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The Changing Government Workplace

As the GSA works to save energy and lower costs in government buildings, designers and architects will need to focus on creating sustainable, collaborative spaces with a minimum of pieces.

By Georgy Olivieri, LEED AP and Karl Schrumpf

As the GSA works to save energy and lower costs in government buildings, designers and architects will need to focus on creating sustainable, collaborative spaces with a minimum of pieces.

The Changing Government Workplace

Last year, the president and Congress passed Executive Order 13514, which outlines sustainability and performance goals to be achieved by 2020. As part of this order, the General Services Administration (GSA) must reduce federal buildings’ energy consumption by one-third and identify $3 billion in cost savings.

These significant reductions will take time to implement and evaluate, but a large portion of the changes will include maximizing the use of real estate space and making purchasing decisions based upon green attributes. The GSA is placing new emphasis on team-oriented and collaborative environments where appropriate, and identifying the workplace needs of mobile, flexible and regimented workers.

research into workplaces
In attempts to identify cost-saving methods and help government agencies, architects, designers and furniture manufacturers understand workers’ needs, the GSA Public Building Service (PBS) conducted a workplace behavior study with employees from GSA agencies. The study looked at employees’ work patterns including responsibilities and demands, and categorized them into mobility and interaction levels. To identify these levels, the PBS examined the time workers spent at and away from their desk, at on- and off-site meetings, and their ability to work from home or alternative locations.

Next, the PBS analyzed how much time was spent interacting with other people on the phone, in person, in groups, or focusing on individual tasks such as reading, writing or processing information. This approach led to the identification of workplace needs for each type of worker, and provided insight on how to most effectively position workers for maximum real estate efficiency and improved productivity.

Through the PBS research, the GSA, architects and designers can develop work environments that combine shared and individual work spaces, effectively meeting the government’s goals of maximizing space and increasing energy efficiency. Some of the main points derived from the PBS study include:

  • Modular spaces can be reconfigured into shared meeting rooms or individual offices
  • A shared room for two people allows for private conversations or focused work
  • Columns or other dividers can help differentiate departments or sections that incorporate a different work environment
  • Enclosed spaces, such as conference rooms, can serve as dividers between collaborative and concentrative environments
  • Extremely mobile employees can share space at a 4:5 ratio

During the course of the study—February to May 2011—PBS analyzed a prototype work environment designed to evaluate the effectiveness of a new work environment tailored to workers’ mobile and interactive needs. The results of the four-month study showed that useable square footage could be consolidated 52 percent, to 14,064 square feet from 29,120, and the number of workstations reduced 38 percent, to 105 from 170.

furniture and standards
The PBS study helped the GSA recognize the energy saving and worker productivity benefits available by effectively combining regimented and collaborative work styles, and offering solutions for mobile workers. That said, although new arrangements will help decrease energy consumption, another challenge lies in selecting furnishings that meet the government’s green standards.

The GSA is currently evaluating several sustainability certification standards in an effort to select one or two that will be used to standardize all GSA facilities. Some of the standards under review include GREENGUARD, Scientific Certification Systems (SCS), and American National Standards Institute/Business and Institutional Furniture Manufacturers Association (ANSI/BIFMA), to name a few. With the recent introduction of Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Pilot Credit 43 and its acceptance of ANSI/BIFMA, there is a strong sense that ANSI/BIFMA will be selected to standardize government specifications.

Although it is likely new furniture purchases will need to meet specific sustainability standards, the GSA is also considering how to repurpose many of its existing products. It is not uncommon for some government agencies to have furniture that was produced before the push for low volatile organic compounds and off-gassing, and the challenge will be for architects and designers to find creative and safe ways to integrate these pieces into the design and footprint of the newer environments. The GSA does not have plans to dispose of its existing furnishings due to restrictions on donations and its emphasis on reducing landfill waste.

the future of government sales
The landscape of government furniture sales is changing and manufacturers, designers and architects should be prepared to address the following in order to be successful:

  1. Reduced footprint = less furniture
  2. Use of existing furniture
  3. Sustainability

A reduced footprint means less furniture will be purchased for GSA facilities, and the encouragement to reuse existing goods also impacts the amount of furniture sought and purchased. Designers will be charged with developing creative environments and applications that can traverse between private offices, individual work zones, and collaborative and meeting spaces.

To meet these needs, manufacturers will need to start, or continue, producing products that are easily interchangeable and provide the same desired look and feel cohesively throughout the environment. Some manufacturers have already been moving in this direction, and it is likely the industry will see benching solutions evolve into multipurpose products that can be reconfigured for meeting spaces and private and shared offices.

Within the next year, the GSA will choose a certification to standardize the government’s greening process, and manufacturers that have already achieved ANSI/BIFMA level® or SCS certification will, likely, have a head start on the competition. Until a decision is made on this subject, the industry should expect fewer new government purchases. However, once a standard is established, the doors will likely open for some manufacturers to capitalize on offering products that meet both the sustainability and flexibility requirements the GSA needs, as long as the environments can successfully integrate existing solutions. Although government spending will be significantly reduced, the products purchased will change the way the government interacts with and serves its citizens.


Information collected from the GSA Furniture Vendors Forum and the GSA Public Building Service Work Pattern Study, Philadelphia, Penn.

Georgy Olivieri, LEED AP, MBA serves as director of architecture, design and sustainability strategies for Kimball® Office, which has received level 2 or 3 certification for all of its manufactured products. She has more than 13 years combined experience with the contract furniture, architecture and design industries, and is a member of the International Interior Design Association (IIDA) and the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC).

Karl Schrumpf serves as government sales leader for Kimball Office and manages government accounts nationwide. For four years, he has focused on servicing government agencies.