Designing Today’s U.S. Buildings for an Uncertain Future


The United States government owns more than a quarter of all land in the country and an estimated 130,000 civilian buildings nationwide. Responsible for stewarding this staggering amount of property, federal agencies must determine how they can adapt their aging building stock and prepare it for a resilient future.

The upcoming decades present clear environmental and social challenges for U.S. government facilities. The ongoing battle with climate change, increasing risk of airborne illnesses like COVID-19 and rising cybercrime activity are all placing demands on how we design and build the nation’s infrastructure.

Moreover, these 21st century problems each pose serious threats to public health, safety and welfare — the very things the federal government and architects like those at HKS are both charged with protecting.

“Government and design professionals have a common core function to serve those who encounter what we do,” said HKS’ Director of Government and Alternative Project Delivery Jim Whitaker. “For the government, the essential tasks are serving the citizen, the soldier, the older person or child in need. For us, our tasks are serving the multiple government stakeholders and end users that are going to deliver services in a building.”

Driven by a shared sense of service and purpose, Whitaker and designers across HKS’ government practice assist diverse U.S. agencies, helping them prepare their facilities and people for impending changes in society and the environment.

Facility Utilization Studies Support Adaptability and Flexibility

The Department of Defense’s Military Health System, which provides health care to U.S. armed forces personnel and their families, operates facilities all over the world. For more than 30 years, HKS architect and Senior Medical Planner, Brent Willson, has worked with the Military Health System on projects ranging from multi-phase renovations to new hospital campuses. He says “ready and resilient” facilities are crucial so that the Military Health System can fulfill its important mission to protect the health of current and former service members, their dependents and the public at large.

“Readiness is really the name of the game for the military. They have to be ready to act in whatever capacity they can to defend our nation, whether it’s to go to war or help out in natural disasters,” Willson said.

A military branch’s ability to be prepared for deployments or emergencies can depend on how well suited its buildings are to support the mission at hand. When it comes to military health buildings, Willson says readiness and resilience are almost synonymous with flexibility. Whether their buildings house research units that seek to combat rare illnesses or provide treatment space for those returning home from conflicts, the military requires adaptable facilities capable of supporting a variety of ever-changing tasks and missions.

“The buildings can be a hindrance as much as they can be a help, so the infrastructure is very important,” Willson said. “If there’s going to be a building inventory that supports the mission, then it needs to be the best it can be.”

When it comes to military health buildings, Willson says readiness and resilience are almost synonymous with flexibility.

 To meet government “demand signals” — a term that Willson says means “problems that need solving” — HKS provides Facility Utilization Studies (FUS) among other design and delivery services. These highly detailed reports include analysis of space requirements and provide planning solutions for government properties. Encompassing multiple options for building or campus programs, spatial layouts, economic analysis and budget estimates, the studies are an upfront investment in long-term readiness.

“We take a look at the existing constraints and figure out how to grow and expand different departments. It all has to do with flow, adjacencies, operational efficiencies and what works best,” said HKS architect and Senior Project Manager Jeff Haven, who has worked on several FUS projects with military health clients.

At the Naval Medical Research Center (NMRC) in Silver Spring, Maryland, trained specialists in infectious disease, operational medicine and biological defense conduct research and provide treatment for some of the most complicated contemporary medical conditions. Squeezed into limited, shared facilities inadequate for their increasingly complex efforts, they identified a need for change last year. What exactly the changes could or should be, however, they weren’t quite sure.

In a joint venture with engineering conglomerate WSP, HKS designers including Willson and Haven held dozens of interviews and investigated the NMRC facility history and requirements. Together, they produced a 400-page Facility Utilization Study to help the client better understand their building conditions and opportunities for future use. The study first validated what the Navy already knew — that their current co-location within Army facilities did not provide adequate space for their vital work to understand and treat emerging medical threats.

After listening to the aspirations of NMRC leaders, the team proposed four vastly different design solutions including full building replacements and medium-scale renovations as well as prospects to lease additional space. Leveraging its long-term experience designing and delivering government projects as well as a deep understanding of government funding sources, the team shared innovative, but realistic, options.

“The solutions we came up with were tailored to the appropriate funding mechanisms that the government has. We tried to maximize the dollars that would be available,” Haven said.

Willson believes that making sure “facilities are planned and developed so they have useful, long lives” provides the best value for the U.S. taxpayer. A Facility Utilization Study, he says, is a crucial decision-making tool that the leaders within the Military Health System can use to explain what they do, why they do it and what resources they need to achieve their goal to support health care and research. As the threat of a global pandemic lingers, and similar illnesses are assuredly on the horizon, their work is going to become even more crucial in the coming years.

“They have a passion for this mission,” Willson said. “These studies help them say what is best for our country, for our servicemen and servicewomen.”

Purpose-built Training Facilities for Future Law Enforcement

Operating with a different — but just as vital — mission to protect the United States, the Department of Justice’s Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) is constantly thinking ahead about what future crime will look like and how to combat it. After identifying cybercrime as a significantly growing threat, the FBI decided to build a new facility to train a rising generation of agents capable of mitigating nefarious digital offenses such as identity theft, hacking and fraud.

