How to design government buildings

In this Q&A with multiple experts, learn how to design government, state, municipal, federal, correctional and military buildings

By Consulting-Specifying Engineer July 16, 2021


  • Steve C. Davis, PE, electrical discipline lead, LEO A DALY, Atlanta
  • Raymond Krick III, PE, CxA, LEED AP, project manager, RMF Engineering Inc., Baltimore
  • Allen Poppe, PE, principal mechanical engineer, Stanley Consultants, Muscatine, Iowa
  • Andrew Stanton, PE, mechanical engineer | senior associate, DLR Group, Cleveland.

Each type of project presents unique challenges — what types of challenges do you encounter for these types of projects that you might not face on “civilian” or other types of structures?

Steve C. Davis: For military projects, the agency’s approach to solving a given facility need often depends on the funding sources available. If funding for a new facility is unavailable but repair and renewal funds are, we will be asked to provide designs that upgrade an existing building to meet new needs. This introduces new challenges that wouldn’t be as common on civilian projects, such as an improved structural system to meet stringent requirements for progressive collapse or blast protection or providing new mechanical and electrical infrastructure systems into an existing building that was not designed to accommodate the newer systems. This often leads to interesting challenges that call for outside-the-box design thinking.

For example, LEO A DALY recently designed a large laboratory and vivarium renovation, in which electrical and mechanical systems were extremely cramped in available spaces. In one case, we removed a large portion of structural slab to route several distribution feeders below grade to allow space above the ceiling for mechanical ductwork and piping. Solving the challenge included a lot of coordination between mechanical, electrical and structural design disciplines.

Allen Poppe: For our Department of Defense clients, antiterrorism and physical security features are incorporated.

Andrew Stanton: Two major challenges come to mind. First, the security of the facility’s mail room. With concerns stemming from the real possibilities of biological attacks on federal buildings, the mail room must be equipped with a completely independent heating, ventilation and air conditioning system capable of maintaining the space at a negative pressure relative to the adjacent spaces. An addition of a separate system that provides ventilation and conditioning to a space can be challenging depending on where the room is located.

The other is the location of outdoor air intakes. Again, because of the security of the building, the intake locations must be as high as possible in relation to grade to prevent anything from being dumped into it and spreading throughout the building. The General Services Administration dictates that the intakes must be at least 40 feet above grade or as high as possible in facilities shorter than 40 feet.

What’s the biggest trend in government, state, municipal, federal, correctional and military projects?

Steve C. Davis: Energy reduction is the biggest trend currently. There has been more funding available for energy reduction and renewable generation and more mandates to meet a 30% energy reduction threshold by a certain year.

LEO A DALY has been involved a great many projects for federal and state agencies to increase renewable energy generation on-site. For example, we recently completed a large number of solar power projects for the Georgia National Guard, retrofitting readiness centers and truck maintenance facilities across the state with photovoltaic arrays on the roof. These projects have helped the facilities meet their daily energy use needs and turned them into net-zero energy users. We’ve also seen an increase in general energy auditing and energy conservation practices to reduce the usage of existing systems, recommissioning, more focus on energy use intensity, improving water flow, switching to automatic lighting from manual lighting and retrofitting from fluorescent lighting to LEDs.

Raymond Krick III: The biggest trend in the design of government projects has been the shift from the design-bid-build delivery method to more design-build projects. While the design-build process presents its own issues, the single source of procurement in theory saves the government time and money, allowing agencies to award the project to a team as a package rather than sourcing each component. The integrated design team from the start also ensures that scope is not missed and that the design and construction teams work together to find solutions to challenges faced on the project.

Andrew Stanton: We have seen an ongoing dedication to renovating existing infrastructure and only seeking new construction when necessary.

What trends do you think are on the horizon for such projects?

Steve C. Davis: The next big trend in government projects is resilience. As we’ve seen with COVID and we’re seeing with climate change, the world can grind to a halt fairly quickly without systems in place to assure continuity. New funding avenues are emerging to help government agencies improve resilience, become less reliant on external utilities and reduce energy use. Some examples include the Army’s REFoRM (Resilience Energy Funding for Readiness and Modernization) and Department of Defense’s ERCIP (Energy Resilience and Conservation Investment Program) initiatives. By focusing on resilience and efficiency, these agencies are investing in mission assurance — making sure their mission can be sustained in any operating condition. We expect to see more use of microgrids — self-sufficient energy systems that serve discrete geographic footprints — using one or more kinds of distributed energy to supply power.

Raymond Krick III: A big trend is the interest in monitoring all aspects of the building and in particular, the monitoring of utility usage. Many of RMF’s projects seek U.S. Green Building Council LEED certification and our clients request metering that exceeds the LEED requirements.

What are engineers doing to ensure such projects (both new and existing structures) meet challenges associated with emerging technologies?

