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A Federal Workplace with Heart and Soul 

Government tenant, Washington, D.C. region. Image © Connie Zhou.

This post is part of a series of blog posts on Gensler’s 2016 Workplace Surveys.

The wave of Modernist and Brutalist government office buildings that arose in the 1960s and 70s left a lasting impression on the American architectural landscape. At their best, these structures aspire to lofty heights. See, for example, the Chicago Federal Center. But occasionally, those aspirations for landmark civic architecture were curtailed by fiscal realities, a need for expediency, or the desire to achieve a level of standardization.

However, recent efforts by the General Services Administration (GSA) to shrink the government’s spatial footprint have effectively created an opportunity to renovate aging federal real estate. With planning and design cues borrowed from the private sector, those renovations are creating federal office buildings that are not only more efficient but also more in line with the needs of contemporary government workers.

Case in point: our recent in-place renovation of a suburban Maryland facility occupied by a confidential government agency. What was a 1970s E-plan building marked by dead-end hallways and a lack of a central gathering area today stands as a modern, high-performance work setting designed for the human experience.

The project—a consolidation of several divisions within the agency—also stands as a cultural shift for the 4,000 people who now work in the 1.5 million-square-foot building. No longer do staffers spend the bulk of their days sitting at their desks, siloed in their departments and limiting their gatherings to formal meetings. Thanks to the new building design, the agency now offers a culture of mobility, spontaneity and collaboration.

Government tenant, Washington, D.C. region. Image © Connie Zhou.

And the design enables those new ways of working by making physical links, which in turn facilitate social links. Step one in infusing such connectivity involved the bridging of two wings of the structure via a new building section. That bridging effectively squared off a portion of the facility, creating a void in its center and birthing two key opportunities. One of those opportunities was the chance to leverage the natural circulation crossroads at the square’s four corners. The other was the prospect of making optimum use of the newly created void.

As natural meeting points, the crossroads became the most logical places to insert hubs, or communal shared services zones. With elements that include conference rooms, kitchens, break areas, and copy and supply centers, the hubs provide places for collaborating and socializing. They also complement the new open-workplace neighborhoods, which are located along the building perimeter to maximize daylight and views.

However, flooding the workplace with sunlight and opening up vistas required a significant structural modification: creating four new building cores. By removing the original cores—which were embedded in the wings of the building—and creating new cores at the corners of the central void, we were able to maximize the slender bars of the E shape, opening light, views, and transparency across the floorplates. Such openness was key to the success of the project. When colleagues can see each other, when they can observe the energy of those around them, they feel more connected to each other and more a part of the workplace culture.

Government tenant, Washington, D.C. region. Image © Connie Zhou.

As for the central void, we transformed it into a multi-story atrium and seeded it with communal spaces (dining space, meeting space, and lounge space, fitness space) to make it the heart of the building. Capped with a skylight made from ethylene tetrafluoroethylene (ETFE)—the same material used on Beijing’s Water Cube—the atrium is suffused with a bright modernity that underscores the forward-leaning mindset of the agency. And the activities that occur in the atrium are echoed on a smaller scale in the hubs. Thus, the hubs and atrium function as dual aspects of an overall response to the shifting nature of modern work, which has become increasingly mobile and social. That response is largely informed by the latest in workplace research, which has revealed that people sometimes do their best work away from their desks.

Armed with this information, our team created a space-planning strategy that emphasized more communal space and less individual space. As a result, we were able to not only provide alternative work settings but also reduce the space needed for each person, thereby decreasing the agency’s total square footage requirement while increasing overall comfort and function.

The sum of these efforts is a workplace transformation, a repositioning of the building to Class-A status, and a drastic increase in building performance. Yet it’s something more: it’s an acknowledgement of the human aspects of government work. While popular culture too often paints a picture of our government as a soulless bureaucracy, federal agencies are, in fact, populated with real people with real needs and a drive to do good. The buildings in which those dedicated civil servants work should support them in every way possible. If we can consistently achieve that aim, we’ll all ultimately reap the benefits.

Jill Goebel is a principal and design director in Gensler's D.C. office. A regional practice area leader for Education, she also has extensive experience with Government projects. Contact her at jill_goebel@gensler.com.