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…


The Huron Valley BIM User Group (HuVaBUG) held its April meeting at Hobbs+Black. The group is open to all local BIM users in the Ann Arbor / Huron Valley area. 

BIM Roundtable: Interactive Discussion

The group enjoyed an open discussion highlighting the ways BIM is currently being utilized by the array of users present. Dialogue included what types of presentations the group would like to include in the future and the best ways to share knowledge, techniques, and best practices based on the various experiences of the users.

Technology Segment: Real-time Scanning with Drone Technology

Chad Studer with ADSK Solutions presented some of the growing uses of drone technology including surveying land and building facades. Drones can capture incredibly accurate, detailed data in a relatively quick timeframe making them a valuable tool for documenting and recording spaces that would otherwise be difficult to access by traditional methods.
After the presentation, the group got to try their hand at taking a drone for a flight over the Hobbs+Black parking lot. 

Environments For Aging Conference

April 9-12, 2016: Austin, Texas

With over 50 sessions to choose from, there was a lot going on in Austin, besides the BBQ and live music. Tom Dillenbeck, AIA and Betsy Wagner, IIDA were both representing the Senior Living studio from Hobbs+Black. Here are just a few take-aways from what they learned.

Plan for Movement, not for Objects – Too often designers and planners are focused on providing an efficient floor plan and design around the pieces of furniture that inhabit a space – such as beds, wardrobes and sinks. However, in Assisted Living the goal is for people to be up moving about, not lying in a bed all day. With the mobility aids required by the aging population, adequate consideration should be given for maneuvering through a space. 

Non-Visual Building Elements – The opening keynote speaker, Chris Downey, said that to the visually-impaired “the hardware on the front door is the handshake of the building.” A falling-apart door knob would give one a taste of the type of treatment that may be experienced inside. As designers, we ought to consider the points of touch throughout the building as well as the audible experience. Appropriate acoustical materials should be considered in lobbies and areas where voice recognition may be difficult due to reverberation from hard surfaces.

Creative Courtyards – Many Senior Living projects have a courtyard of some type, but are we making the most of them? Depending on the type of residents, courtyards can be designed to provide for many different needs. Some residents need the therapeutic nature of an active planting garden, while others are looking for solitude in a healing garden. Providing a variety of spaces, shade, seating and good connection between indoor/outdoor help promote greater use of courtyards for a variety of activities. A well designed space helps improve a resident’s mobility, motor functions and pleasure.

Lighting Effects – The typical human eye receives 1/3 of the amount of light by the age of 60. Most of the senior residents are living with some form of low vision impairment. Designers can do several things to help overcome low-vision issues:

  • Light the walls, hide the source – providing vertical illumination to help navigation
  • Provide contrast in baseboards, handrails and edges of courtyard walking paths
  • Select materials which will reduce glare, both inside and out
  • Provide lighting controls that work with the natural circadian biological clock

Legislative Day

With 4 attendees from Hobbs+Black, the 2016 AES Legislative Day was well attended! Each attendee had the opportunity to meet with their local representatives and present the A/E/S position on 5 different talking points in different stages of the legislative process. Included in those issues is HB 5238-5245 Qualification-Based Selection (Support), HB-5000 Event Barn Language Change To Construction Code (Oppose), SB-149 Certificate of Merit (Support), Lien Law for Design Professionals (Support), and HB-5232/ SB 720 Historic Districts (Oppose). Not only is Legislative Day a great opportunity to get involved in the state lobbying process but it provides a chance to interface with government officials and shape the identity of architecture in Michigan. 

Between meetings with legislatures, educational opportunities were available discussing drone liability,  green and sustainable practices, Place Making as an Economic Tool, and architectural success, and failure case studies. All applicable topics in an ever advancing society.