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U.S. Agency Tries Radical Rehab Technique On Aging Government Buildings

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The U.S. General Services Administration is known as the government's landlord. Many of its buildings are aging and in need of care. And like many property owners, the GSA has limited funds for renovations and can't afford to displace residents. In Cleveland, the agency has taken a creative approach to upgrading one office building - think big block of steel and glass circa 1966. Mark Urycki of member station WCPN reports.

MARK URYCKI, BYLINE: The U.S. General Services Administration first realized the 32-story Anthony J. Celebrezze tower needed some work back in 1998. That's when three of the outside window frames suddenly detached.

CHRIS MOURGELAS: Flying off in a terrible windstorm. This wasn't a breezy day.

URYCKI: Project manager Chris Mourgelas says that was a wake-up call that the building had serious corrosion problems. That's common among buildings over a half-century old and so is energy waste. Young architect Pieter van Dijk, a protege of Eero Saarinen, designed the Celebrezze building with a grid of wide, horizontal windows framed with bright stainless steel.

Van Dijk says back then, energy was so cheap that insulated windows were not even considered.

PIETER VAN DIJK: Single-pane glass. Everything was single-pane glass.

URYCKI: Fixing the Celebrezze building is a $120 million project, one of the GSA's most expensive. The engineers had to both fix the facade and reduce energy usage while not disrupting the 5,000 employees inside. That's 39 agencies ranging from the IRS to the Coast Guard and some with high-security offices.

The administration's chief regional architect Robert Theel says the answer was to put the building under glass, that is, add a second skin, an outer wall of glass.

ROBERT THEEL: This is the first project to do a double wall overcladding system in the Celebrezze building. So it's very unique and it is another way of approaching the problem that GSA is having nationwide with buildings of this age and of this type.

URYCKI: Project architect Charles Young of the Chicago company Interactive Design says this is the first high-rise in the world to be retrofitted with a second glass wall, though smaller structures have been encased in glass in Europe since the 1970s.

CHARLES YOUNG: And the reason it's been used in Europe is because of the very high cost of energy. And it hasn't transferred over to this country because we have generally had very cheap energy costs over the past number of decades.

URYCKI: Seven stories up, we crawl out on a ledge just two feet wide between the two glass walls with the GSA's Chris Mourgelas.

MOURGELAS: You doing all right?

URYCKI: Yeah, that's not spooky at all, the floor (unintelligible).

(LAUGHTER)

MOURGELAS: This is pretty solid stuff.

URYCKI: How do you keep tons of condensation happening between these two walls?

MOURGELAS: This wall on the right, the outer wall, the new outer wall, is the high-performing curtainwall. This is the moisture barrier. It's very humid outside. It should remain relatively dry in the cavity.

URYCKI: The sun will heat the air buffer up to 120 degrees between the two walls, mitigating the cold Canadian winds that cross Lake Erie. The GSA estimates a new building would cost three and a half times what it's spending to renovate this one. And there's another goal. Ever since the Oklahoma City bombing, the government has added blast protection to its buildings.

Charlie Young says the now two walls of glass will help.

YOUNG: I'm not going to tell you how it works. We don't discuss how some of the components work.

URYCKI: Although it's too soon to say how the double wall will perform, the engineers behind it predict we will see more government and private buildings going under glass. For NPR News, I'm Mark Urycki. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.