Behind the Curtain: U.S. Army Corps of Engineers HQ

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Does a workplace design that provides a physical, psychological, and social connection with nature lead to happier more productive employees?

This concept – known as biophilia – is influencing a new wave of workplace design strategies.

Providing a case study in bold 21st Century workplace and biophilic design strategies is Federal Center South, a new 209,000 SF district headquarters in Seattle for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE).

A General Services Administration design-build effort led by ZGF Architects and Sellen Construction, the workplace is explicitly designed to encourage collaboration and productivity, and its biophilic strategies are a core part of that goal. Project completion is scheduled for September 2012.

Federal Center South is located on the industrial shores of a Superfund site

Consistent with the goals of GSA’s Design Excellence program — and informed by current research in human behavior, health, and performance — the workplace concept reaffirms the identity of the USACE to “Building Strong.” It celebrates the rich history and natural environmental context of the Federal Center South campus site.

The federal campus, a Superfund site, is located directly on the banks of the Duwamish River, a South Seattle area suffering the toxic legacy of historic industry but undergoing efforts of cleanup.

Over the last century, the campus housed factories that built Ford automobiles and Boeing-built missiles in the adjacent warehouse. In recent decades, the federal government used the buildings for warehouses and offices — many of them internally focused with little or no daylight, view, or connection to the outside environment.

In addition to restoring the site’s ecology, a motivating concept in the design was to leverage the building’s form to provide views to the outdoors from virtually any place within the building, thereby creating a workplace where employees would be excited and proud to come to work.

The Oxbow: a 21st Century Workplace Design

Inspired by the oxbows present in the original course of the Duwamish waterway, the building’s U-shaped design allows the office floor plates to wrap around a central atrium and shared conference rooms and amenities known as the Commons. The natural form emphasizes the connection between inside and outside.

The Commons and connecting bridges offer views to nature, including the restored wetlands, the Duwamish River, Kellogg Island, and West Seattle. The creation of a core which consolidates key social, meeting and support functions reduces cost by sharing amenities between USACE departments. It also encourages interaction and collaboration in keeping with the Corps’ interdisciplinary work culture while also offering a healthy, high-quality, and productive office environment.

Rendering and in-progress photo of The Commons and Atrium shown side-by-side

The building’s narrow, 60’ floor plate optimizes daylight penetration, thereby improving staff productivity and reducing the need for artificial light and associated energy costs. Daylight will effectively reach virtually all workstations.

To provide employees with substantial views to the outdoors, offices take shape on the outside of the oxbow and surround the atrium within. Low workstation partitions with noise-absorbing panels help to maximize daylight effectiveness while affording easy work-group reconfiguration.

The west exterior plaza is an outdoor amenity for building occupants and an extension of the Commons that creates a strong inside-out/outside-in relationship between the building and campus

The atrium, itself a natural form as it winds in the shape of an oxbow, will experience a variety of changing light experiences as the sun moves across the sky. The team studied the heat gain and glare associated with the glass roof. It responded with a changing degree of frit depending upon exposure and angle, though the intended result was always to let the space exhibit the variability of the sky’s light – even as the predominant condition might be overcast.

The frit — the clear but heat-reflective glass — and the atrium trusses worked together to create a filtered, dappled light. That light falls on the heavy timber central conference core and an atrium floor, which incorporates vegetation and natural river features.

The Commons is constructed largely of heavy timber, thereby adding another warm, natural element, with nearly 200,000 board feet salvaged from the decommissioned warehouse on the site.

In the atrium space, thermal conditions vary more widely than in the more controlled work spaces. This strategy serves both to reduce energy consumption and to enhance the variation in thermal sensation as occupants move through the building, much in the same way that temperatures fluctuate outdoors.

Rendering and in-progress photo shown side-by-side depicts natural light from west and above

An early design consideration was to naturally cascade captured rooftop rainwater through the atrium. The idea evolved into “source stone” water features arranged through the atrium, representing the tributaries of the Duwamish, that re-circulate the filtered rainwater during rain events. An estimated 430,000 gallons of rainwater will be collected on the roof for toilets, irrigation, and a rooftop cooling tower.

An early rendering depicting the “source stone” concept to bring a natural water element into the building
A construction image shows the placement of a “source stone” installation

Natural ventilation was originally considered by the design team for its potential for energy savings in Seattle’s mild climate, as well as promoting occupants’ connection to the outdoors. Ultimately, it could not be accomplished due to federal security requirements as well as air quality concerns stemming from the proximity of a cement plant and other industrial neighbors.

Instead, 100 percent MERV 15 filtered outside air is supplied via underfloor plenums to the offices. Heat exchangers at the top of the roof filter and temper the incoming air from the exhaust air that rises naturally through the atrium, making the atrium the literal return air duct for the building.

Interior landscape features bring the outdoors in

The interior workplace design for Federal Center South is a reflection of the high-standards set by GSA for employee satisfaction, productivity, and collaboration. The design seeks to accelerate interaction and collaboration, while the footprint enables flexibility for infinite subdivisions of program and work groups now and well into the future.

A variety of open, closed, and hybrid meeting spaces are organized to encourage collaboration, interaction, and innovation within the workplace. They also accommodate a wide range of work styles, provide maximum flexibility for different project needs, and appropriately allocate shared programmatic space such as conference rooms and meeting areas.

The design leverages environmental amenities such as daylight, views, fresh air, and natural elements to enhance performance. It’s expected to reduce absentee-ism, improve productivity, and help recruit and retain top staff.

Federal Center South as seen from the shores of the Duwamish Waterway

Project completion is scheduled for September 2012. The project is seeking LEED Gold certification and is anticipated to perform in the top one percent of U.S. buildings, with an EUI of 20.3 Kbtu/SF/yr.

As part of an extensive measurement and verification plan, the building will undergo a rigorous evaluation after one year of operation. The design-build team contract is at risk for 0.5 percent of its original $66-million contract award. Pre- and Post-occupancy evaluations are being implemented; they will include typical building user satisfaction surveys related to comfort and amenities, and will also explicitly address the biophilic design elements.



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  1. Great to see this project and to read about the strategies to achieve “biophilia” integration. Particularly interested in the generative design sketches, and am tickled to see how this project resembles a current design project I am working on…


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