well. Looking at issues like daylighting—people are more productive if they have a connection to light and nature.

You also have to consider low-emitting materials—making sure paints aren’t off-gassing; making sure carpets are using non-toxic materials. We are using recycled, bio-based environmentally preferable products.

What should someone who might want to enter this career?
For sustainability in general, they need holistic thinkers who can bring together ideas and concepts, understanding the balance of different perspectives – environmental, economic, and social – someone who can come up with strategies and solutions, considering the balance of these 3 areas.

As an architect, I come to sustainable design from a building aspect; but to understand concepts of sustainability, you don’t have to have an engineering or architectural background. At one point I had an employee who was quite interested in sustainability, and quite good. She kept saying “but I don’t have a tech background”, but I kept saying this is about changing mindsets, making people think differently, seeing a new future where we can live in harmony with the environment.

Will you be hiring?
This stimulus money is about ten times what we’ve ever had at once, and we have to spend it within 2 years. But, this bill is not to increase the size of GSA. We are not looking to hire large numbers of new people. There will be some new jobs within the agency, mainly in contracting, but most of the work goes to the private sector – architects and engineers and builders. For every $1 we spend, it generates about $4.50 in the private sector. That’s part of why the money is going to GSA, to upgrade infrastructure, to reduce energy costs, but also to provide jobs in the construction industry. Jobs will be in manufacturing, installers, designers, engineers, etc.

Have you used Govloop?
I’m not much of a social networking person, it’s all new to me. It was a friend from the EPA in California–we see each other once a year at the Green Building conference—who suggested it. When I got the email I thought it would be a good way to keep in touch. Since joining, I’ve seen people I know from State governments and other federal agencies. I’ve also recently joined Facebook and am still trying to figure that out.

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Profile Photo Steve Ressler

Very interesting. You hear so much about federal green buildings but I never really got a sense of how it was going to actually look (or the Clinton history). I love the innovative teleworking – I’m meeting more and more people like that (including myself)

Profile Photo Janel Crooks

Sorry for not focusing on the green buildings part (I do support the concept wholeheartedly!), but what caught my attention is your “remote workplace.” Even though my agency utilizes “work at home agreements” and “remote worksites,” there are many (I do mean MANY) people who are still uneasy with them. (It’s a problem near and dear to my heart, as someone whose personal life keeps her living 65 minutes from her new office … and 2 minutes from her old one.) I applaud you (and your supervisor) for making it work!

Profile Photo Adriel Hampton

Keep up your great work, Don! I’ve got a Code Green group here to talk about the challenges of sustainable living, and SF has a robust green building program. I also really like how you point out how easy it is to do this important work from a place you want to work. I almost took a job in Tacoma several years ago, and can attest to the beauty of Seattle and the Sound.
Heather, thanks for another great interview!

Profile Photo Tricia

I personally work in a green building, and it is great!! I look forward to coming to work most days, and appreciate the fact that there’s not toxic chemicals at my feet (in the carpeting), and that if I leave my office and someone stops me in the hall for 15 or 20 minutes, the lights haven’t been on needlessly – as they shut off 10 minutes after you leave the room, and turn back on when you return!

Profile Photo Al Fullbright

Are we going to build solar powered gold-plated escalators to wall street or are we going to help the citizen on the street.
Homeowners who try to come up with workable solar designs with little financing and only realize minimal results.
What we need is aroof-mount solar hot water heater that will pay for itself in three years.