Government Sector Update: Modernization in the public sector - Jan 2016

By Calista Sprague

Public sector projects have lagged behind their private sector counterparts since the recession, but designers report that government work has been steady in recent months, and projections call for an upturn next year. Designs for public spaces have lagged behind as well, but are gradually modernizing, shifting away from imposing buildings covered in government grey to more comfortable and efficient spaces for employees and the public. Flooring options have proliferated, making it easier for designers to find well designed products at the wide range of price points needed for this diverse market. 

Line graphs of public building construction statistics resemble the steep decline of a black diamond ski slope. In 2007, starts peaked at 50.8 million square feet, but dramatic plunges during the Great Recession and a persistent downward trend since then have dropped public project starts a whopping 68% in seven years to just 16.3 million square feet in 2014. Starts slipped again in 2015, expected to end 6% short of the previous year at 15.4 million square feet, according to Dodge Analytics. 

These gloomy numbers do not necessarily portend another negative year for 2016, however. Dodge predicts a slight upturn in its 2016 Construction Outlook. “Despite the 2015 weakness, government fiscal conditions have slowly mended,” the report states. “Combined with extremely low levels of activity, this should push starts to increase a very modest 3% in 2016 to 15.9 million square feet as the dollar value of starts grows 6% to $8.1 billion.”

Square footage may continue to grow less rapidly in the future due in part to recent cost savings efforts by the General Services Administration (GSA), which oversees the management and construction of federal buildings. The Total Workplace Initiative, launched two years ago, seeks to save taxpayer money through consolidated government offices in smaller footprints. And in November, the GSA announced the Economic Catalyst Initiative, which will also consolidate and shrink government buildings with the added benefit of spurring economic growth in local communities. 

The Economic Catalyst Initiative will begin with projects in four Eastern cities: Detroit, Michigan; Cambridge and Chelsea in Massachusetts; and Charlotte, North Carolina. In Detroit, for example, the GSA has purchased and will renovate a building to relocate more than 700 federal employees from a myriad of locations in and around the city to one federally owned building. Meanwhile, valuable commercial space in downtown Detroit will become open to private sector use, providing additional opportunity for economic growth. In Cambridge, the DOT will free up underdeveloped acreage in the highly valuable Kendall Square market in exchange for construction services to build a sorely needed new DOT research center. 

Both the GSA programs will create government sector projects in the short term, but fewer and smaller public buildings in cities across the country will ultimately result in fewer and smaller government renovation projects in years to come. Although this is good news to taxpayers, it is not such good news to anyone looking for construction growth in the government sector.

Federal programs like these initiatives have helped feed activity in the public sector recently, but state and local budgets have been slower to recover from the recession. Many city, county and state governments have tabled projects or scaled them back, more often choosing renovation over new builds. 

Suzanne Szak, an interior designer at the architecture, engineering and design firm Heery International, points out that public sector activity varies greatly by region, however. “For instance, in 2015 we’ve seen the fastest growth in government projects in Washington State, Arizona and Georgia,” she says. “And this is projected to shift to the East going forward in 2016 through 2018, with growth continuing in Georgia as well as into Pennsylvania, Washington, D.C., New York and North Carolina.” 

Denise Bates is an interior designer and associate for Gensler’s Dallas office, which has traditionally focused on the corporate sector. Despite the national decline in government projects, the firm has begun to pick up public sector work. “It’s certainly an area in our region that we’ve seen as a growth opportunity, and we’re trying to capitalize on that,” she explains. In recent years the Dallas team has worked on multiple military barracks projects, in addition to courthouses and various federal buildings. 

Budgets are a consideration in any sector, but particularly for government-funded projects, in which taxpayers are invested. The designers say that transparency in government is expanding, so the public is more and more aware of the allocation of tax dollars. “You have to be very sensitive to making sure that it doesn’t appear that money has been spent frivolously,” Bates points out. 

Although budgets shrank during the recession, the designers report they are now holding steady. “We are seeing more work in the government sector, but instead of new construction, they are renovating,” Szak says. 

Election cycles can also play a major role in public projects, especially at the local and state levels. “These types of projects are controversial,” explains Szak. “They’re large, they’re costly, especially on a county level, where funding may be more constrained. Also, these types of projects are milestone projects that counties usually only see once in a decade or once every two decades. These projects really become the focus of political campaigns.” 