In a collaborative process with design-build contractor partners at Clark Construction Group, HKS analyzed requirements and campus conditions at Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville, Alabama to create design solutions that would meet the Bureau’s programmatic needs for a flagship facility. The team produced an expansive brief that included a competition-winning design for a new Innovation Center, which broke ground last month.

Whitaker, the project’s principal-in-charge, said that since 1996 when Congress passed legislation enabling the use of design-build methodology for federal projects, it has become the government’s default delivery mechanism. Whitaker has more than 30 years of experience working on government projects, and he said that design-build project delivery allows for better cost control, more certainty in scheduling and ultimately, enhanced satisfaction among building buyers and occupants. He believes the greater economy of design and construction services bundled into one contract helps agencies be wiser about how they allocate resources to prepare more buildings for future changes in mission, society or the environment.

“More integrated forms of project delivery are absolutely a better way to conserve resources and most successfully assure getting what you intend with the end result,” he said.

Design projects like the Innovation Center must be “responsive and resilient” for the activities that will take place, according to Whitaker. “It’s important to tailor-make the building for the importance of the government’s function that will be discharged there,” he said.

The Innovation Center’s purpose-built training facility will include full-scale replicas of buildings and streets where trainees will be immersed in computer-generated conflicts. The venue is where they will hone their skills in an integrated simulated environment before they go out into the real world where the stakes will be higher.

Describing the predicted impact that the Innovation Center will have on the FBI’s ability to carry out its complicated mission, Whitaker said, “We’re creating a building for those who are going to become experts of crime fighting in the future. It will have a long-term outcome for how the crime-fighting business evolves for the Bureau.”

Intensive Technological Research Drive Sustainable Innovation

While some government agencies are rightly concerned with how they can adapt and build properties to better support civic workers, others are also backing boundary-pushing discoveries that could limit buildings’ immense impact on the environment.

The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), for instance, has long advocated for sustainable design. For nearly 20 years, the agency’s Solar Decathlon competition has challenged college students to create small buildings that are fully reliant on renewable energy. A former judge for the Solar Decathlon’s Innovation category and Director of HKS’ Laboratory for INtensive Exploration, Heath May, is now working on a DOE grant-funded research study aimed at conserving energy and enhancing human wellness in commercial office buildings across the country.

In addition to HKS designers and researchers, the team for the study includes research leads from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute’s Center for Architecture, Science, and Ecology (case), and employees of one of the world’s largest lighting companies, Lumileds. Together, they’re seeking to reduce the amount of energy commercial buildings consume through artificial lighting by creating a dynamic “sculpt” lighting system. Currently in its second year of research and development, the system will illuminate spaces by responding to people and activities rather than simple on/off switches or dimmers.

“Our hypothesis is that by being able to place photons where they’re needed, we can reduce energy that otherwise goes to lighting that isn’t actually useful,” May said. He noted that when a room or building is artificially lit through traditional methods, even with efforts to reduce Lighting Power Density (LPD), there is still opportunity to further refine the light pattern and quality and cut back on wasted energy.

HKS team members have focused on creating digital environments and controls to test the sculpt system and are leading simulations this year. They believe that in addition to conserving energy, the system will also enhance human well-being, as it will limit interference with circadian rhythms and reduce interactions with harsh sources of light.

“Often, we’re not getting the right kind of light into our eyes at the right time of the day,” May said about the typical 9-to-5 office worker. “We’re attempting to prototype a way to ensure the quality of the light we’re delivering into the space can be beneficial for the task at hand and also healthy for the body.”

May says that building connections between academia, private industry, architectural practice and federal agencies — like the DOE is doing through the Solar Decathlon and research grant programs — will be integral in solving some of the most intense climate change-related demands the country’s infrastructure is facing.

“These types of partnerships are really going to be necessary for finding creative solutions given the magnitude of problems we’re dealing with,” May said.

Today’s Collaborations Impact Tomorrow’s Results

With their work across a spectrum of design services from cutting-edge research to facility assessments, and creating award-winning federal architecture, HKS designers believe in the power of collaborating with government agencies to prepare their people, policies and places for the future.

“We’re trying to advise for influence and make meaningful impact on how things are going to be done moving forward,” Whitaker said. “It’s doing our work today well so it has impact on the future of building design and construction.”

To provide solutions for the social and environmental uncertainties ahead, Whitaker says the inspiration all comes back to having a purpose beyond oneself — an attention to the dedicated government employees and service people entrusted with creating a safer, more resilient future for all Americans.

“Agency after agency and project after project, I find the people that are serving in those roles are driven by delivering services and fulfilling their mission to the best of their ability,” Whitaker said. “As designers, we align ourselves with them because have the same ideals. We’re there to serve someone.”

We’re trying to advise for influence and make meaningful impact on how things are going to be done moving forward.