Evolution in Government Facility Designs

Consulting-Specifying Engineer (CSE) Magazine reached out to several consulting engineers around the US who work on government, state, municipal, federal, correctional and military buildings to ask several questions about the state of their industries. Page thought leader Chris Carter accepted the invitation to share his expertise on trends, technology and client priorities.

CSE: What’s the biggest trend in government, state, municipal, federal, correctional and military projects?
Chris Carter: Projects are trending to more sustainability and energy conservation with an increased focus on employee wellness. We are starting to see more interests in small group collaboration spaces and other features tailored for younger talent.

CSE: What trends do you think are on the horizon for such projects?
Chris: We are seeing more use of technology. Government buildings are finally catching up to other commercial, non-government office buildings in terms of the use of technology. For example, “internet of things” and Power over Ethernet (PoE) are increasingly common in government buildings. The total cost of ownership of these systems has been decreasing in conjunction with the increase of multiple applications and vendors providing viable options for potential use. There are numerous applications available where these technologies could improve existing systems, efficiencies and emergency response times.

CSE: Each type of project presents unique challenges — what types of challenges do you encounter for these types of projects that you might not face on “civilian” or other types of structures?
Chris: Government agencies often require their own set of standards and regulations that call for design features above and beyond established code. It can be challenging navigating the requirements of each agency, but it gets easier with more exposure. A good starting place for government projects is the Whole Building Design Guide; it provides many of the design criteria required. In addition, there are case studies available for past design projects to reference.

CSE: Tell us about a recent project you’ve worked on that’s innovative, large-scale or otherwise noteworthy. 
Chris: We recently worked on a master plan for the Texas Facilities Commission consisting of two high-rise office buildings, with an interconnecting five levels of underground parking and an above-ground pedestrian-oriented mall located in downtown Austin, Texas. The systems our team engineered included (but were not limited to) the following concept design systems: mechanical HVAC, plumbing systems, fire protection systems, electrical power system distribution, lighting system, lighting control systems and telecommunication infrastructure.  

One unique challenge of this project was the phasing of all the different components and planning for future expected growth. The project consists of six different phasing packages to be bid out to different design-build teams. The complex will house various government entities and serve as a public green space for tourism, events and festivals. 

CSE: How are engineers designing these kinds of projects to keep costs down while offering appealing features, complying with relevant codes and meeting client needs?
Chris: Early and often engagement with the stakeholders is key. It helps to ensure that an agreeable level of expectation management is achieved. During this iterative process, engineers strive to achieve a balance between costs and technology — and it starts with the client’s needs. A big part of design is establishing relationships and open lines of communication to help navigate these complex and intertwined constraints of innovation, costs and client expectations.

CSE: How has your team incorporated integrated project delivery or virtual design and construction into a project?
Chris: We emphasize the importance of effective collaboration between the owners, contractor and design team. Access to more technology and collaboration tools allows the design and construction teams to better coordinate and maximize the project development time across the various design disciplines and stakeholders. These processes help to create better client and team experience. This creates the opportunity for parties to be actively engaged through the design process which helps to maintain project schedule and budget.

CSE: How are these types of buildings being designed to be more energy efficient?
Chris: Governments are seeing the culture shift to more sustainable practices and have begun to implement these practices into their design and construction standards and regulations. They are increasing the use of LED lighting and advanced control technologies in conjunction with solar applications such as solar water heating. 

BAS (building automation systems) are playing a bigger role in controlling HVAC strategies for increased building efficiencies. For example, the United States Army has been implementing net-zero initiatives across select installations for the past eight years. Government buildings are starting to be designed with sustainability as a core focus versus as an afterthought.

CSE: What is the biggest challenge you come across when designing government, state, municipal, federal, correctional and military projects? 
Chris: Navigating the various government codes and standards required staying on top of NFPA and International Building Code. This issue gets even more complex when you have a U.S. government building located in a foreign country and have to balance what is required in the U.S. with what the host-nation requires. Deciding which nation’s codes takes precedent over the other can become very challenging, especially when multiple authorities having jurisdiction get involved. 

CSE: What is the typical project delivery method your firm uses when designing these facilities?
Chris: We have used all of these delivery methods, but we typically see design-build or design-bid-build for designing these types of facilities. We recently provided design-build services on a military base which comprised of designing new medium-voltage 15-kilovolt system to include new 4/6 way switches, new underground duct banks and new encased man holes to consolidate megavolt power supply and increase power sustainability across the base. The design was accompanied with ampere calculations and software modeling to confirm ampacity of the new feeders within the duct banks.

This interview was edited for brevity. To read other responses to the questions on Consulting-Specifying Engineer Magazine’s website, click here.