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Change You Can Design In

The federal workplace is changing rapidly to respond to new ways of working, mandates for space reduction, new technologies and sustainability mandates, resulting in opportunities for innovative interior designers.

By James Williamson, IIDA, LEED AP

The federal workplace is changing rapidly to respond to new ways of working, mandates for space reduction, new technologies and sustainability mandates, resulting in opportunities for innovative interior designers.

As our economy continues its recovery from the Great Recession, an overarching focus on austerity and caution has become increasingly prevalent for several reasons—one of the biggest being the economy’s status as a political tool in the 2012 presidential campaigns. And why wouldn’t it be? Over the last 10 years, we watched companies in the private sector expand exponentially, only to shrink 20-30 percent in the course of a few years.

While rebuilding our own businesses, we watched local, state and federal governments follow suit. They expanded to help stabilize the contraction in the private sector, and are now looking to make significant reductions in the name of austerity and eliminating unnecessary waste. In June of 2010, President Obama ordered federal agencies to eliminate excess properties, raise occupancy rates in underused buildings and improve energy efficiency in an attempt to save $3 billion by the end of Fiscal Year 2012—a lot to tackle in a little over two years’ time.

It was a reaction to the fact that taxpayer dollars and natural resources had been stretched, but correcting it will require a drastic and fundamental change in our strategy.

So what does this mean for the design industry? In short, change creates a magnitude of opportunities for designers. Government leaders recognize that change is critical in making public services more effective and efficient—this includes how the government uses its physical workspace.

the gsa evolves
The overarching goal of the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA) remains the same today as it was more than six decades ago when it was first established. The GSA originated from the findings of the 1948 Hoover Commission, which took a long, hard look at the administrative functions of federal government at the time. The commission found unnecessary duplication, excessive costs and disorder in handling supplies and providing space.

“GSA helps federal agencies better serve the public by offering—at best value—superior workplaces, expert solutions, acquisition services and management policies,” reads the agency’s mission statement. And while it remains largely unchanged, the workplace has not. The work done in federal offices and facilities simply doesn’t happen the way it did three decades ago—it is even defined differently today. The leaders of the GSA realize this, and are moving forward with a variety of initiatives aimed at making the federal workforce more flexible, effective and engaging.

The U.S. government’s current space utilization rate averages 247 rentable square feet (RSF) per person, and the goal is to reduce it to about 156 RSF per person. Many lease actions will be subject to new and intensive space planning and utilization studies. The demand for space reduction and the mandate to do more with less will drive and reinforce continuous innovation in workplace design.

I’m thrilled to be involved in the renovation and modernization of 1800 F Street NW, GSA’s headquarters in Washington, D.C. The newly renovated building will be the home of multiple agencies within GSA, and will increase the utilization of the building three-fold while providing more effective spaces for the GSA to deliver improved services to their customers.

The physical workplace is a platform to design, orchestrate and encourage behaviors that allow people to better focus, collaborate, learn and socialize in an effort to grow. Just 10 years ago, space planning was primarily driven by headcount and storage needs. Today a program is driven by how people want to work, where they prefer to perform their activities and the desire to influence behaviors.

There are four key factors that will influence the design of future government workplace settings: mobility strategies, activity-based settings, technology integration into the physical work environment and healthy design strategies to combat obesity in the workplace. Today’s austerity in public institutions means more opportunity for design, not less.

At the International Interior Design Association (IIDA), we seek leaders in design who recognize, encourage and drive change within the private sector and the government. IIDA’s Government Forum supports the work of professional interior designers practicing locally within state governments, as well as those working at the federal level. Additionally, IIDA has established a partnership with the GSA to support the work of their design professionals, further recognizing the importance of interior design in the federal arena.

IIDA will also be hosting a program entitled “Workplace Transformation in the Federal Government” on Wednesday, October 17th during the 2012 NeoCon East show at the Baltimore Convention Center. A panel of government agency experts will share their perspectives and explore initiatives relevant to their agency’s mission and strategic direction. I hope that you can join us for what should be an informative and enlightening discussion about the future of the government workplace, and how interior designers can be an integral part of the strategy and planning of successful interiors for the federal government and its employees.


IIDA International President James Williamson, IIDA, LEED AP is a practicing interior designer and principal at Gensler in its Washington, D.C. office. You can reach IIDA at (312) 467-1950 or at