Trends in Government Design

By Jessica Chevalier


The government sector, a piece of the larger institutional sector, is comprised of many different types of facilities: from courthouses to correctional services, public libraries to transportation hubs. While many assume that the government owns all of the buildings in which it operates, that is not the case; many facilities are leased and funding for building and renovations comes from a variety of sources. For example, Denver’s new Ralph L. Carr Colorado Judicial Center, built to house state appellate and trial courts, was privately funded. The U.S. government will attain ownership of the property in several decades once it has completed payment for the facility.

Design and building activity in the sector is, by all accounts, a different business than it was before the recession. The General Services Administration (GSA), an agency that helps manage and support federal agencies, is leading a movement to change the government’s approach to office space, choosing to reduce physical footprints in an effort to both save money and improve government agencies’ sustainable profiles. In total, the government owns and leases 9,600 properties, so, depending how many federal agencies sign on, this could amount to a lot of work for flooring manufacturers serving the sector as government agencies renovate their spaces. 

The GSA is changing the way it approaches government workspace. According to its press release in September, which is subtitled “Initiative to do away with ‘Mad Men’ style offices, modernize the federal government,” the GSA has “launched a comprehensive service to create a 21st century workplace throughout the federal government. GSA’s Total Workplace initiative provides resources and expertise to help federal agencies reduce their office space, foster collaboration, better manage IT spending, and increase energy efficiency. In a time of shrinking budgets, the initiative is already saving taxpayer dollars and helping customer agencies better serve the American people.” 

So far, the agencies participating in the initiative are the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which is consolidating from 43 offices to 12 and, as a result, shaving $700,000 in annual real estate costs; Health and Human Services, which is improving efficiencies to save $15 million over ten years; the Department of Homeland Security, which is implementing a reduction in rented space, an increase in teleworking and adoption of desk sharing to save a projected $55 million annually; and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which is eliminating over 72,000 square feet of work space for a savings of $3 million annually. And the GSA itself will consolidate into a single facility, renovating its headquarters to accommodate an additional 1,100 workers and eliminating $24.4 million in annual lease payments. 

Of course, in the short term, this may mean a small burst of activity as these agencies, and any additional ones that join the Total Workplace initiative, renovate their facilities to meet these objectives, but in the long term, if the Total Workplace initiative accomplishes its goals, it will mean a reduction in government and public space, which logically means a reduction in government and public space work.

Terri Barnhart, a senior associate at Gensler, says that the government’s commitment to teleworking has had a significant impact, adding, “The federal government is trying to reduce space, to save money for taxpayers, and that has affected what spaces are leased and how designers plan these spaces. They are reducing their physical footprint, taking less square footage and doing more hoteling, three to one or whatever the agency’s ratios may be. That’s been a big mandate to interiors. If a worker’s job is isolated or focused, they may be a good candidate for working at home.”

In addition, President Obama’s 2009 Executive Order #13514 “Federal Leadership in Environmental, Energy, and Economic Performance,” which establishes sustainable goals for government facilities, such as reductions for agency-wide greenhouse gas emissions, has created a burst of work as agencies set out to meet these goals, which are to be achieved by fiscal year 2020. 


How do you increase a building's occupancy by 50% and still expect employees to function efficiently? That difficult task falls on the shoulders of the design team. Half of the GSA'sheadquarters, which is owned by the GSA and located in Washington, D.C., has been renovated already, and the second half is expected to be a phased renovation, says Barnhart, who explains that, for an organization that is relying heavily on teleworking, the office space has to offer the proper amenities for workers who are coming to the office to collaborate. To that end, the design team prioritized meeting spaces over private offices, carving out small, quiet huddle rooms and larger conferencing areas. In addition, the traditional walled workstation or cubicle was replaced by smaller workspaces or benching scenarios.

In addition, Laura Rogers, associate at Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, points out that most public spaces in federal buildings now have to serve multiple purposes. For example, a main lobby typically includes security and reflects an agency's brand, but today it might also include an outreach or educational component and be designed to support special events. Rather than having dedicated single purpose spaces for meetings, press events and special use functions, designers might create a series of divisible multipurpose rooms (with infrastructure, technology, furniture, storage and finishes) to allow all rooms to serve multiple purposes.

