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Federal courthouse repair project will help advance green-building goals

Robin Carnahan, Summer Lee and Andrew Mayock sit inside an Ironworkers training facility.
Chris Potter
90.5 WESA
General Services Administration leader Robin Carnahan, Congresswoman Summer Lee and federal chief sustainability officer Andrew Mayock toured an Ironworkers training facility while announcing a $16 million renovation of the federal courthouse building in Pittsburgh

The Biden Administration will invest $16 million for renovations to the federal courthouse along Grant Street — while advancing the use of more environmentally sustainable building materials in the process.

General Services Administration head Robin Carnahan, whose agency manages federal property, visited the Joseph F. Weis. Jr. courthouse Wednesday morning, then toured the training facility for Ironworkers Local #3 in the Strip District.

“It’s a historic building and we’ve done a lot of work, but it needs some shoring up,” Carnahan said.

The project, part of a $63 million investment being made statewide through President Joe Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act, will focus on the building’s loading dock, where there has been deterioration to concrete and steel beams.

But federal officials said the project also offered a chance for the government to use its buying power to shift the market for building materials in a greener direction.

“We’re using this opportunity not just to make it functional and safe, but also to use what’s called low-embodied carbon materials,” Carnahan said.

Creating such materials can involve a variety of process changes that reduce the environmental footprint of producing materials such as asphalt and concrete, the world’s most widely used building materials. Carnahan said that greener materials were “almost the same price” as materials made through more energy-intensive means. But producers told her that they were rarely asked about that option.

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Andrew Mayock, the government’s chief sustainability officer, said that was one reason Biden “turned to us and said, ‘Use the power of the federal government to lead by example,’” using its buying power to help jump-start a market for greener approaches.

GSA, which manages the government’s real estate portfolio and its procurement services, is a key part of that effort. Biden has authorized more than $2.1 billion for purchasing lower-carbon materials, part of a $3.4 billion initiative to make government facilities more sustainable.

Congresswoman Summer Lee, who accompanied Carnahan on her visit, hailed the investment in her district and in greener technologies.

“We have an abundance of projects, so we're happy for the administration to come so that they can see what's possible in America when we invest as a federal government,” she said.

During their tour, Lee and Carnahan spoke with union leaders about both the opportunities for union labor and the challenges of finding it in an economy where lower-skilled jobs offer wages that are, at least in the short term, competitive with the earnings of union apprentices.

When Ironworkers officer Rich Danko said a new terminal under construction at the Pittsburgh International Airport would save passengers 20 minutes, Lee said “I cannot wait.” But she noted the region had ample infrastructure needs beyond that. While union members discussed a number of bridge repair projects slated to take place, she said, “The bigger question is, how many of them need to be fixed?”

Still, Carnahan said the administration was seeking to address such needs — while doing its part to do things more sustainably in the future.

“If we can reduce the emissions of the products that go into our buildings,” she said, “then we're doing right by the environment, we're creating good jobs and we're ultimately saving money for taxpayers."

Nearly three decades after leaving home for college, Chris Potter now lives four miles from the house he grew up in -- a testament either to the charm of the South Hills or to a simple lack of ambition. In the intervening years, Potter held a variety of jobs, including asbestos abatement engineer and ice-cream truck driver. He has also worked for a number of local media outlets, only some of which then went out of business. After serving as the editor of Pittsburgh City Paper for a decade, he covered politics and government at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He has won some awards during the course of his quarter-century journalistic career, but then even a blind squirrel sometimes digs up an acorn.