Steve C. Davis: Adaptability to future technologies is an important part of any new design. We stay up-to-date with emerging technology and industry trends by participating in continuing education. Society of American Military Engineers is a great source for staying up-to-date. As subject-matter experts, we are sometimes called on by government agencies to write request for proposal parameters for future projects. In these cases, it is important that we write adaptability to future technologies into the project requirements. Unified Facilities Criteria already has pretty robust requirements, which we follow in developing project requirements. These include requiring 20% increased load capacity for future expansion, planning for future electrical needs and accommodating updates in data transmission and storage.

Andrew Stanton: Keeping up to date on new technology is something we make sure to do to understand the challenges and benefits of them. This allows us to ensure the proper use of the technology when it best fits the building in design.

Tell us about a recent project you’ve worked on that’s innovative, large-scale or otherwise noteworthy.

Steve C. Davis: The Armed Forces Radiological Research institute’s (AFRRI) mission is to develop drugs to prevent the life threatening and health degrading effects of ionizing radiation. Buildings 43 and 47 on the AFRRI campus serve as the vivarium for the Institute. Both Buildings 43 and 47 were more than 30 years old with failing infrastructure and functional problems. After performing a facility assessment and preparing an RFP. LEO A DALY was hired to prepare a Type 3 work plan to renovate both buildings.

All of the utilities throughout Buildings 43 and 47 will be replaced as part of the renovation. There will be a new double-ended secondary unit substation with interior network service transformers and normal power distribution switchgear. There are two existing emergency generators that will be relocated so that they are adjacent to each other. The generators will be connected in parallel to new essential main distribution switchgear; this arrangement will provide improved reliability and redundancy for serving the full normal power demand.

The water service in the buildings will be replaced along with new warm waste, sanitary waste and acid waste piping. An industrial cold and hot water system was provided for animal and laboratory spaces. A reverse osmosis animal watering system is provided in the vivarium portion of the building. Medical air, vacuum, WAGD and oxygen systems were provided.

The HVAC system is being replaced in its entirety with a new variable air volume system using laboratory air valves for all laboratory, surgery and animal holding spaces to provide the precise control of air flow requested by the users. Multiple air handlers are used in all areas to provide redundancy and under normal operation all units will operate at part load increasing energy efficiency. Air handling units for the vivarium use fan arrays with the fans equipped with electronically commutated motors to improve energy efficiency. The 100% outside vivarium air handling units are typically equipped with run-around loop glycol systems which only recover sensible heat.

To meet government energy and LEED requirements, these air handlers were equipped with a zero cross-contamination plate membrane media energy recovery between the exhaust air and outside air. The membrane plates recover increased sensible heat compared to run-around systems and latent heat. Medium-pressure steam return from cage washers and sterilizers is recovered through flash steam heat recovery to heat the heating water to the building. A new direct digital control system is provided in the facility to not control the mechanical systems but also monitor and trend room conditions for laboratory documentation.

Raymond Krick III: RMF recently completed an addition to a radiation physics laboratory at the National Institute of Standards and Technology in Gaithersburg, Maryland. The building houses the NIST Radiation Physics Division, which is responsible for creating standards for radiation dosing and calibrations. Our team designed an HVAC system that maintains extremely tight temperature and humidity tolerances in the laboratory space.

The system consisted of 100% outdoor air custom air handling units with chilled water cooling and combination energy recovery/preheat coils for supply air. The exhaust system included fume hood exhaust, perchloric exhaust and general exhaust that implemented adiabatic cooling on the energy recovery coils. The energy recovery coils on the supply and exhaust were tied to a customized, high-performance hydronic energy recovery system that included energy recovery coils, automated controls and a skid mounted hydronic unit.

As an additional energy savings measure, an atomizing humidification system was used for space humidification and for the adiabatic cooling on the exhaust energy recovery coils. The biggest challenge was tying into the existing building utilities so that all system outages were limited to a weekend where the campus shuts down for planned maintenance.

Allen Poppe: For our project for the Army Corps of Engineers in the desert Southwest, active chilled beams were used. The relatively warm chilled water used works really well with a water side economizer to reduce mechanical cooling. The data center also used indirect evaporative cooling with hot aisle containment. Both of these technologies work well with the arid climate.

Andrew Stanton: Our team is currently developing an energy masterplan for a city’s public building portfolio, which encompasses over 250 buildings over 10,000 square feet. This process has included engagement with a wide range of stakeholders, including procurement, facility management, project management and leadership groups. The process has shown the power of data to drive decision making. Facility management, from skills training to organizational structure have a significant impact on outcomes.

How has COVID-19 changed your work in these facility types? Has the coronavirus affected these projects, by either increasing or decreasing some aspect of them?

Raymond Krick III: COVID-19 has had a great impact on RMF’s work in government, state, municipal, federal and military facilities. The greatest impact has been the restrictions on access to the sites. Survey work has been challenging as much of the interface with the client has been shifted to virtual meetings and events that were typically held on-site, such as pre-bid meetings, are now mostly handled virtually.