Projects often start and stop as a result of political wrangling, sometimes multiple times. For example, Heery was set to work on a project in Indianapolis to build a campus with a courthouse, jail and administrative buildings, but the project fell victim to partisan politics when the city council refused to back the mayor. “It may go forward in some other form or reduced scope, but we haven’t seen it come back yet,” Szak says.

Projects in most construction sectors come with a fairly uniform list of basic needs and challenges, giving rise to flooring trends that suit the sector. Of course there are overlaps, but healthcare flooring and hospitality flooring, for example, utilize very disparate products specified to fulfill very different performance and design needs. However, the government sector encompasses such a wide variety of projects that flooring for the sector defies categorization. 

Consider that a veterans hospital, an agency headquarters, and military housing all fall into the government sector, but the first represents essentially a healthcare project, the second a corporate project and the third a multi-family or single-family project. The flooring performance and design requirements vary widely one project from the other. 

Carpet has always had a big share in the government sector, mainly for its low initial cost. Manufacturers continually add value with enhanced performance features and longer lifespans, and designers also appreciate the expanding style options at varied price points. Szak says that in the past finding attractive carpet to fit a tight budget was challenging, but now higher design options are available at a variety of price levels. “On courthouse projects, you do need products in different price categories. You’ll have, for instance, a standard carpet, which is used throughout most of the building, but you will need an upgraded carpet with a heavier ounce weight for courtrooms and executive areas,” says Szak.

As is true in other sectors, government entities are becoming more aware of lifecycle costs in relation to the long-term budget. Leases tend to last for ten to 20 years, and the designers say clients are opting more often for products like porcelain tile and terrazzo in heavily trafficked areas to avoid replacement costs. “And we’ve definitely seen a shift to catch up with the rest of the industry toward going with carpet tiles over broadloom for the flexibility,” Bates says. 

Large format ceramic tiles are preferred by designers for spaces like lobbies, public corridors and cafeterias, but Szak says that the lack of smaller options can create challenges in certain situations. “There is still a need for smaller porcelain tiles, particularly in restrooms that have drains. And sometimes when you’re working in a small space, a small restaurant or a small break room area, you want a smaller scale tile, but there are really not a lot of options smaller than 12”x12” without going to mosaics. Clients don’t want to put mosaic tiles on the floor because of all the grout joints. I would like to see more of the plank sizes, like 4”x8” or 4”x12” or even more linear 4”x16” for the floor. There are plenty available for the walls, but when you get to the floors, options are very limited.”

LVT has been making its way into the government sector, appreciated for its wood looks at lower price points and with easier maintenance. It has been used to warm up military barracks for a more homey feeling or to dress up judges’ chambers and break rooms. Bates points out that LVT is also beneficial for bringing the appearance of wood into buildings that use raised access floors, because the planks can be easily taken up without causing damage to the flooring. 

VCT is still being specified, although usually limited to unoccupied spaces such as storage rooms, equipment rooms, file rooms and the like. Szak points out that in addition to the high maintenance requirements, VCT has lagged behind other flooring categories in terms of style options, making it less attractive to specifiers despite its low price. 

Historically, government buildings, especially courthouses and agency headquarters, were grand buildings filled with the highest quality finishes. “In the past the motto was. Make It Big,” says Szak. “Big symbolized strength and justice. And the trend today is to de-institutionalize the building, make it softer and warmer and more comfortable.”

Designers now consider how employees and the public—families, in particular—will use the space. “In a courthouse, people are coming in, they’re angry or they’re anxious, and we want the building to help alleviate that stress,” Szak explains. “Instead of having a large, oppressive lobby, we’ve broken it down with spaces off to the side where people can congregate or sit and use their iPad or their phone.” She says that designers are also borrowing ideas from hospitality to soften spaces, such as using carpet under seating groups and choosing soothing colors.

In some cases, clients have a difficult time letting go of the traditional wood paneled walls, marble floors and imposing columns once so common in public buildings. The designers find themselves selling clients on more contemporary designs that will benefit both the employees and public while offering a timeless aesthetic for a building that will be in use for decades. 

Although government projects echo trends from private sectors, such as corporate, healthcare and education, they tend to lag several years behind. Designers say that government clients are slower to accept industry changes, such as open concept space planning and lower panels between workspaces. The trends do eventually make their way into the government sector, just much more slowly.

