Flexibility in Government Buildings

Written by Civic Studio Leader, Nick Scarpone

Working on government and civic facilities since the beginning of the millennium has provided the revelation that paradoxically extreme changes impact government and civic building design – flexibility must take on a new and expanded significance. 

We rarely look at the overall life of government buildings, but if we take a step further back in time, detailed examination shows us that government and civic facilities endure many lifetimes worth of existence – one hundred to one-hundred fifty years is a relatively short life span for these facilities. 

Michigan State Police Headquarters in 2008

In reviewing the history of the buildings I have worked on, aesthetic characteristics of “form follows function” in the seventies yielded government buildings with an industrial appearance which then evolved into an aesthetic of “beauty and thermal operational efficiency” in the eighties and nineties. The impact of 9/11 added protective functional requirements to civic structures that included stand-off protection, blast resistance, emergency mechanical isolation for biohazard contamination, and other “protective” needs. 

Since state-owned facilities change hands from agency to agency through their lifespan, these structures must satisfy very diverse functional requirements over time. 

The Michigan State Police Headquarters opened in 2008 at the junction of Grand Avenue and Kalamazoo in Lansing. Eight years later, the State Police relocated to Michigan’s Secondary Complex, and the building was renovated to suit the Department of Health and Human Services. 

Functional Opposites

Most of the extreme protective features originally provided for the State Police were deemed suitable for any government agency, yet the Department of Health and Human Services required more openness to the community. The functional program also needed a very large conference room to conduct monthly staff business meetings which was easily accessible to entries and parking. The existing MSP exercise room and break room were a natural reformat for the large conference center requirements because of size and proximity to parking and staff entries. Hence, break room became a lobby:

Before: MSP Break Room

After: DHHS Conference Lobby

Diverse Needs Over Time

Another example: part of the current Michigan State Surplus Complex started out in 1950 as an armory building for the US Corps of Engineers. In the 70’s it was expanded to double the size to handle vehicle maintenance and repairs for the military. Thirty years later the military functions moved to a new building by the Lansing Airport and this durable old facility became a warehouse. In 2015 the Facilities and Business Services Administration Agency decided to locate here because its position is easily accessible to both Lansing-centered State buildings and Secondary Complex buildings. At this point, this building has had over a 60 year lifespan of usage, which is continuing as long as structural stability is intact. 

While the existing building shell offered a simple aesthetic with large windows, it needed a more prominent presence as a central State Agency. Handicapped accessibility was now mandatory, where accessibility at the original military building was not required - again, totally diverse constraints. Presence and accessibility were solved by adding a larger entry mass to the building street front.

Before: Entry for Military Function

After: Expanded Entry for State Building

At the interior, the original military structure had a very low roof structure and ceilings; 9‘2” from floor to bottom of roof joists. For visibility and “stature” most State office structures offer nine or ten feet clear floor-to-ceiling surface, plus one or two feet additional for ducting, sprinkler systems, and wiring. Additional height was “visually” achieved by painting the existing structure white, and installing localized acoustical clouds. Provision of a VRF (Variable Refrigerant Flow) mechanical system allowed mechanical equipment to utilize the space between joists, with refrigerant piping through the joist web openings. 

Before: Interior for Military Function

After: Ceiling Clouds Provide Visual Height

So designs, and budgets, for government / civic buildings need to consider the potential future extremes which might happen over time. Solving for today is short-sighted when tomorrow can be 150 years away…