Andrew Stanton: There is significantly more interest in filtration systems. For existing facilities, the most common evaluation is increasing filtration from MERV 8 to MERV 13, to align with recommendations by ASHRAE. There is also increasing interest in real time indoor air quality monitoring using multiparameter sensors. These sensors will include measurement of carbon dioxide, volatile organic compounds, PM2.5 and PM10. Additionally, there is interest in air treatment such as ultraviolet filtration and bipolar ionization.

How are engineers designing these kinds of projects to keep costs down while offering appealing features, complying with relevant codes and meeting client needs?

Steve C. Davis: Often on military projects it is difficult to meet allocated budgets, mainly due to the funding structure. We have provided design packages or options as a mechanism to perform work in separate construction phases over a number of years. This allows funding from different fiscal years to get the desired full scope of work complete.

Raymond Krick III: The driving factor in the award of a project for federal, state and local government projects most often is the cost. Opportunities to go above and beyond compliance with relevant codes with a delivery method such as design-build are limited due to first cost. Design-bid-build projects offer greater flexibility to sell the client on features that add value in terms of flexibility, reliability or energy efficiency. The key to implementing such value-added features is education of the stakeholders.

Andrew Stanton: Each project is evaluated on an individual basis and the best strategy for the budget, codes and technologies are determined. With the variables at play such as existing infrastructure, the P100’s LEED Gold requirement and certain requirements that come into play for buildings such as courthouses, a baseline system often becomes apparent. Starting with this, the client’s needs are added in and the systems take shape. After this process, we take a wholistic view of the system and determine if any unnecessary costs are being incurred. With client approval, we remove anything from the design that is not adding the benefit relative to its cost.

How has your team incorporated integrated project delivery or virtual design and construction into a project?

Andrew Stanton: The majority of our more complex projects incorporate VDC during the construction phase. The contractor will include point cloud data when working on an existing facility, to increase the precision of the dimensioning of a building’s model for trades to coordinate against. The design team will participate in regular VDC meetings, to provide insights on design intent and work through coordination in real time.

How are these types of buildings being designed to be more energy efficient?

Steve C. Davis: HVAC systems typically use the most energy in buildings, therefore these systems are required to be designed to be energy efficient to meet energy codes. The building envelope orientation, amount of window area, wall construction and other architectural factors also an important part in the efficiency of the building and how efficient the HVAC systems will be. For this reason, it’s important to do early energy modeling and work closely with the architect to analyze and optimize the building. Early integration of architecture and engineering allows engineers to make building systems smaller, reduce cost and increase energy efficiency.

Allen Poppe: For our project in the southwest, many energy efficiency features were incorporated. These features include R-20 wall assembly, R-30 roof assembly, white (cool) roof, low-e glazing with reduced solar heat gain coefficient, R-15 overhead door, window overhang/shading, daylighting controls, occupancy or vacancy sensors, reduced building wide power density, solar PV renewable energy and heat pump water heaters. These are in addition to the active chilled beams and indirect evaporative cooling data center units.

Andrew Stanton: With the natural progression in energy efficiency of equipment, buildings overall efficiency has continued to improve. On top of this, standards are continuing to push the industry to new heights. One example of this is ASHRAE’s recommendation for an increased chilled water temperature delta. This increase has helped with a reduction in pumping energy and has been made possible by the evolution in chiller technologies and efficiencies.

What is the biggest challenge you come across when designing government, state, federal, correctional and military projects?

Steve C. Davis: For military projects there are several criteria to follow, in addition to national codes and standards. These criteria gets updated periodically and must be reviewed at the start of a new project to ensure that any new requirements are met. It helps to have engineers that are familiar with the military criteria and that have a good understanding of how to implement design using the criteria.

Allen Poppe: Minimizing internal loads is an important first step in energy efficient design. As an engineer, we have little control of plug loads. Determining design internal loads can be a challenge. It can be a challenge for the stakeholders too. The equipment is often furnished by a separate, later contract. Technology can change between when the facility is designed and occupied. The stakeholders may have trouble influencing the selection of equipment.

What is the typical project delivery method your firm uses when designing these a facility?

Raymond Krick III: The larger government projects that RMF has been involved with over the past several years have been through the design-build method of project delivery. A great example of this was a recent radiation physics laboratory project at the National Institute of Standards and Technology in Gaithersburg, Maryland. RMF was fortunate to have a great general contractor leading the way that was focused on quality control and compliance with the statement of work. The attention to detail paid off and the owner was delivered a functional building meeting their requirements with only minor challenges faced during construction due to the emphasis on coordination.

Andrew Stanton: Recently we have seen both design-award-build, design-build and integrated project delivery type projects.

Our firm was short-listed to compete in the design-award-build process for the Ashley Courthouse in Toledo, Ohio. The General Services Administration asked that design firms partner with a construction manager and submit their designs with associated budgets as determined by the construction manager. The effort stemmed from the General Services Administration’s desire to ensure the design arrived at or under budget.