Adapting Together: How the GSA is thinking about adaptation (for its vast real estate portfolio)

CategoriesPublications / Research
AIA Committee on the Environment Newsletter, January/February 2022 By Allison H. Anderson FAIA 

Architects are working on the front lines of community resilience and climate adaptation. Ann Kosmal, FAIA, guides the General Services Administration team charged with managing climate risks for all federal buildings. She sat down with friend and colleague Allison Anderson, FAIA, to talk about the GSA’s efforts to prepare buildings for rising climate risks. 

Alison Anderson: Ann, you are an architect, LEED-Accredited Professional, and certified Passive House consultant, but you also guide the GSA efforts to manage climate risks. The GSA is responsible for more than 371 million square feet of real estate for the federal government, with many locations at risk from climate hazards. How is the GSA advancing the deployment and adoption of climate-ready buildings?   

Ann Kosmal: The Biden-Harris administration is taking a whole-of-government approach to climate adaptation. Many professionals in various disciplines contribute to the administration’s climate change risk management efforts. For GSA, this work starts with the agency’s policies and procedures to manage these risks in GSA’s capital investments, asset management, and compliance with the Facilities Standards for the Public Buildings Service (P-100). As a project moves through delivery, I support project managers across the country to determine the common understanding of the extreme weather and incremental climate-related risks for the lifetime of the building. I also develop and provide a climate profile for the project, which informs the statement of work and deliverables.   

AA: How do you guide architects to design for climate conditions which vary widely across the nation? What actions should architects take on every project to improve climate change mitigation and adaptation, wherever they are?

AK: For architects, look at Key Message 2 of Chapter 11 of NCA 4 on the Built Environment. On every project, architects need to be familiar with the observed and expected changes over the intended service life of the project and use forward-looking information. There are resources available such as the National Climate Assessment and the U.S.Climate Resilience Toolkit – Climate Explorer. 

Once an architect takes these steps to familiarize themselves with these factors, they need to be clear about due diligence in design and determine the relevancy to their client’s personal risk appetite and tolerance, as well as their professional risk appetite and tolerance. Because architects are not working alone, this needs to be done in consultation with engineers and others. 

AA: You worked with the Executive Office of the President to support resilience and adaptation planning. Can you tell us a little about what this work entailed? 

AK: I was on a 221-day detail to the Executive Office of the President (EOP). The detail was solely focused on climate adaptation and resilience to reinstate and advance federal agency climate adaptation planning and implementation, as directed by Executive Order 14008 on Tackling the Climate Crisis at Home and Abroad. 

Implementation is a key aspect of the Executive Order, as managing climate risks is a known high fiscal risk to the U.S. government. There is a dire need to advance beyond where this risk management work was prior to 2017, and part of my detail work addressed this need. This effort is about large-scale organizational adaptation. Updating agency climate adaptation plans was a necessary first step, as the existential threat from climate change remains.  

Along with other EOP duties, my detail entailed ramping up agency adaptation planning and implementation up through the public roll out of agencies’ 2021 Federal Climate Adaptation Plans on October 7, 2021.  

AA: You reviewed the adaptation plans for every federal agency. Do you see new opportunities for architects to participate in climate change mitigation and adaptation? 

AK: Climate risks are not new but because they are prioritized by the current administration, when there are capital projects, I anticipate that architects will not only have opportunities but will be asked to design climate adaptation measures into projects that they design not only for GSA but for many federal clients. 

I did not review the Federal Climate Adaptation Plans alone. Let’s remember that in climate adaptation, the pronouns are we, us, ours — we are all adapting together. A diligent and dedicated team selected from across the executive branch reviewed the plans. The team worked in close coordination with the agency examiners from the Office of Management and Budget to review the priority adaptation actions based on the statutory mission of the agency and their authorities.  

AA: How do these adaptation plans address environmental justice? 

AK: I think a really good question to keep top of mind is: Resilience — for whom? The 2021 Federal Climate Adaptation Plans were the first in more than four years and there is wide variation in the ways and extent to which agencies have integrated environmental justice, depending on the agency mission. Executive Order 14008 asks agencies to make achieving environmental justice part of their missions. As a result, plans include criteria and requirements for sites, facilities, and supply chain and explain how that criteria advances equitable distribution of environmental risks and benefits, and avoids maladaptation — projects that have the unintended outcome of creating more rather than less vulnerability to climate change.  

Ann Kosmal is an architect for the Office of Federal High Performance Buildings at the U.S. General Services Administration.   She is a co-author of the United States’ Fourth National Climate Assessment (NCA) built environment chapter and forthcoming fifth NCA.  She is a Fellow of the AIA, a Certified Passive House Consultant, and a Certified Permaculture Designer.  

Allison Anderson, FAIA, is a principal at unabridged Architecture in Bay St Louis, Mississippi. She was the 2019 chair of the AIA Resilience and Adaptation Advisory Group and serves on the Committee for Climate Action and Design Excellence (CCADE), whose charge is to advise the Board on key issues in support of AIA’s Climate Action Plan. 

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