Open concept floor plans are becoming popular because they are less expensive and more flexible, making it easier to move people around or add people to a space. It also allows daylight to come further into the building. Even in courtrooms, natural light is being brought in through transoms and sidelights around doorways. To preserve privacy, frosted or textured glass is often specified that will obscure the view from the corridor but still allow in light. 

Acoustics are another major consideration in modern government buildings. “I would liken it to the acoustic sensitivity in a law firm or a medical office,” Bates says. “They are very sensitive about it just because of the nature of their business.” Designers bring in acoustic treatments in the ceilings and also use carpet tile where possible to help dampen sound and enhance privacy. 

Gensler is currently putting finishing touches on the new Federal Aviation Administration Southwest Regional Headquarters in Fort Worth, Texas, located near Alliance Town Center, a large sustainable master-planned area. The six-story building spans 357,000 square feet, providing office and meeting space for up to 1,500 employees and consolidating operations once spread across four separate locations.

“It’s what’s referred to as a devolution site,” Bates explains. “So if something were to happen in Washington, D.C., then this facility would become the new headquarters.”

As is common for government projects, several stakeholders were engaged in the design process. USAA financed the construction. Developer Trammell Crow owns the building, which is leased by the GSA on behalf of the Southwest branch of the FAA, the tenant and end user. In addition, FAA officials from the main headquarters in Washington, D.C. contributed a great deal of input. 

Initially the client requested a sophisticated prairie look for the design, but when the D.C. office became involved, the plan shifted toward a more modern design to reflect the fact that the FAA now works closely with NASA. A nod was given to FAA history through murals on the wall at each of the suite entries. The large-scale images were pulled from the archival photographs to reflect points in FAA history or the history of a specific division. 

For the color palette, Bates devised a plan to bring color through the core of the building as though a plane were coming in for a landing, beginning with darker blues on the upper floors, moving through lighter blues into yellow and finally green for the ground floor, “from the celestial to the earthy.” She says that government clients are becoming more interested in using color. “I think a lot of them have lived through years of nothing but government grey, and they are starting to appreciate a little more vibrancy and expression in the workplace.” 

The front doors open to a fairly grand lobby that continues into the cafeteria. Terrazzo was specified to run throughout the lobby, cafeteria and elevator lobbies on each level. “In a lot of government projects, clients have a natural tendency to use carpet just because of the initial cost,” Bates says. “But when you have a conversation and educate them about the benefits of the lifecycle cost, they’re willing to spend a little bit more on the front end for a more durable material, especially in the public areas that are going to be more visible to both users and visitors.”

Bates says that in addition to terrazzo, large-scale porcelain tile is a top choice for heavily trafficked public areas in this type of project. Both are extremely durable, easy to maintain and can last for years if not decades. The FAA’s lease will run 20 years, and the terrazzo will remain in place throughout the lease and possibly for the life of the building.

The D.C. office specifically requested a hospitality type carpet as the main flooring in the office spaces, and Gensler chose Shaw’s Link carpet tile in a custom color. The broad sweeping shapes in the pattern loosely resemble a sail or a plane wing. Blues were chosen to represent the sky with some threads of green and a bit of copper yarn to expand the palette. 

“They knew it would be a very densely occupied building with quite a few work stations,” says Bates, “and the hope was that putting something a little more colorful and lively on the floor would give them a bit more durability and more color for the space.” Government offices tend to get cleaned less frequently than a typical corporate environment, so the colors and pattern will also serve to hide stains and wear.

In the conference center on the first floor, a Mohawk carpet tile was chosen with a pattern that resembles twigs, reinforcing the idea of the earth at the ground level. “That flooring was intentionally done in a more muted color palette versus the upper floors,” explains Bates. “It’s a little more elegant and timeless, a neutral backdrop for the color they might bring in for presentations or meetings held in the conference center.” 

A composite rubber floor was specified for the fitness area with Horizon porcelain tile from the Stone Box series in the locker rooms and throughout the building’s restrooms. The breakrooms and several back of house areas were covered with Armstrong’s Striations 12”x24” resilient tiles. 

Sustainability is not only expected but is actually mandated for government-funded construction. Bates says that LEED Silver is the typical standard, but Gold is encouraged if it can be achieved within the same budget. The FAA project is on track for both Energy Star and LEED Silver certification. Finishes with high recycled content or content mined regionally were sought out as well as cradle to cradle products, like the Shaw carpet. 

