The Beaux Arts Building With the Green Roof

Where else but in San Francisco would you find a spectacular, historic building being renovated to the highest LEED specifications?

50 U.N. Plaza's New Green Roof

Photo By The San Francisco Planning Department There were briefly plans to turn the building into an apartment complex, but those plans were halted by the GSA. Maybe that's when they got the idea to take over the building! 

The Federal Building at 50 UN Plaza in San Francisco has a long and storied history — and it's been closed to the public since 2007. Next month it'll re-open after a massive renovation, and we got a sneak peek at one of its San Francisco-iest features: an amazing green roof.

Construction on the building was completed in 1936, the last of seven buildings conceived and grouped together as a true city center after the 1906 earthquake. Designed by architect Arthur Brown, Jr. — who had also designed the Opera House, Veterans Building and (with his partner) City Hall — it was a grand, richly detailed example of Second Renaissance Revival architecture. But it fell into disrepair and, after the construction of a new federal building, it was put out of commission in 2007.

San Francisco Federal Building Poster

Photo By The U.S. General Services Administration Twenty years after the earthquake, the Federal Building became the final piece of the reconstructed city center. 

An influx of stimulus money prompted a seismic retrofitting and rehab so it can be used as the new headquarters for the Pacific Rim region of the U.S. General Services Administration, which oversees the administrative work of the federal government. Local design firm Hathaway Dinwiddie is overseeing the work with an emphasis on sustainable and green design and an application for LEED Platinum certification.

A green roof — that is, a rooftop garden designed to provide natural insulation, conserve and maximize use of rainwater, and lower urban air temperatures — is considered a major weapon against global warming, yet San Francisco has lagged behind other cities (including D.C., Chicago and NYC) in incorporating the technology. So the fact that this major renovation includes a beautiful example of a green roof feels like a major victory. It includes 14,000 square feet of native plants, wildflowers and drought-resistant grasses; 4,000 square feet of solar panels; 8 inches of "growing media" (that seems to be a fancy word for dirt); and will retain at least 75% of the first rainfall. It's also just a small part of a major upcoming improvement plan, in which improvements in "green infrastructure" will help the city make use of every drop of water that comes its way. 

It won't be open to the public or even workers in the building, but just knowing it's there is comforting. (And, you know, there's a pretty spectacular plaza down on the street level, too.)


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