The GSA’s initiative isn’t the only significant change in the sector. According to the 2014 Dodge Construction Outlook, “Because public sector projects account for more than 60% of institutional building, the poor fiscal condition of federal, state, and local governments in recent years has been a constraint on activity. In 2013, institutional building not only continues to feel the lingering impact of the recession and financial crisis, but as part of discretionary spending it is also being hampered by the sequestration cuts.” Under the umbrella of institutional, Dodge includes government sector buildings, educational facilities, hospitals and other health treatment facilities, religious buildings, amusement-related construction, and transportation terminals. 

However, according to Dodge, “In 2014, a faster pace of economic growth will help state and local finances improve, although federal spending restraint will still be negative. Institutional building next year will edge up 1% to 278 million square feet, accompanied by a 2% gain to $89.1 billion.” This is good news, though modest considering that starts reached $130.6 billion in 2008. However, it hopefully signals the start of an upward trend. 

The outlook isn’t as optimistic for the government and public spaces sector of institutional building. According to Dodge, “The public buildings category weakened further in 2012, dropping 13% to 23 million square feet. This marked the fifth annual decline in a row, as funding for construction grew increasingly scarce. By category segment, last year saw weaker activity for police/fire stations, down 20%; military-related work, down 18%; and detention facilities, down 9%. Relative to its depressed 2011 amount, courthouses edged up a modest 4%, while post office construction stayed negligible. Despite the rising negatives for this category, several notable large projects did get underway last year, including the $545 million U.S. Stratcom Replacement Facility at Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska, the $316 million SCI Phoenix Correctional Facility in Schwenksville, PA, and the $272 million San Bernardino Courthouse in San Bernardino, CA.”

For designers who work in government and public space design, the slow pace of the market has impacted the type of work that they are getting as well as how they are winning it. Government agencies are often choosing to renovate rather than build, since that process is typically more cost effective, according to Rogers. “If the economy were different,” Rogers says, “some clients would have opted to move, but today there is a shift towards renovating existing space. We have lots of planning work right now and two major renovations that amount to 2.5 million feet. Many buildings are in need of a rehab of their systems, which requires that people move out or phased construction that can drag on for years. Even so, the math works out to be on the side of staying.”

Says Barnhart, “The market is still tough, and there’s still a lot on hold or projects that have been defunded. There is more partnering with the landlord if they are leasing a building or space, more creative ways to fund a project. The GSA is looking at different ways to make things work.”

And Eiss notes a difference in not only what work his firm gets but also how they get it. “It is going to a competition with many government clients now. The design has to be far enough along that the contractor is willing to put a price on it. We submit our design proposals and guarantee the price of the project. The clients choose one but often ask us to merge in pieces of the other proposals. This is more and more the case.” He adds that projects that are planned just before the economy turns upward are often underfunded as the market starts raising its prices. This is true of the St. Louis project. Already, the team has had to increase the budget several times to align funding with the current market conditions. 


HAs with the senior living sector, one of the most interesting challenges with government work is that the spaces that are being designed can vary greatly. Martin Eiss, senior associate at Fentress Architects, recently finished the Ralph L. arr Colorado Judicial Center in Denver and is currently working on the St. Louis County Courthouse in Missouri.

The St Louis County Courthouse includes both formal courtroom space and a juvenile detention facility, which, in itself, has a variety of different spaces such as sleeping quarters, classrooms, a cafeteria, a gymnasium and an admissions area. Obviouly, these spaces have quite different needs and require different types of flooring, both in terms of aesthetics and function.

The St. Louis project, funded with bonds from the county, is about two-thirds renovation, one-third new build, and, in the section being renovated, the client would like to salvage as much of the in-place broadloom as possible due to a tight budget. But that could be a challenge, says Eiss, adding, "Flooring is something that almost always has to be replaced due to wear and tear. The challenge is finding the most efficient way to do it with budget constraints, knowing that the most effective scheme is going to be the most cost effective as well. It's a complicated job."