Everett, Washington, about 30 miles north of Seattle, will soon be home to a new $162 million county courthouse designed by Heery International. When completed, the building will boast 256,000 square feet among eight floors. 

“The Snohomish County Courthouse design concept was to provide a building that allows for current and future standards for safe, secure and efficient court operations,” Szak explains. The building will bring together departments critical to the courthouse functions that were once spread across a large campus. 

Szak says that safety has become one of the main concerns in government construction, especially for projects like courthouses. “Court buildings have a separate circulation system for the staff,” she explains. “Particularly the judges have their own elevator system so they can move throughout the building in a safe, secure environment away from the public.”

The color palette in the building was developed to reflect the local landscape. Everett sits between Puget Sound to the west and the Cascade Mountains to the east. Greys and blues were chosen as the main colors, accented with greens, yellows and oranges to help enliven the interior, especially within the departments and staff areas. The public areas were kept more neutral. 

Douglas fir and oak were incorporated into the design to honor the area’s timber industry and to bring a natural element into the design. The Northwest is also known for its superior craftsmanship in concrete, so exposed concrete walls were specified for the base of the building exterior and in the elevator lobbies. 

A two-story main lobby puts a modern twist on two traditional courthouse features: wood panel walls and a ceremonial staircase. Panels of locally sourced wood line the walls and also wrap up onto the ceiling for a contemporary, yet warm effect. And at one end of the ample lobby, a ceremonial staircase is highlighted with a glass feature wall that runs from the first floor up to the third floor. The large glass panels in blue tones mimic the colors of the water and mountain ranges at dawn and lend a modern feel to the space. 

“Because this is a public building, the design had to appeal to a wide audience and be timeless,” Szak says. Calming neutral colors were chosen for the public areas, and flooring selection was driven by the function of each space. “If it’s a high-traffic space, the flooring must be durable and low maintenance. If it’s a space where there’s going to be a lot of activity, like in a courtroom where a lot of people are going to be speaking, then you need materials that will absorb sound.” 

Porcelain tile was specified for the main lobby and public corridors where heavy traffic demanded durable, cleanable flooring. A high quality tile was selected with the expectation that it will last for the lifetime of the building. “It’s a very hard material, so it’s scratch resistant and it’s stain resistant. It could last 40 to 50 years,” Szak says. A crack suppression membrane was installed under the tile as well to prevent hairline cracks over time.

For courtrooms and the departmental office spaces, carpet tile was chosen both for comfort and noise control. “We are seeing quite a bit of carpet tile. There are far more design options in carpet tile now, and the prices have come down.” Szak says that carpet tile used to be expensive but now is more competitive with broadloom. “Contractors like it for the ease of installation, and facilities people like it for the ease of replacement,” she says, adding that facility workers have become savvy about selective replacement, shifting worn tiles so that the fresh tile ends up under furniture or in an area where it does not stand out. 

Flooring in the government sector has a tendency to stay down longer than in other sectors. “Whereas in hospitality soft goods are replaced every seven years, in government I would expect that carpet to be down 20 years,” Szak says. 

Carpet tile was also specified in some portions of the public corridors in the Snohomish courthouse for noise control. The design team placed it off to the side under seating to keep it out of the main traffic flow, which will help extend its lifespan. They also avoided lighter colors, which would tend to show soil and stains, and darker colors, which would show lint and other debris. 

LVT was chosen for the judges’ chambers, workrooms and breakrooms. “We needed a hard surface flooring, and VCT was not going to cut it for them,” says Szak. The design team chose a grey toned wood look that fit the overall design scheme. Szak reports that LVT is being used more frequently in projects like courthouses “because there are so many great wood looks and colors now.” 

The staff corridors required a hard surface for durability. The budget would not support ceramic tile, but the staff did not want VCT, so LVT was used, this time in a subtle stone pattern that resembles an abstracted limestone. 

Heery is pursuing LEED Gold certification for the courthouse. Since the majority of the interior spaces were covered in carpet, the design team sought out products with a high recycled content and Cradle to Cradle Certification.

Copyright 2016 Floor Focus

Related Topics:Shaw Industries Group, Inc., Mohawk Industries, Shaw Floors, Armstrong Flooring