See how GSA’s new procurement guidelines will drive lower-carbon building projects

by Brianna Crandall — March 24, 2021 — The Green Building Advisory Committee (GBAC), an advisory body to the US General Services Administration (GSA), recently approved a series of procurement principles to enable a shift to low-embodied-carbon building materials and approaches. These principles were proposed by the GBAC Embodied Energy Task Group, co-chaired by independent clean-energy nonprofit RMI (Rocky Mountain Institute).

The GSA’s vast procurement power gives it a unique ability to influence markets, points out RMI. Over the past decade, 253 million square feet of buildings were constructed for GSA, representing more than $11 billion in value. By shifting its procurement, GSA will accelerate the development of a market for low-embodied-carbon building materials and approaches in the United States, as a means to cut emissions in a “stubborn” sector.

Victor Olgyay, AIA, co-chair of the GBAC task group that produced the procurement guidelines, remarked:

Addressing embodied carbon is an enormous untapped opportunity for the federal government to cost-effectively reduce its carbon footprint. These procurement guidelines are a giant step forward toward that goal.

Specifically, the GBAC has recommended two main approaches and sent these to GSA:

  • A material approach for all projects requiring environmental product declarations (EPDs) for 75% of materials used (by cost or weight), and that their emissions fall in the best-performing 80 percent of global warming potential (GWP) among functionally equivalent products; and
  • A whole-building life-cycle assessment approach for larger projects (over $3 million), requiring that buildings be designed in such a way that life-cycle carbon assessment shows that the selected design results in a 20-percent carbon reduction.

Meghan C. Lewis, a senior researcher at the Carbon Leadership Forum, commented:

2021 looks to be an exciting year for federal leadership on driving emission reductions. The letter adopted by the GBAC is a first and important step for establishing a holistic implementation path for the GSA and other federal agencies to leverage their significant purchasing power to reduce embodied carbon in federal projects.

In 2001, GSA chose to use the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) building rating system to meet its performance requirements for new construction and substantial renovation of federally owned facilities. This resulted in a major expansion of the LEED program and demonstrated GSA’s enormous market leadership, according to RMI. The recently adopted low-embodied-carbon procurement principals are anticipated to follow a similar market adoption trajectory.

Kevin Kampschroer, director of the Office of Federal High-Performance Green Buildings, GSA, remarked:

Working on the president’s climate agenda is not just exciting, rewarding and refreshing; it is clear that we need every idea and every tactic that will help reduce emissions and mitigate the effects of climate change. Considering embodied carbon is a logical step in GSA’s efforts to reduce GHG emissions. It can be a lever to change how the government constructs buildings, spur building innovation, and spark materials creativity across the building industry.

To view GBAC’s Advice Letter: Policy Recommendations for Procurement of Low Embodied Energy and Carbon Materials by Federal Agencies [PDF – 325 KB], visit the GBAC Advice Letters and Resolutions page on the GSA website.