The budget on that job is in contrast to what Eiss and his team had for the Carr project. The idea behind Carr was that it was built to last 100 years. The 12-story, almost 700,000 square foot facility represents the third branch of government, the judicial branch, and the client wanted the design to be on par with the capital building and the other classic looking buildings that stand on Civic Center Park.

Previously, the court had been housed in a facility that had an anonymous look and which had, almost since its opening, been too small and had maintenance issues. The client wanted the new building to convey the idea of the rule of law.

For the Carr atrium floor, Eiss and his team chose a local white marble, which was used both in the Lincoln Memorial and Arlington National Cemetery, and had it laser cut with the image of columbine, the state flower. The low maintenance profile of the stone also appealed to the design team.

For the courtrooms, the team chose to have the columbine imagery reiterated in broadloom, which was custom made by Brintons. For the leaning center, an interactive exhibit built to elucidate the legislative process to visitors, the team chose a combination of Mohawk (Lees) and Shaw carpet tile. 

In addition, 75% to 80% of the office space in the facility has carpet tile. Eiss says, "The back of the house was intentionally made to be generic. Not boring, but generic. For long-term usability, the client wanted standardized materials, office sizes and furniture. Flexibility."

In the case of Carr, a privately funded state project made possible by bonds from Obama's stimulus passage, quite a few high-end materials, such a bronze, were used throughout the facility, so the maintenance and operations program is extensive. Still, says Eiss, carpet rotation and cleaning were comprehensively reviewed. Eiss anticipates that the carpet tile in the space will last ten to 15 years, though he says that the government clients will keep floorcovering in place for 25 to 30 years, if at all possible. Since the developer of the building is also the building manager, it has a vested interest in keeping the materials in good condition.

Lifecycle plays an important role in government sector flooring specification. Government facilities are somewhat notorious for leaving flooring in place for spans that exceed recommended life expectancy. Typically, uglying out isn’t enough to warrant replacement. A floor must truly wear out. 

In 2010, the GSA established its Texture Appearance Retention Rating (TARR) guidelines. TARR sets standards for how a floor must wear in relation to appearance. Says Barnhart, “Since the GSA has adopted the TARR test, it’s written into all leases. With carpet, it’s something that the designer has to look at first. A lot of carpet doesn’t meet the criteria or isn’t even tested. It certainly weeds out a lot of options.”

There is an interesting dichotomy in government sector design. In the current economic climate, conspicuous consumption is frowned upon, so expensive, highly decorative spaces generally aren’t the status quo. However, at the same time there is the sense that government buildings should feel somewhat formal and stately, especially in public space areas, so designers must balance the two notions: creating a quality design with staying power that communicates the importance of the role of law, while also keeping in mind that it’s at the people’s expense. Products that maintain their appearance throughout their useful life help achieve that goal.

At the same time, when budgets are tight and the financial watchdogs are reviewing receipts, it’s imperative that a designer explain the concept of choosing a product that, though it may cost more up front, offers greater product life. In fact, Rogers believes that educating the client about the importance of lifecycle and the return on investment that a quality product can offer is one of the most important jobs that a government sector designer has. She adds, “Flooring, in general, is such an important factor when it comes to appearance, image and brand. It’s the first thing that you see. The finishes at eye level are easier to maintain.” 

Often, says Barnhart, flooring replacement is written into lease agreements. In the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office building in Alexandria, Virginia, a 2.3 million square foot facility that Barnhart designed, the landlord has to replace the carpet every seven years as part of the lease agreement. Typically, Barnhart says that the goal is to keep the floorcovering down for the full lease. 

The designers with whom we spoke report that President Obama’s executive order #13514 has had little impact on flooring specification, primarily because flooring finishes are such a small part of the overall building—the envelope and systems of a facility have a much greater impact on its overall sustainable profile. In Rogers’ opinion, the goal of the executive order goes beyond the greening of government buildings, “The executive order pushes something bigger than all of us. It’s trying to drive people to innovate.”

