Advances in technology are changing the way federal offices are designed, making old, cavernous, buildings more productive and collaborative places to work.
“The average age of federal facilities is over 35-years old or close to it,” said Larry Melton, former GSA executive and current CEO of The Building People. “The first step is you’ve got to measure utilization. You’ve got to figure out where am I using it, what am I not using and assess from there. But, the reality is, if it’s an old building or a new building, you can make an old building smart, even by today’s technology. There’s certainly many, many capabilities out there in the market to make that happen.”
Melton spoke about new building trends with the Federal Drive with Tom Temin and Emily Kopp as part of our special report, A New Era in Technology. He pointed to the newly refurbished GSA headquarters at 1800 F. St., N.W., in Washington, as an excellent example of a federal office implementing this new approach to office design.
“We’ve seen collaboration spaces turned into real-time change in the way people work and the way they collaborate and produce, quite frankly, more of a collaborative result of the teamworking environment,” he said. “So, that’s really the big piece.” This new approach to building design focuses on the mobility of its workforce.
“It’s really about changing the human behavior,” Melton said. “First, promote the mobility and telework and get those practices in place, leverage the technology and then we’ll focus on those cost savings and retrofitting the workplace. You don’t have to retrofit your workplace overnight to maximize the mobility and utilization. The space is the space today.”
The shift to smart design takes advantage of new technologies, such as wireless connectivity, to make a workforce more mobile and less anchored to a particular workspace.
“The advances in the technology are making these systems so much easier and less costly to deploy,” Melton said. “The building-management systems today themselves are becoming so sophisticated that a new smart-building software can streamline and analyze data from older systems, increase the abilities of the BMS (building management systems) to provide meaningful, real-time information to building managers, but most importantly, to now the occupant and the end users in the building.”
Another way to look at designing for the occupancy is from a cost perspective, Melton said. “If a building is only occupied 30 percent of the time, then that means for the vast majority of the time it’s under used.
“Step one is to occupy them more efficiently, so that we know how much we actually need and that starts with measuring utilization,” Melton said. “So, while it’s all about the people, there’s still an increasing demand to save money, reduce costs, especially around the federal sector with tight budgets.”
The next step in moving toward smart-building design involves transforming the social norms and creating incentives for occupants.
“That’s where we’re seeing the leverage of the technology and pushing the change around the people,” Melton said. “It’s all around occupancy engagement … That buildingwide culture, in which empowered building occupants become aware and accountable for their own energy and water use, that’s just a big piece of changing the energy efficiency.”
The building’s occupants — both the renters and the people actually working at a location — can now share some of the responsibility and benefits usually afforded to the building operator. The cost savings they generate, through saving energy or water, can come back to them as savings through rent credits, smaller utility bills or lower operating expenses.
“They have an ability to influence that, make a change and drive that energy efficiency,” Melton said. “That’s the kind of social norms we’re seeing. It’s the engagement of the people at the lowest level, all they way down to the cubicle, that we’re seeing as transforming operating in space.
The bottom line is to focus on the social norms and the wants of the people using the building.
“That’s where you’ve really got to be smart about what we call ‘smart occupancy,'” Melton said. “You can have a smart building. You can have smart people in it. But the reality is that if you don’t create that right environment, the people are not going to be productive and people productivity is still one of the most important factors of designing the right space.”
Tom Temin is the host of The Federal Drive, which airs from 6-8 a.m. on 1500 AM in the Washington, D.C. region and online everywhere. Tom has 30 years experience in journalism, mostly in technology markets. Before coming to Federal News Radio, he was a long-serving editor-in-chief of Government Computer News and Washington Technology magazines.