San Francisco’s 50 United Nations Plaza Renovation Ready for Unveiling at Official Dedication Ceremony

San Francisco – Re-envisioned by HKS, the U.S. General Services Administration’s $122 million historic renovation of the 350,000 square-foot Federal Building at 50 United Nations Plaza (50 UNP) in San Francisco was dedicated at a ribbon cutting ceremony on Nov. 6, with San Francisco Mayor Edwin Lee and Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi in attendance.

50-UNP-HKS-temp_004Owned and scheduled for occupancy by more than 500 of GSA Region 9’s employees, the renovation of 50 UNP, funded by the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, is among GSA’s historical restorations slated to achieve LEED Platinum certification. The ambitious renovation and repositioning project is the building’s first major upgrade since original construction was completed in 1936.

Designed by Arthur Brown, Jr., architect of San Francisco’s City Hall and three other landmark Civic Center buildings, 50 UNP was the final building completed in a seven building complex comprising  the San Francisco Civic Center, which was placed on the National Registry of Historic Places in 1987.  The D-shaped building includes an occupiable basement and a 24,000-square-foot interior courtyard.  The Federal Building is an excellent example of Second Renaissance Revival architecture, with period-defining features such as distinct horizontal divisions, a rusticated base, and classical ornamentation including columns on the exterior elevations.  The six-story Beaux-Arts structure has been vacant since 2007.

Now a high performance green building, modernizations included a complete seismic upgrade and new foundation, hazardous materials abatement, roof replacement, high-performance, energy efficiency upgrades, A.D.A. compliance and accessibility upgrades, and installation of new mechanical, electrical, heating, and plumbing systems. The interiors were reconfigured to create a more efficient, comfortable office space.

“50 UNP has retained its historic exterior and the most significant interior spaces, while bringing the interior workplace into the 21st century,” said Michele MacCracken, AIA, LEED AP BD+C, associate principal and senior vice president and  50 UNP project manager.

According to the GSA, 50 UNP was slated for an outlease at one point, but the Agency changed course and kept the building, deciding to renovate it as an example of its commitment to preserving and updating its historical inventory to fit current and future operational requirements. The project leaves intact the center courtyard with an inviting, contemporary design by Cliff Garten, as well as the double-loaded corridors of the four “wings” of the rectangular building, that introduce new “nodes,” or openings from the corridor into the office spaces in almost all of the wings.

As part of the seismic upgrade, shear walls were installed in locations where they don’t impact spaces or finishes of primary historical importance.  New building systems installed as part of the comprehensive interior upgrade are similarly grouped, mostly in a zone next to the corridor walls, avoiding the corridors and most of the office spaces.

Selected interior spaces, such as the ornate entry lobby and the Nimitz Suite, have been upgraded with minimal visible change, while historic features and finishes have been protected and revived to their original appearance, including retaining the building’s historic light fixtures, which were completely rewired with a modern electrical system, which helped to preserve the distinctive period character of the building.

The building’s exterior changes are nearly imperceptible.  Much of the building was preserved under historic preservation laws, including the exterior facade, the lobbies, corridors, main stairways, and historic office spaces.

In keeping with their commitment to the environment, the GSA sustainability standards were aligned with their desire to attain LEED Platinum certification.  50 UNP is one of seven representative examples of the City Beautiful movement in San Francisco, and a key element in the Civic Center Historic District.  As the GSA’s Region 9 Headquarters – landlords and builders for the federal branch of government on the Pacific Rim – 50 UNP becomes a showcase for appropriate sustainable measures in a significant historic building.

Indeed, GSA predicts that 50 UNP will realize an annual energy and CO2 emissions savings of about 67 percent, in contrast to a comparable building without an EPA ENERGY STAR rating.

50 UN Plaza offers large, operable windows and ceiling fans that, when coupled with the mild California climate, eliminate the need for air conditioning. The windows, spaced 13 feet on-center, also reduce the dependence on electrical lighting and its associated thermal gain. Additionally, the central courtyard ensures that no workspace is more than 20 feet from a natural daylight source.

The main lighting source is high-efficiency dimmable fluorescent lights. LED lights are in place for task lighting, and are the primary source for exterior lighting as well. Occupancy and daylight sensors control the fluorescent lighting to reduce the building’s energy consumption.  Solar panels on the north wing roof are harvesting energy for the building’s use. The new green roof, covered in vegetation, will reduce the urban heat-island effect while treating storm water runoff.

“Beyond the simple renovation of a single building in downtown San Francisco, the modernization of the Federal Building at 50 UN Plaza encompasses a wide range of ambitious goals at the center of a sustainable agenda: how do we save what we have, reduce what we use, and at the same time, allow people to be healthier and happier in their work environment,” said Kirk Teske, HKS principal and chief sustainability officer.  “We think our team hit all the marks.”

The original steam radiators – which are in remarkably pristine condition – were reused and equipped with individual controls for heating. Domestic water usage is reduced by 40 percent by replacing the original plumbing fixtures with water-saving modern equipment. For the landscaping, highly efficient drip emitters has replaced spray irrigation. A grove of birch trees planted in the central courtyard connects building occupants to the natural environment, a practice that has been shown to increase both efficiency and tenant satisfaction.

According to MacCracken, one of the more significant challenges HKS faced on the project were the original windows, which required refurbishment versus replacement. The original double- and triple-hung wood framed divided lite windows were completely restored to their original state with low-VOC paint, sash replacements, new hardware and counterweights to make the windows fully operable, and new energy efficient glass to reduce solar heat gain.

The building’s location at the center of one of the world’s more environmentally-forward cities helps support GSA’s sustainable agenda. The site is adjacent to several modes of public transportation, including Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART), the municipal railway, and several regional bus lines. Bicycle racks and changing locker/shower rooms are provided for employees who choose to go emissions-free and ride their bikes to work.  The building itself has no parking.

The project was completed in two phases.  HKS was awarded the design contract in Aug. 2009 with the design effort commencing immediately.  The majority of early Phase I work included the demolition/environmental remediation portion, completed in May 2010 by Hathaway Dinwiddie, the general contractor.  The Phase II renovation work was completed this July, on time and under budget.

GSA’s regional administrator, Ruth Cox, emceed the building dedication.  Notable attendees and speakers included Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi, House Democratic Leader; The Honorable Dan Tangherlini, GSA Administrator; The Honorable Edwin Lee, Mayor of City of San Francisco; Michele MacCracken, Associate Principal and Senior Vice President, HKS Architects; and Cliff Garten, Cliff Garten Studio.

About HKS
HKS, Inc. is a leading architectural design firm ranked among the top six architectural firms, according to Building Design+Construction magazine. Representative Bay Area projects include the renovation of the Federal Building at 50 UN Plaza in San Francisco, the Letterman Digital Arts Building in The Presidio, and interior design projects for AAA and Constellation Brands.  Since its founding in 1939, HKS has completed construction projects totaling more than $73 billion in more than 1,178 cities located in 77 countries. The firm operates from 29 offices worldwide.  For more information, visit

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