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GSA is a Trendsetter on Net Zero and Smart Buildings

Kevin Powell sees firsthand the evolution of buildings during two decades working for the federal government

By Dave Lubach, Executive Editor  

One book made all the difference for Kevin Powell. 

As a graduate of the University of California-Berkeley, Powell was preparing for a career in cultural anthropology, a profession that focuses on the study of human society and culture. 

Then Powell read “Architecture and Energy,” a 1977 book by Richard Stein that touched on building technology and design. The book’s contents inspired Powell to make a career change into facilities management. 

“People spend the majority of their lives in buildings, and those buildings have this enormous impact on the environment, which is something I was really interested in,” says Powell, the director of emerging building technologies for the General Services Administration (GSA). “I was also interested in that intersection of people and the spaces that they inhabit. I guess you could say I am a bit of a geek, in a certain way. I’ve always been excited by innovation.” 

As Powell celebrates 20 years working for the government agency that happens to be the biggest building owner in the country, it’s clear he landed in the right spot as an innovation guy. 

Early impact 

Before joining the GSA, Powell was already impacting the facilities community at his alma mater. After obtaining a master's in architecture at Berkeley, Powell was part of a group that established the Center for the Built Environment (CBE), an organization that focuses on bringing together building architects, engineers and industry leaders. 

“The idea (behind CBE) was to improve buildings for the people occupying them, the owners operating them, and minimizing their environmental impact,” Powell says. “When I joined the GSA in 2004, I was hired to establish a similar program, but from the building owners’ perspective and to work with many of the same leaders.” 

Powell was the CBE’s executive director before moving on to GSA as a research director before ascending to his current position in 2017. GSA possesses the largest single portfolio of real estate in the United States – something Powell says made the decision to work there even more appealing. 

GSA owns or leases 363 million square feet of space – or the equivalent of half the city of Cleveland, Ohio. The square footage covers nearly 8,400 buildings located in about 2,200 communities nationwide.  

Many of the buildings under GSA purview are office buildings but also include land ports of entry, courthouses, laboratories, post offices and data centers. About 700 of the buildings alone are in the Washington D.C., Maryland and Virginia area. 

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Because of the massive portfolio, energy-saving measures are critical throughout the GSA, especially when factoring in the Biden Administration’s commitment to achieving net-zero operations for federal buildings by 2045. 

“This job is a way to have an impact on a lot of people and really on the environment,” Powell says. “And the thing I love about architecture that really drew me to it is it’s literally concrete, not theoretical work. You can really measure your impact, whether that’s a building you built or, in the GSA’s case, a pretty large portfolio of buildings where you can really sort of literally see the needle move.” 

The focus of Powell’s career has changed during his 20 years. When he first started at GSA, his job emphasized the design of the organization’s office buildings – working with companies like furniture manufacturers to give GSA’s buildings more of a contemporary feel while adapting to new technologies such as smartphones. 

But as building owners and facility managers started to place a bigger emphasis on energy savings, Powell’s role with the GSA also evolved. A lot of what Powell’s team accomplishes has ripple effects across industries and other companies in the U.S. 

“We’re in 50 states and three territories, so every climate is covered, and our buildings are large and quite diverse,” he says. “They range from tiny buildings to some big buildings. What I think we have figured out how to do is test technologies and then be able to have the sort of model building data based on our building portfolio, real-world data from multiple buildings.” 

The public nature of GSA lends itself to being a trend-setter in the commercial and institutional facilities world focusing on the best and most efficient ways to operate buildings. 

“In our case, we have no problems publicly publishing our outcomes, whereas we know that some of our colleagues in the commercial real estate industry view these technologies as proprietary advantage,” Powell says. “Other large commercial real estate owners don’t really share any details because they consider real estate and facility performances to be part of their bottom line.” 

One example of GSA leading the way on building technology is a program led by Powell, Green Proving Ground. The program, as described on the GSA website, “leverages GSA’s real estate portfolio to evaluate innovative building technologies. The program aims to drive down operational costs in federal buildings and help lead market transformation through the deployment of new technologies.” 

“The program really helps a lot of the industry innovators bridge what folks call the Technology Valley of Death because we’re really taking that first user risk,” Powell says. “We’re the first buyer and then we’re validating that it works and that helps both us and the commercial real estate industry. The facility community can have confidence in what to invest in, and that’s what it’s all about. 

“We’ve proven out about 30 technologies that range from windows that have the thermal performance of a well-insulated wall to magnetic levitation chillers.” 

Looking to the future 

Powell likes to say one of the best things about his position is, “I get to truly see the tip of the spear, and what that spear looks like.” 

During two decades with GSA, Powell has had a front seat view of how technologies in facilities have evolved over the years. As electrification and decarbonization efforts continue to emerge for buildings, Powell remains excited about seeing the future of buildings unfolding. 

“We’ve been talking about smart buildings for a decade or so, but I think the smart building is actually here,” he says. “The facility manager of today, but really tomorrow in particular, is going to be operating a smart building, and I can just imagine in 10 years people will just look back at how we once operated buildings and they’ll be like, ‘I can’t believe anybody could do that.’” 

As the future unfolds in the facilities management profession, Powell cites two important concepts that managers need to pay attention to going forward. One is cybersecurity. 

“Something that keeps me maybe more up at night,” says Powell. “When we are talking about cybersecurity, we have a lot of opportunities for connecting all this stuff together. We also have a risk because if they’re all connected together and there are a lot of bad actors out there who want to be malicious. So, we’ve got to balance the opportunity with making sure that we’re cybersecure and understand how to manage the risk against the opportunity.” 

The other challenge Powell sees unfolding for managers is the changing workforce and how buildings will be maintained and operated in the future. 

“Future facility operators are going to look at some of these archaic technologies and say, ‘How did anyone run a building like that?’,” Powell says. “We have to have those future facility operators who think that way and are trained that way.” 

Even with those concerns, Powell remains bullish on the future for facilities. He touts the landmark Inflation Reduction Act of 2022, which allocates $2.2 billion to invest in low embodied carbon building materials and almost another billion dollars for the kinds of emerging and sustainable technologies that Powell and his GSA teammates have been working on for more than a decade, as a reason why.  

He’s excited to see all the work that his team has put in over the years continue to produce energy savings and set standards for all kinds of buildings, all over the country. 

“I would say it’s a once-in-your-career moment when you essentially have a mandate and the money to actually start off on this trajectory,” Powell says. “To have my program be squarely at the center of that is an absolute thrill.” 

Dave Lubach is the executive editor for the facility market. He has more than nine years of experience writing about facility management and maintenance issues. 

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  posted on 5/30/2024   Article Use Policy

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