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Distinctly Different or Dysfunctional? The San Francisco Federal Building

Jeffrey Syken

When chief architect Edward A. Feiner of the General Service Administration (GSA) implemented the Design Excellence program in the early 1990s, his goal was to, literally, change the face and image of the Federal Government as represented in the architecture of its buildings. Considering the fact that the GSA is the biggest landlord in the nation; managing over three-hundred million square-feet of commercial office space for a variety of government agencies, this was no small goal. Under Feiner’s leadership, the Design Excellence program produced some remarkable buildings, including Richard Meier’s celebrated Federal Courthouse in Islip, New York. For his last hurrah (before retiring in 2005), Feiner selected “bad-boy” architect Thomas Mayne and his architectural design firm Morphosis to design the new Federal Courthouse for San Francisco (SFFB). Though considered a rebel for his “Industrial-Machine Aesthetic” style, Mayne was no stranger to Federal Government work having designed another Federal Courthouse in Eugene, Oregon and the much-admired NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) headquarters in Maryland for the GSA prior to the SFFB commission. Though the GSA did not seek LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification for the SFFB initially, energy use was a major consideration and the deciding factor in selecting Mayne’s design for the building. Taking advantage of San Francisco’s moderate climate and prevailing winds, Mayne eliminated the HVAC system, replacing it with natural ventilation and sunshading devices to both heat and cool the building. While this saved millions, he was criticized for including non-functional aesthetic features that offset this cost-savings. More importantly, the elimination of the HVAC system proved highly problematic to the building’s occupants, creating intolerable working conditions for many. In fact, in an internal GSA study it scored in the lowest percentile in occupant satisfaction. Several other design features such as “skip-stop” elevator service and locating the cafeteria outside the building proper would also have negative consequences. Ultimately, the building would receive silver LEED certification. But this begs the question: is the scoreboard more important than the game?

This course includes a multiple-choice quiz at the end, which is designed to enhance the understanding of the course materials.

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