Life, Security and the Pursuit of Effectiveness

It's unanimous: Government spending on building projects is up—for the federal government, that is. At the state and municipal level, on the other hand, budget deficits have put many plans on hold. The surplus of federal building programs, however, coming to bear in a wide range of projects for dozens of different agencies, is keeping a number of engineers busy this year, and the action i...


It's unanimous: Government spending on building projects is up—for the federal government, that is. At the state and municipal level, on the other hand, budget deficits have put many plans on hold. The surplus of federal building programs, however, coming to bear in a wide range of projects for dozens of different agencies, is keeping a number of engineers busy this year, and the action is not anticipated to let up through 2004 and beyond.

"Certainly, the market as a whole is significantly higher in the government sector than it was just a couple of years ago when it was a small percentage," notes Kevin Brightwell, P.E., a principal with KTA Group, Herndon, Va., one of the firms currently working on renovating the Pentagon. "Now it's the majority of the work we do in the commercial market."

According to Roger E. Frechette III, P.E., president of the mid-Atlantic region for Boston-based Vanderweil Engineers, government work in the D.C. region has been particularly strong. In fact, he notes that according to a recent National Capitol Planning Commission report, growth over the next six years is expected to continue at a steady pace with more than $3 billion to be spent on projects.

GSA goes gangbusters

Perhaps the federal agency most responsible for this steady stream of work is the General Services Administration (GSA), which is in the midst of a large office renovation plan and an ongoing courts program in which an astounding 100 courthouses are slated to be built over the next 10 years.

"We have a very aggressive program, partially with the redevelopment of our existing properties," explains Ed Feiner, FAIA, the GSA's chief architect. "We're taking buildings built in the '60s and '70s that require a shot in the arm to bring them into the 21st century."

But contrary to the trend noted by Frechette, the lion's share of activity for Feiner's agency, is in the Sun Belt, where the population increase has been most dramatic in recent years.

While the federal government may be doling out plenty of work, it expects plenty of bang for its buck. A driving force for quality behind many of these projects is GSA's Design Excellence program.

"The program evaluates firms based upon qualifications, and only after a firm is selected are fees negotiated," explains Frechette. "This really engages the design and peer review teams, and the result has been a level of improvement in the way government buildings are designed."

Furthermore, GSA has embraced the U.S. Green Building Council's Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design program, making LEED certification a criterion for the majority of its larger projects.

"This is good for engineers in that it turns the focus of the selection of systems from first cost to life-cycle cost," notes Frechette.

As a long-time proponent of energy efficient systems, Ed Kohlberg, managing principal for Einhorn Yaffee Prescott's Washington, D.C. office, commends GSA for being at the forefront of energy conservation and subsequently raising the bar for the entire industry.

Such a commitment, Frechette notes, has actually made government projects more enjoyable. "Some of our best clients are our federal clients," he says.

GSA's Feiner says all of his agency's building improvement endeavors are really an effort to restore the federal government as a welcome neighbor in local communities. "We're interested in public space being restored to the American townscape principle, where a public square or public park is the forecourt to an important building in the community," he explains.

In fact, they're so committed to this concept, notably in central business districts, that they're prepared to proceed even in cases where it's more difficult to do so.

Securing the perimeter and more

Of course, a look at government design and construction today is not complete without addressing security.

"There's been a huge increase in the amount of secure spaces being designed in government buildings," says KTA's Brightwell.

"More than ever before, building owners are much more conscious of security," concurs Rebecca Greco, a vice president with Hammel Green & Abrahamson, Minneapolis. "A lot more dollars are going into security design today than five years ago."

While the government has a head start on the commercial market, having already developed and implemented improved security measures in buildings in recent years, there is still a learning curve.

Taking a historical view, Jon A. Schmidt, P.E., a senior structural engineer with Burns & McDonnell, Kansas City, Mo., explains that a lot of the criteria development for security goes back 20 years, to the bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Beirut, Lebanon. It continued to evolve on a federal level when GSA became more involved after the bombing of the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City in 1995. The following year, with an attack on U.S. military barracks in Saudi Arabia, the U.S. Dept. of Defense became involved.

"But now, since Sept. 11, security has become a factor in construction here at home, too, not just foreign U.S. facilities," says Schmidt.

Faith Varwig, a senior vice president for transportation services with Ross & Baruzzini, St. Louis, notes there has been a total change in mentality as there has never been such an emphasis on security since 9/11. "We've lived in a country where there wasn't a perceived terrorist threat, so now there's a lot to do and develop," she says.

