Innovative Design in Federal Buildings

Photo showing example of an atrium in a design excellence building that survey respondents told us increased operations and maintenance costsLeaky roofs, broken A/C units, cracked tiles—as the owner of a vast inventory of buildings, the federal government deals with these and other maintenance issues on a daily basis.

Since 1994, the government has built 78 office buildings and courthouses under the General Services Administration’s (GSA) Design Excellence Program. This program is a response to criticism that federal buildings are uninspiring, and stresses creativity in building design. As a result, many federal buildings constructed under this program have unique design elements, such as multi-story atriums, walls of windows, and attractive landscaping.

But how does the federal government plan for the day-to-day costs to operate and maintain buildings with these unique features? Today’s WatchBlog explores.

Lower—and higher—costs

Some design choices, such as natural light, durable materials, and low-maintenance landscaping, led to lower overall operations and maintenance costs in these buildings. For example, First Street Federal Courthouse in Los Angeles has a light well as a part of its atrium and a serrated glass façade that maximizes natural light. Consequently, most of the courtrooms receive natural light from multiple sources—which reduces energy use.

Figure showing design excellence buildings with durable and easily maintained materials and finishes, low maintenance landscaping, and increased natural light, according to building managers

However, other design choices, such as separate structures (like rotundas), custom windows, and multi-story atriums, led to higher maintenance costs. For instance, the rotunda in the Ronald Reagan Building in Washington, D.C., had water stains on the ceiling from leaking roof gutters. And while fixing gutters is a common maintenance activity, specialists had to be hired to fix these gutters because the dome roof has no area to stand.

GSA officials at one courthouse reported repairing a two-story, custom-made window pane, which cost $80,000 to fabricate and $50,000 to install.

Figure showing large, custom windows ina design excellence building that increased operations and maintenance costs, according to building managers

Multistory atriums often led to additional costs, including the need to erect expensive scaffolding for maintenance.

Photos showing atriums that increased operations and maintenance costs in buildings constructed under GSA's design excellence program, according to respondents

Blueprint for the future

Undertaking operations and maintenance activities will cost more than initial construction over the life of a building. Consequently, decisions made during the planning and design process can result in cost-savings—or unexpected expenses.

However, we found that GSA did not fully factor operations and maintenance costs into their building planning process. Instead, the agency:

  • Only considered the operations and maintenance costs of large systems that required energy
  • Did not consistently gather or use input from staff with operations and maintenance experience
  • Did not ensure information on lessons learned was shared

We recommended that GSA update its procedures for planning and designing new buildings to better take into account the costs of operating and maintaining these buildings.


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