Evolving technologies demand flexible buildings

When the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) opened a massive campus in Springfield, Va., in 2011, it was the Army Corps of Engineers’ biggest project since construction of the Pentagon in 1943. Like any such project, perspectives changed and requirements shifted as the east campus progressed from concept to reality, reports website GovTech Works.

The experience offered lessons and insights for large-scale federal building projects, such as the new FBI headquarters, now in the planning stages, or NGA’s west campus, a second NGA campus planned for the St. Louis area as soon as 2018. Both projects aim to consolidate multiple locations into one, pulling more workers closer together in campuses designed for security, modern information technology and energy efficiency.

Already, much has changed since the NGA east campus project began. The advent of cloud computing, changing definitions of “green building,” new concerns about cyber security and the Internet of Things (IoT) all have emerged or changed substantially in the decade since planners began work on NGA East, according to GovTech Works.

Architects and designers constantly watch commercial and consumer trends for hints at how building design might need to change in the future, said Tom Reynolds, senior facilities engineer for the NGA. But ultimately, buildings go up at a fixed point in time, and must be built with flexibility in mind to accommodate whatever comes along later.

Simple things like raised floors that make it easy to re-route, replace or add new cabling, or thoughtfully located and amply sized telecommunications closets make a difference.

These days, one of the ongoing debates is over power requirements, GovTech Works reports. Some believe electricity requirements will grow as automated systems proliferate. Others argue low-power electronics and remote cloud computing will reduce electricity consumption in office buildings over time. Reynolds says it’s too soon to tell which will prevail.

Another area of discussion is IoT. For NGA, Reynolds said, it will be more of an “intranet of things” – that is, while computers will run building operating systems, security dictates they should be managed only on an internal network, without a direct connection to the Internet.

Projecting future needs is as much art as it is science. The trick is ensuring there is enough room for expansion and capacity for change, but not so much that the extra cost makes the project unaffordable.

Today, the FBI faces a similar challenge. It plans to replace its 42-year-old downtown Washington, D.C., headquarters with a new suburban campus. Today, more than a third of its interior space is unusable. Only 1.3 million of 2.4 million square feet is currently in use.

Sturdy interior walls of cement block make it hard to reconfigure the space into the kind of open, collaborative workspace that the FBI needs, officials say. The FBI and GSA want to trade in the valuable downtown property and consolidate 19 other sites spread out around the D.C. region into a modern 2.5 million-square-foot suburban campus for 11,000 employees and 400 contractors.

The new campus will be better protected and comprise multiple buildings, including a 60,000-square-foot visitor center, a utility plant providing energy security in case of a power grid failure and an inspection facility to secure the campus from truck-borne threats. Office space would be modular and reconfigurable and, like any new federal building project today, the new campus will incorporate the latest in green building technology to minimize energy consumption and carbon emissions.

NGA’s east campus was a leader in green technology when built.

NGA’s planned west campus is likely to incorporate some “net zero” design features, which call for maximizing use of passive solar energy for heat and natural light, as well as for heat recovery systems and photovoltaic cells to help generate the building’s own electricity and reduce carbon emissions to zero.

Net zero buildings recycle water and waste and rely on smart sensors to optimize lighting, heating and air conditioning. These concepts weren’t mature enough when the east campus was designed a decade ago, Reynolds said.

Not that east campus doesn’t include many green innovations – it does. The glass-dominant exterior features heat-reflecting glass and a lightweight, translucent ethylene tetrafluoroethylene (ETFE) roof. Its durable plastic polymer sheeting arches over a gigantic atrium, bringing natural light to ordinarily dark interior spaces. Motion sensors control interior lighting.

The building was situated to exploit the sun’s orientation in order to regulate heating and cooling. A chilled-beam system provides energy-efficient air conditioning and a one-acre green roof provides insulation. Rainwater runoff is shunted from roofs and a parking garage into a collection pond, where it can be used to water the campus grounds or, in an emergency, help cool the building.

Together, the east campus’ green features help reduce energy consumption by 30 percent and water usage by 40 percent, according to Clark Construction, the lead builder on the project.

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