Spearheading efforts to get government facilities up to par is the newly established U.S. Dept. of Homeland Security, which has made $4.4 billion in grants available to states and localities since March of this year.

Some of the security-specific factors now being regularly evaluated as a result, according to Frechette, include the following:

  • Building setbacks at 50 to 100 ft., as opposed to 10 to 15 ft.

  • Progressive collapse prevention measures that incorporate technology for blast mitigation.

  • Survivability of M/E equipment from blasts and other forms of attack.

  • HVAC systems capable of addressing Anthrax and other biological threats through both equipment positioning and technologies such as UV lamps and HEPA filters.

Furthermore, Frechette adds, many government building managers are now considering the fact that at least a portion of their facilities must remain continuously operational in the event of an emergency. This means emergency power and some M/E systems may need to be located off site, or that such equipment be designed to be housed within enclosures that can withstand blasts.

Along similar lines, Randy Lindemann, AIA, principal, KKE Architects, Minneapolis, adds that another request coming from federal building operators is that guard stations not be attached to a building's main structure and that buildings have a single point of entry.

While these measures make sense from a security standpoint, he says, it adds great difficulty to the design equation.

KTA's Brightwell concurs, noting he's been asked, through his work for the Pentagon and other government clients, to conduct assessment studies which he's never had occasion to perform before.

"We're now using 3-D modeling to track prevailing winds [to account for spreading chemical agents] if there was an explosion or need for containment," he says.

Further complicating federal design work has been a general tightening of procedures and policies. According to Varwig, there's been a major crackdown on the availability of floor plans and drawings for government buildings. "You have to give your first born to get a set of drawings for a federal building these days," she jokes.

It is anticipated that following on the coattails of enhanced security requirements will be the implementation of more cutting-edge technologies. For example, Varwig anticipates a big push toward biometrics. As a matter of fact, she notes that the government is currently rolling out a pilot program at 20 of the nation's airports for testing and ultimately determining which type of biometrics work best in different environments.

Technology will change

At the same time, Lindemann anticipates that iris recognition will eventually replace retinal scanning, because the technology is more accurate.

Lindemann also sees portable electronic security controls—which are hand-held devices capable of controlling doors, shutting on and off lights, monitoring cameras, etc.—being implemented over the next three to five years.

"The neat thing about it is that it gives security personnel mobility. They can be on the move making rounds while controlling and monitoring at the same time," he says.

GIS mapping devices are another type of tool Lindemann believes may soon make its way into the toolkits of security professionals. The real-time technology enables operators to identify people's whereabouts inside a building without the observed party being made aware.

Also, Varwig anticipates that down the line, more expensive technologies capable of combatting the effects of bio-terrorism—whether they be containment devices or meters that indicate unsafe levels against nuclear, biological and chemical devices—will become more commonplace, as a lot of money is now being invested in the research and development of such products.

New technology will also affect a building's structure. Burns & McDonnell's Schmidt says that he's already started to see the implementation of newer retrofit techniques aimed at bolstering a building's infrastructure. For instance, there are new fabric systems that anchor into the facility's structure, or there's a spray-on substance that can be applied that is capable of catching pieces of imploding wall resulting from a blast. Additionally, special films can be installed on windows to help hold the glass together. "As a matter of fact, the Dept. of Defense is now requiring laminated glass for all new buildings. I wouldn't be surprised if this eventually becomes a standard in commercial buildings, as well," says Schmidt.

Schmidt also predicts that blast mitigation requirements will eventually become standard for government, as well as for commercial facilities.

Maintaining aesthetics

To some observers, such drastic measures sound as if domestic government facilities are starting to take on the ultra-high security profile projected by foreign embassies. This scenario is something designers are acutely aware of, and something they're trying to actively avoid.

"Armed guards and metal detectors really do take away from the historical character of these buildings," says Vanderweil's Frechette.

In fact, he points out that many of the buildings in the D.C. area undergoing improvements have quite a bit of architectural character.

GSA is also sensitive to this issue. "Our security strategy has been to minimize the visual appearance of these enhancements," explains Feiner.

"We're interested in incorporating security in the landscaping, streetscape or whatever. But we're looking for vehicles we can use to give multi-functionality to these security features. We don't want our buildings to look like fortresses and castles."

Who's going to pay for all this?