Many designers and firms do have a commitment to choosing the greenest product they can, while meeting the goals and budget that their client has set, and the carpet manufacturers have done a good job of making that easy on them. Says Barnhart, “I don’t even worry about sustainability with carpet because all the manufacturers have been doing it for so long.”

Rogers adds, “For LEED, designers have to have an eye on recycled content and procuring locally. But if you’re not striving for LEED, we still care about green from the perspective of wellness, maintenance and air quality. We tell our clients, ‘Don’t buy something cheap. Look at the lifecycle.’” 


If you're assuming that the government shutdown brought design and construction work in the sector to a halt, you're incorrect. In fact, SOM, which has over one third of its business in the government sector, felt little impact from the 15-day shutdown in October. Why? The government is big, and, like stopping a train, it takes a long time to bring it to stasis. Rogers explains, "You can't just turn it off. When projects are under contract, there are penalties for not delivering, If the client holds up the contractors, the blame is on them, and there are billions of dollars on the line.

Considering the wear and tear that government buildings receive and the possibility that the flooring is likely to be left in place for a long time, it would seem that hard surface flooring would be the natural choice in government buildings. However, acoustics are a significant consideration in government sector design, especially with the goals of the Total Workplace Initiative, which brings more people into less square footage. When you have desks side by side, especially without sound-absorbing panels between them, it is imperative that flooring help muffle sound, allowing workers to concentrate, so soft surface is the flooring of choice for these locations. 

And in the locations where workers gather for relaxation, the amenity spaces, it is just as important that workers be able to relax in a quiet environment and achieve some peace of mind. 

While carpet tile is a very popular material in government sector design, Rogers is enthusiastic about Tandus’ Powerbond and similar products and so, she says, are her clients. “From the perspective of installation, it’s easier, faster and less costly. And being able to patch it is a huge advantage.” Rogers estimates that, while carpet has a six to eight year lifespan, these 6’ goods can last 12 to 15. 

In addition, Rogers has noted a growing interest in painted concrete, which she attributes to the increased number of colors and textures available. Terrazzo is also a popular choice because of its stone-like durability and opportunity to incorporate recycled content. 

One thing many of Rogers’ government sector clients are not interested in is custom products. “They want to be able to pick a product number and get it for the long term, not something with a long lead time and minimum quantities,” explains Rogers.

Barnhart has found this to be the case as well, “My clients don’t like to do too much with customization. And often, if it’s an open spec or a performance spec, there’s a lot of choice. The products are basically brought to you.”

As far as color and design, Barnhart generally chooses a neutral palette on the floor, so that furnishings and finishes can change over time, but seeks out designs with lots of texture and patterning. In the GSA headquarters, a building that takes up a whole city block, each floor is around 65,000 square feet. Here, Barnhart used coordinating styles to help relieve the monolithic look throughout, as well as to create traffic patterns and separation between spaces. The bulk of this was carpet tile, which Barnhart calls “the flooring of choice” for much of her work. 

Barnhart lists a number of flooring issues that continue to be a challenge in government sector design: “We have a fair number of issues with flooring, the slab, glues that aren’t holding. Some glues and adhesives that are better for the environment but don’t stick as well. These are big issues when you’re covering one million square feet of flooring. With vinyls, we see leveling issues, telegraphing. If we have the budget, we often upgrade to porcelain, tile or terrazzo.”

In spite of the many changes and hurdles in the sector, Rogers reports that government sector design today is much more interesting than it once was. While serving as chief architect of the GSA from 1996 to 2005, Ed Feiner founded the Design Excellence Program, which reinvented the federal procurement process for architecture and, says Rogers, set forth the idea that the government sector is just as deserving of beauty as the private sector, in essence changing government design from drudgery to a practice that often merits design awards.

Copyright 2014 Floor Focus 

Related Topics:Shaw Floors, Mohawk Industries, The International Surface Event (TISE), Shaw Industries Group, Inc.