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POST OFFICE IS GOING GREEN

The US Postal Service (USPS) is making good environmental design the standard for the 500 to 600 buildings it constructs each year. In 1997 the USPS assembled a green design wish list, or green addendum, that included sustainably harvested wood, post-consumer recycled carpet, occupancy sensors, and indigenous plantings. The USPS then challenged its 11 construction and design regional offices to do a green showcase project. Six of the districts responded. The first project, a post office in Fort Worth, Texas, completed in 1998, includes daylighting, recycled materials, and a system for harvesting rainwater for landscaping. In Corrales, New Mexico, the USPS built a straw bale post office--one of its greenest structures to date. In Alaska, the USPS installed one of the largest fuel cell systems to power its Anchorage distribution center. Successful green addendum initiatives are moved to the USPS's master specifications list when cost parameters are met, material and installation expertise are available, and the items make sense environmentally and geographically. If an item on the master specifications list doesn't meet either the USPS environmental or financial requirements, it can be removed. Building Operating Management,

Catching the green building wave back in the mid-1990s, the United States Postal Service (USPS) has dotted the landscape with some pretty innovative buildings, utilizing high-tech and low-tech systems. But itís not stopping with a few showcase projects. The Postal Service is making good environmental design the standard for the 500 to 600 buildings it constructs each year.

"We think environmental design makes good business sense", says Dennis Baca, manager of Environmental Management Policy for the United States Postal Service (USPS). "We are in every community and are often remembered for negative things, such as a one cent postage increase, but not very often for the positive things. Anything we can do to aid our triple bottom line economic, environmental and social costs is a positive thing."

Once considered the bureaucratic bad boy for its stodgy, top heavy inefficiencies, the Postal Service in the early í70s became a quasi-public agency, entrusted with a public service but cut off from public funding. This change began a series of innovations. One came in 1993 when the Postal Service issued its first-ever list of environmental principles that included goals such as switching vehicles to alternative fuels. But the principles didnít mention green buildings, even though at least one construction and design district in the southwestern United States was investigating alternative energy sources and green building design. By 1996 the Postal Serviceís Design and Construction Division began to read the writing on the wall, says Ujwala Tamaskar, acting manager of the Design and Construction Division.

"We saw a lot of people in the building industry looking into green buildings," Tamaskar says. It clearly was gaining momentum. So we decided we needed to take a proactive approach with our facilities nationally. We did it for environmental reasons, to improve the quality of the buildings for our employees and customers, and because it was good community relations for the post office.

In 1997 the headquarters assembled a green design wish list that included green building attributes such as sustainably harvested wood, post-consumer recycled carpet, occupancy sensors, indigenous plantings, and no fertilizer or pesticide maintenance. Called the green addendum, the list was a challenge by headquarters to the 11 construction and design regional offices to do one green showcase project using anything from the green addendum. The district offices werenít limited to the green list; that was just a starting point. Headquarters expected the showcase projects would cost more, but it deemed the experience was worth the additional expense. Six of the districts responded.

Real-world tests

The first project was a post office in Fort Worth, Texas, completed in 1998. The building has a daylighting design, uses numerous recycled materials and is designed to harvest rainwater for landscaping. Even the exterior walls are made of a renewable resource compressed straw fashioned into panels. The projectís first cost was about 10 percent more than similar buildings in the area.

"We were experimenting," Tamaskar says. "We knew with practice we could bring that cost down."

The Post Service went on to complete other innovative buildings the following year, and the process has led to a regional emphasis on design. In Corrales, N. M., the USPS built a straw bail post office - one of its greenest structures to date. Its success may lead to another one in New Mexico. In Alaska, the USPS has installed one of the largest fuel cell systems to power its Anchorage distribution center an area where there are a lot of off-grid structures. The five 200-kilowatt fuel-cell system is the first national commercial application of its kind.

The success of the various elements of each project was measured by how well the building functioned and how well it worked for employees and customers. But most importantly, the projects had to be cost effective.

"In all the projects the first cost was higher," Tamaskar says. "We expected that, but we also expect to be paid back by energy and water savings."

Experience with these projects has helped the Postal Service move items from the green addendum to the master specifications list, making a standard design document into an increasingly green list. The master specifications list requires occupancy sensors, reflective roofing, low-e glazing and hook-and-loop carpeting. It mandates that no products containing formaldehyde or VOC adhesives can be used. And none of the items can add to the first cost of the building.

Successful green addendum initiatives are moved to the master specification list when cost parameters are met, material and installation expertise are available, and the items make sense environmentally and geographically.

"The strawbale construction in Corrales was an experiment that worked for them, but I donít think we would incorporate it into our design specifications because itís not applicable everywhere," she says.

And because itís about building better buildings cost effectively, if an item on the master specification list doesnít meet either the USPSí environmental or financial requirements, it can be removed. Recently Tamaskar removed a stipulation that required all poured in-place concrete contain 15 percent flyash. She says that item is still too controversial within the green building community to continue requiring it.

The Postal Service is now being recognized. It has received more than 50 regional, local and state environmental awards from regulators, and the United Nations Award for Environmental Excellence as well as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agencyís Energy Star Buildings programs.

"But we donít want the public to necessarily think of our buildings as green as we move forward with this idea," Baca says. "They may think that means more expensive. We want them to think of these buildings as their post office, part of their community. Thatís all we want them to be."

Written by: U.S. Green Building Council


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