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Thinking outside the “austere” box: Reimagining government facility design

September 19, 2019

By Dominic Weilminster

Government agencies are breaking tradition amidst tightening purse strings and competitive labor markets to lead the way with sustainable and engaging design

For centuries, federal, state, and municipal governments have been responsible for creating some of the most timeless and architecturally significant designs in the world. While that fact is hardly debatable, in the United States in particular, the term “government building” conjures stereotypical images of austere, perfunctory boxes with fluorescent lighting, uninspired artwork, high-walled cubicles, and unwelcoming gathering spaces.

For decades, the prevailing belief in government and civic facility design was that in order to demonstrate responsible use of taxpayer dollars, buildings should meet the minimum requirements for functionality and resiliency—and little else.

Fast-forward to the present day, and not only are these decades-old structures showing signs of age, they must now compete with a private sector versed in emphasizing the employee environment as a differentiator, making it harder for the public sector to recruit and retain top talent in a tight labor market. Compounding this issue is the ever-present challenge of finding the money for new facilities.

The Fort Collins Utilities Administration Building is as the first building in Colorado, and just the fourth building of any type in the world, to achieve LEED v4 Platinum certification.

It’s easy to believe you must compromise on a great design in order to make do with what you have. But that doesn’t have to be the case.

Across the country, government agencies are—understandably—devoting significant time and effort to devising ways to close the gap between needed capital investments and operating costs on shoestring budgets.

As attraction and retention of talent becomes more demanding, the challenge is to demonstrate fiscal stewardship with any new improvements while also providing a more inspiring, supportive work environment for employees.

It’s easy to believe you must compromise on a great design in order to make do with what you have. But that doesn’t have to be the case.

In fact, government agencies around the country are finding that by partnering with design-focused firms on new facilities, they can improve public perception, employee retention, efficiency, health, happiness, and wellness in the workplace—all without breaking the budget.

The result?

More sustainable, people-oriented design that supports engaging, productive environments and instills a stronger sense of civic pride.

Setting a new standard for innovation through sustainable design

Although the public sector is large—and cumbersome at times—the notion that invention and innovation are foreign to government agencies is a myth. In reality, many of the nation’s best and brightest are attracted to public service for the opportunity to make a difference and improve the lives of our fellow citizens by providing important services like energy, food and water, developing cures for deadly diseases, and addressing public health crises.

This is especially true in some of the country’s most progressive cities—places like Seattle, San Francisco, Portland, and Denver, where innovation isn’t stymied by government but nurtured and advanced.

Just look at Fort Collins, Colorado, a city that announced an aggressive carbon action plan to target carbon neutrality by 2050. To help put that plan in motion, the city recognized they needed to address design first, and our team was ready to help.

The Fort Collins Utilities Administration Building in Fort Collins, Colorado.

This project, the Fort Collins Utilities Administration Building, or UAB, did so much more than check the boxes of basic environmental responsibility. It set a new bar as the first building in Colorado, and just the fourth building of any type in the world, to achieve LEED v4 Platinum certification.

Our project team began with designing the city’s new UAB to support the Fort Collins Climate Action Plan. It was important to think of energy savings strategies at a district-scale, focused on net-positive energy, and how to sustain healthy, productive occupants. As the provider of the city’s utilities, a main driver for the project was showcasing their commitment to energy efficiency and resource stewardship.

We focused on developing the perfect combination of building system technologies for this project. Remaining budget-conscious, we applied innovative solutions to the exterior walls that resulted in a reduction of energy use and provided abundant daylight, prioritizing thermal comfort for employees.

Designing to support engagement & productivity

In addition to a renewed focus on sustainability, government agencies are also fighting negative perceptions about public sector work, including the inability to deliver a high-quality work experience for employees.

Just 60 miles south of Fort Collins on Interstate 25 in Denver, the Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT) is turning the stereotype of the government workplace on its head with a new headquarters that’s helped them maintain and grow their presence as the state’s largest engineering employer.

A catalytic, extensive civic project in Denver’s Sun Valley neighborhood, the 175,000-square-foot CDOT headquarters represents a quality civic facility and collaborative workplace designed on a tight budget. Our design team set out to translate the impact of CDOT’s community contribution into a visual language that speaks to movement and the complex networks they design and manage.

Colorado Department of Transportation's new headquarters in Denver, Colorado.

By concentrating vibrant design in active social spaces and creating a calm environment in concentration spaces, the interiors are both engaging and productive—allowing budget to go farther and work harder while demonstrating a commitment to CDOT employees’ well-being. And through an iterative process of testing architectural and space-planning strategies to optimize program and cost, our team successfully achieved CDOT’s program goals while reserving space for a high-quality public plaza that is the face of the new facility, engaging nearby transit, and providing a common gathering space for CDOT employees.

At both the CDOT and the Fort Collins UAB, productivity and collaboration have increased, and negative perceptions of work are down. Post-occupant surveys at the UAB report double-digit improvements in employee perception of their happiness at work and similar decreases in their sense of stress or exhaustion at the end of the day.

Instilling civic pride through design

In many countries around the world, the primary function of a government is to act as a public steward by providing aid and community services when and where they’re needed most. The experience of receiving aid, though, is often overlooked, leading to facilities that misrepresent the community and the people it serves.

In contrast, the Eastside Human Services Building, which serves thousands of Denver’s neediest families, serves as point of pride in the historically underserved Clayton neighborhood.

The Eastside Human Services Building in Denver, Colorado, which features an interesting rooflines that also provide shade to the lobby spaces. 

The building’s design balances security and safety while providing a positive and welcoming visitor experience. Its orientation is turned to optimize solar access and is mindful not to overwhelm the existing single-family homes in the area with its size. A variety of rooflines extend to provide shade to the lobby spaces and lift the building’s form in a welcoming gesture to the neighborhood.

The facility is a beacon on environmental stewardship light. Daylighting creates vibrant office environments for employees while minimizing lighting costs. On-site water treatment systems clear storm water passively. A sloping roof is ready for the addition of a photovoltaic array in the future. Today, the facility stands as an example of the right way to design for sensitive government social services, and interactions with employees and their clients reinforce that good design has a role to play in improving our perception of public facilities.

Thinking outside the government “box”

So, while it’s true that government buildings are intended to stand the test of time, the buildings of tomorrow can also serve as a reminder of our collective ingenuity, resiliency, compassion for one another, and pride in our community. We don’t need to be stuck in the austere, perfunctory box.

We embrace our role as citizen designers and architects by helping our government partners look toward the future with design that’s built to last.

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