WPA's Custom House gets upgrades

25. července 2013 v 5:40 |  street light
Contractors studded Philadelphia with art deco-flavored postal centers, courts, and government offices, in brick, concrete, and limestone, back in the 1930s, as the federal Works Progress Administration tried to spend the nation out of the Great Depression.

After the most recent financial crisis, Washington settled for the American Recovery and Reconstruction Act of 2009 - the "stimulus" supplied by President Obama - that gave the city, among other projects, a half-acre green roof; high, tight windows; and LED lights at the 17-story, WPA-built Custom House, the cross-shaped federal office building at Second and Chestnut Streets that houses hundreds of federal workers for the National Park Service, Food and Drug Administration, Homeland Security, passport office, and other federal outlets.

The windows were the big job - 1,200 in all. They are bomb-resistant, steel-framed panes on the lower levels, historically accurate wood frames higher up. New insulation, boilers , solar LED lighting, and revolving doors were also put to bid.

Enough job-starved builders offered to do the work at thin margins that the General Services Administration says it was able to bring it in at $2 million under the original $30.8 million budget, enabling the government to add optional projects like the 24,000-square-foot field of water-sucking sedum plants on the lower roof that surrounds the building's central tower.

"This is part of Obama's energy initiative," said GSA building manager Tom Rufo. The green roof, for example, "has a lot of benefits: It reduces storm-water runoff - it takes two days for rainwater to percolate through."

"And we get better insulation," said Bill Pollard, GSA operations manager. Unlike the old built-up rubber roofing, the sedum needs to be weeded every few months. Other local federal buildings are adding green roofs as they are updated, GSA project manager Brian Muller said.

For a bird's-eye view, Pollard, Muller, and Rufo walked me up three flights of steel stairs to the tower's top chamber, modeled on the ancient Greek lighthouse at Rhodes.

The narrow balcony outside gives terrific views of today's less stinking and more residential waterfront to the east, and west to the city's high rises.

If this were one of Philadelphia's aging civilian offices, a developer would have borrowed a few million to refit this perch as a penthouse by now. But this remains a working building, under tight security.

Maybe the most impressive part of the job - unlike an earlier handicapped-access and energy upgrade in the early 1990s, when agencies moved out - is that this time contractors worked with the building fully occupied, by armed federal agents and other specialists who weren't afraid to make detailed suggestions, Rufo said.

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