NREI Readers Write

The American Workplace is Changing: Is the Government Behind the Transformation?

As the nation's largest property owner, the federal government owns or leases 1.2 million real estate assets, encompassing over 830 million square feet of buildings. And many of those facilities are underused, outdated or abandoned. Additionally, just like any land or building owner, the government has been hit hard by the recession and has pledged to evaluate its real estate holdings and consolidate where it can.

Although many would like to forget this recent economic crisis, most agree this is the beginning of an important and fundamental shift in the way we do business and where we do business. Particularly in the government sector, everybody is wondering, “how can we do things differently and better than what we were doing before?”

Specifically, the deficit debate in Congress that began in 2011 took a significant toll on the two largest federal landowners – the Department of Defense (DOD) and the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA). For fiscal year 2013, for example, the GSA has a new-construction budget of nearly zero. The DOD, on the other hand, has a $2 billion budget, but voluntarily agreed to freeze spending on new-construction projects to revaluate priorities. Both agencies have shifted their focus towards renovation and energy conservation projects in their fiscal year 2013 budgets.

DOD and GSA consolidations are affecting employees, landlords, buildings owners, designers, and architects, but should we presume the worst?

The Silver Lining

Because the government has so much real estate, it drives the market, especially in the larger metropolitan cities. So what we're seeing as government agencies such as the DOD and GSA continue putting more properties in the pipeline for disposal is a burgeoning transformation of office building design.

This isn't the first time the government has initiated change in the architecture and design field. In the past, the government took the lead on requiring architects to design first in CAD, or computer-aided design, and then shepherded the great paradigm shift to Building Information Modeling (BIM), which fundamentally revolutionized how the industry approached and executed design.

The government also mandated and incentivized LEED silver requirements, which spearheaded the sustainable design movement in development and architecture firms across the country. Most developers not only adopted LEED practices, but even began competing to achieve the most sustainable or green buildings.

Today, the federal government is once again behind a radical change in how and where we work. The government led the way in introducing and arguing for greater use of teleworking – a program in which employees work at home or at an approved center near home which saves money by allowing agencies to reduce office space. To support the mobility of their employees, the government is redesigning office spaces with new unassigned seating environments that enable employees to choose any workspace for as long they need it.

They are leading the way in reducing the square footage of office spaces, increasing the use of technology, and pushing net-zero. Architects are already seeing or expecting our developer clients to feel the shift and follow suit.

The Bottom Line

The U.S. General Services Administration and the Department of Defense are only two federal agencies among many that are redefining where and how we work.

Because the government is such a large force in the real estate economy, it will push architects, landlords and developers to change how office buildings are designed. There will be a greater focus on net-zero and energy conservation; a change in determining what a good floor plate is for a Class A office building because of shrinking requirements for offices and cubicles; and greater attention to amenities such as higher technology infrastructure as part of base buildings, and shared spaces like cafes, conferencing facilities, or improved fitness facilities.

All of the changes the government is pushing will have a transformational effect on the design of buildings. Typical office buildings today are designed around a 40,000 to 60,000-square-foot floor plate, based on the need for corner offices, workstation layouts, file rooms and storage facilities. In the office building of the future, however, floor plates will most likely get smaller, and the depth of buildings will be shallower, with more emphasis on daylighting.

There will be less focus on architects and more focus on interior designers. Interior designers have long taken a back seat to architects, but as we shift the focus away from building shells and on-site geometry to interior environments, designers will be in greater demand to program and lay out spaces. I imagine that many architects will not have the skills required for these interior design projects, and perhaps we'll see a shift in the prominence of the two professions.

As an architect, I'm encouraged by the changes initiated by our government and excited about what's to come.

Oscar Perez is the director of design services for government for Cooper Carry.

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