While the government sector is currently one of the stronger markets in the building and construction industry, it has not been without financial issues. For example, Feiner notes that the GSA's courts program, one of the agency's largest building endeavors, has not been included in the administration's current fiscal budget.

And on the state and local levels, securing funding for government building projects has been even more of a struggle. Lindemann, for instance, mentions a program in the Midwest—the Regional Justice Initiative—where rural communities were being encouraged to join together to build joint courthouses.

"This went on for five years, but funding from the states to local municipalities fell apart and not a single regional facility came out of it," he laments. "Now there is a backlog."

Frechette has seen a similar phenomena in the mid-Atlantic region where projects that his firm designed for the states of Maryland and Virginia were temporarily shelved due to budgetary problems.

Working for both federal and state clients, Schmidt has mixed feelings about the market. He says it's great that the federal government has begun formulating official security standards and requirements, but at the same time, state and local governments have been left to fend for themselves.

"They need guidance," he implores.

One way in which some states are trying to deal with funding issues is to have private developers build new facilities. In turn, the developers lease the space to a local government agency. This way, explains Greco, state governments can avoid bonding for construction dollars and effectively take the expense of new construction and renovations off the books.

For example, the state of Minnesota is currently looking at having a private developer build $500 million worth of new government construction.

"This is not a traditional funding method, but it's a great opportunity for building, and I think this a trend we will see in the future," suggests Greco.

Looking ahead

So how long will this government boom last? With all the buzz about security and the war against terrorism, the vast majority of firms are assuming that the government market sector will remain strong.

"Just this year, a half a million sq. ft. of space was awarded to government contractors," points out Brightwell.

Adds Varwig: "I think that as the Dept. of Homeland Security gets its feet on the ground, we'll see funding continue well into 2004 and 2005."

CPVC Piping Doubles as an Anti-Bugging Device

Is CPVC piping merely a flexible, rust-free and easy to install option for fire sprinklers? Not necessarily.

It all started in the 1980s, toward the end of the Cold War when construction of the new U.S Embassy in Moscow was nearing completion. Shortly before its formal opening, authorities discovered that Soviet operatives had secretly wiretapped the entire structure by planting audio surveillance equipment throughout its fire sprinkler system. Given the extent of the infiltration and its potential impact on national security, the only alternative was to demolish the building and start over.

The government turned to American industry for help. One company, Noveon, a new entrant to the market at the time, produced a CPVC fire sprinkler system. The company's Blazemaster product featured unique sound-dampening properties that government investigators discovered effectively rendered unauthorized surveillance equipment installed on the metallic sprinkling piping to be useless. From a technical standpoint, the product's resistance to wiretapping, according to the manufacturer, is traceable to how sound reacts to different materials at different velocities. Specifically, the velocity of sound is inversely proportional to both the compressibility and density of the material in which it travels. For this reason, sound travels faster and farther in steel and copper than water. Additionally, sound will travel faster and farther in water than in CPVC materials, including pipes.

These phenomena also extend to acoustic tapping or wiretapping through pipes. Due to its strong dampening properties, statistics prove that it is much more difficult to acquire good acoustic signals through a CPVC pipe. The U.S. federal government seized upon this knowledge and immediately specified CPVC piping for the U.S. Embassy in Moscow and many other government buildings since then.

A Glance Around the Country

Dozens of government projects are currently underway around the country. Following is a sampling of what's happening.

Federal work:

Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.—Vanderweil is currently involved in a number of retrofits, including the National Museum of American History, the Arts and Industries Museum, the Museum of Natural History and the original Smithsonian Castle Building, built in 1851.

Harrisburg Federal Office Building, Harrisburg, Pa.—As an 11-story facility originally built in 1968, the building was recently repaired and modernized by EYP at a construction cost of $14 million.

Security Exchange Commission, Alexandria, Va.—1 million sq. ft. of space is being renovated by the KTA Group.

U.S. Dept. of Transportation headquarters, Washington, D.C.—Interior systems for a new 1.35 million-sq.-ft. complex is being designed by Vanderweil Engineers.

State work:

Minnesota Dept. of Agriculture & Health state office building, St. Paul—This $150 million project was designed by Hammel Green & Abrahamson.

Airport upgrades:

Ross & Baruzzini is currently undertaking significant security upgrades for the Dallas/Ft. Worth, Miami and Atlanta airports. Some features include the installation of explosion detection systems, emergency operation centers and 9-1-1 facilities.

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