When need necessitates change, opportunity blossoms. While this may sound like a Chinese proverb, it’s really the moral of the story for the GSA Mid-Atlantic Regional Office project. As the expiration of a lease term neared, occupants of the GSA Mid-Atlantic Regional Office began the hunt for a new workspace – one that would meet a long list of requirements.
“We were pretty sure we would end up in a historic building. Philadelphia is full of them,” explains Vija J. Brewer Long, project space planner/interior designer, GSA Public Buildings Service, Mid-Atlantic Region, Philadelphia. The charm, character, and availability of space in historic buildings were not the only factors that made them appealing. “Executive Order 13006 gives a 10-percent financial preference to historic buildings,” Brewer Long explains. “It’s the government’s way of trying to make those projects economically more viable, and revitalize downtown areas [that tend to have] a lot of historic buildings.”
The Strawbridge Building’s Appeal
Because the office’s occupants had called the Wanamaker Building home for so long, they understood all too well the limitations some historic buildings present. The Public Buildings Service, one of the tenants, was eager to find a space that would both respect the integrity and character of historic architecture and accommodate the high-tech needs of modern office workers. Their needs were met when they located space in a nearby 13-story limestone facility known as The Strawbridge Building. Built in 1931, the building was now owned jointly by May Department Stores Co. (owner and operator of Strawbridge’s, a department store on Floors 1 through 6) and Preferred Real Estate Investments (owner of Floors 7 through 13). A 10-year lease was signed in July 2001 after securing congressional approval.
The wheels were set in motion immediately as the team began planning the build-out of space on the entire eighth and ninth floors, as well as a large portion of the 10th floor. Space needs from a number of tenants within the Mid-Atlantic Regional Office were carefully weighed. Along with the Public Buildings Service, the new space would have to meet the needs of the Federal Technology Service; Federal Supply Service; Financial Service Center; Office of the Inspector General, Regional Administrator, and Regional Council; as well as Human Resources and Program Services. Because the space was unoccupied and offered very open floorplates (due to its original function as a retail space), the team was able to assemble a layout conducive to each group’s needs.
Floor-to-ceiling heights topping out at 11 feet made the goal of installing a raised floor realizable. Because GSA’s lease award occurred shortly after Preferred Real Estate’s acquisition of the space, much of the building’s infrastructure hadn’t been completed. Because of this, installing the raised floor would not conflict with the floor heights of any pre-existing restroom facilities, etc. “We knew that we wanted to do the raised access floor; we had identified that very early on as something we wanted to do, and that made it easier to accomplish,” says Brewer Long.
The Design Intent
During the process of design intent development, the Public Buildings Service determined how the space would function best for all tenants. Communication was essential. “The key to communication is really translating, because a lot of times at the principal level, they’re not in the business of building,” says Dale Anderson, project manager for the GSA Public Buildings Service, Mid-Atlantic Region. “Try to establish a common vocabulary between two different professions,” he advises.
While divergent ideas emerged, some common goals were discovered as well. Office occupants had grown accustomed to the high cost of churn in their previous space. However, the promise of a new space would also provide the opportunity to reduce the cost of moves. “As individuals, [we move] around a lot through our office to meet the needs of work at any given time, aligning ourselves with different teams at one point or another,” says Brewer Long about the Public Buildings Service team. Therefore, implementing plug-and-play technology and underfloor wire management systems was a big priority.
Additionally, the project team wanted to acknowledge the different work processes of each group, allowing a certain amount of diversity in the design of their layout and workstations while providing a unified aesthetic throughout. “I think we balanced unity and diversity pretty well,” says Anderson. “Notably in design, while we do have groups that are autonomous and different, we did approach design concepts similarly across the entire project.”
Despite the use of furniture from three different manufacturers, the space has a real sense of design continuity. “In the end, we were able to tie very different parts of the organization together by creative ceiling, lighting, and carpet treatments; encouraging limited partition heights; and avoiding the placement of private offices on window walls,” explains Jan Ziegler, former assistant regional administrator at the GSA Public Buildings Service, Mid-Atlantic Region. Among the unifying design features are curved walls; the same geometric, graphic carpet tiles in three different color palettes; cherry wood doors; striped, frosted glass; and a consistent color palette of khaki and spruce green, with additional colors added for customization.
Mock-ups were used frequently and provided a working model of what tenants could expect to see in the space. “Sometimes different personalities [have] to touch it [and] they’ve got to feel it to really understand it,” Anderson explains. To truly visualize the space’s layered ceiling design and indirect lighting, the Public Buildings Service worked closely with vendors to create a mock-up. Each group’s decision-makers were asked to provide their opinions. “That helps you to have a real dialogue about what’s workable and what’s not workable,” says Anderson.
To meet the technology needs of each group, the design called for the conversion of a 10th-floor auditorium into a Data Network Access (DNA) Center. This space provides a perfect example of how historic charm and modern functionality can meld beautifully. With its historic railings, plasterwork, and proscenium arch, the stage was set for a dynamic 2-story area that could both accommodate the more significant space needs of the Public Buildings Service group and provide a centralized technology center for all groups. “The Data Network Access Center was a concept that our management team had … in order to make resources available to help people with technology,” explains Brewer Long. Stations equipped with scanners and specialized computer software are sandwiched between a library and pantry area.
The DNA Center isn’t the only high-tech space. The Mid-Atlantic Regional Office is littered with them. There are 35 conference rooms, available for use by all groups. Additionally, the Public Buildings Service offers 24 rooms to encourage mobility and flexibility in the workplace. Many of these meeting, training, and conference rooms are outfitted with projectors (displaying output from the PC, VCR, cable TV, or DVD), touchscreen panel controls for most A/V equipment, power and data via floor boxes, Voice-over-Internet Protocol (VoIP) conference phone features, and more. “We spent nearly 4 years planning the integration of our real estate plan and our technology plan with great results,” says Ziegler.
“My goal with this project was to use our need for a new space as a real-time lab, testing the edges of current workplace thinking, confronting the impacts on work systems and people, and creating an excellent home for our employees – that could be used as a successful demonstration to our federal clients,” Ziegler explains. As the Public Buildings Service, Federal Technology Service, and Federal Supply Service became each other’s customers during the Mid-Atlantic Regional Office build-out, each group benefited from the other’s expertise. The GSA has a vast knowledge, strong commitment, and obvious talent for fulfilling space needs: The Mid-Atlantic Regional Office project is living proof.
Jana J. Madsen (firstname.lastname@example.org) is managing editor at Buildings magazine.
Communication is essential. “The key to communication is really translating, because a lot of times at the principal level, they’re not in the business of building,” says Dale Anderson, project manager, GSA Public Buildings Service, Mid-Atlantic Region, Philadelphia. “Try to establish a common vocabulary between two different professions,” he advises.