Examining government, state, municipal, federal, and military facilities: Codes and standards

Government and military projects are among the toughest challenges an engineer can face. Demanding facility owners, tight budget limitations, safety concerns, and other factors all come into play. Here, engineers with experience in the field offer advice on how to succeed in regards to codes and standards.

By Consulting-Specifying Engineer July 18, 2018


  • Roger Chang, PE, LEED Fellow, Principal, DLR Group, Washington, D.C.
  • Shem Heiple, PE, LEED AP, Associate Principal, Senior Mechanical Engineer, Interface Engineering, Portland, Ore.
  • Dalrio Lewis, PE, Project Engineer, RTM Associates, Orlando, Fla.
  • Spencer Morgenthau, CPSM, LEED AP, Director of Business Development, Southland Energy, a division of Southland Industries, Sterling, Va.

CSE: Please explain some of the codes, standards, and guidelines you commonly use during the project’s design process for these facilities. Which codes/standards should engineers be most aware of?

Heiple: The first thing I feel is important early on for a project is not to assume the applicable codes. If it is a federal project, you can be certain there will be requirements that are not part of your local building code. Even municipal projects will often have standards, especially schools. Even if you have worked on past projects for a certain governmental agency, their standards or guidelines may have changed—so you want to start that list fresh for each new project. Most of the standards and information is on the internet. For federal projects, a good place to start is often the Whole Building Design Guide website, a program of the National Institute of Building Sciences, to see if the agency is represented. Some of the documents you may encounter for federal projects include the Uniform Facilities Criteria for Department of Defense (DoD) projects, the Facilities Standards for the Public Buildings Service (P100) for GSA projects, International Code Supplements (OBO-ICS) for the State Department’s overseas work. There are many others. In some cases, you may have two jurisdictions involved. We are currently involved in a project where we are trying to address overlapping concerns of the GSA and the State Department. Most of these standards and guidelines rely heavily on the International Code Council or NFPA codes, but they have their own tweaks or additional requirements. Being aware of, and understanding, the tweaks is what ensures compliance. Government agencies also have additional high-performance building standards that, although congruent with engineering technical design standards, are typically published separately and incorporate holistic building sustainability features, such as energy, water, and social impacts.

CSE: What are some best practices to ensure that such buildings meet and exceed codes and standards?

Heiple: High-performance buildings and sustainability standards can be challenging to meet and exceed. The design team must use integrated design at the start of the project design. Engineers should be a part of the high-level discussion of the building design with architectural and other designers, such as civil and structural. This integrated design must continue through all the design phases. Energy and water goals must be established early with the conservation strategies needed to achieve these goals. As the design progresses, these strategies must be continuously re-evaluated to ensure goals are being met in the design documents.

CSE: How are codes, standards, or guidelines for energy efficiency impacting the design of such buildings?

Chang: Energy codes continue to increase in stringency, with ASHRAE 90.1-2016 already nearing a 70% improvement from average building performance indexed to the 2003 Commercial Buildings Energy Consumption Survey. This requires well-integrated approaches to the envelope, lighting, and HVAC systems. The knowledge required by all members of a project team is cross-disciplinary in nature.

CSE: What new code or standard do you feel will change the way government, state, municipal, federal, and military facilities are designed, bid out, or built?

Heiple: Federally mandated energy- and water-performance goals have a large impact on building design. These standards are influential because they impact many disciplines and significantly raise the project’s design-excellence requirements. At the local level, the 2030 Challenge as well as building energy-incentive programs are being adopted by many agencies. Resiliency is starting to have an increasingly larger presence in practice and the codes. Some jurisdictions are currently being considered to ensure that commonly used spaces, such as high school auditoriums, will have a higher level of resiliency in the face of natural disasters and their inherently natural roles to act as emergency shelters.

CSE: What are some of the biggest challenges when considering code compliance and designing or working with existing government, state, municipal, federal, or military facilities?

Chang: Many scopes of work for government projects require a specific percentage improvement or differential from a reference energy standard like ASHRAE 90.1. With the alignment of ASHRAE 90.1 with 2030 net zero energy targets, it may become difficult to continue to achieve a 30% improvement without ramping up the production of renewable energy onsite.