In the dog-eat-dog world of employee recruitment and retention, government agencies often find themselves in fierce competition with their counterparts in the private sector. So when the U.S. Census Bureau, the keeper of all things statistical, began seeking to consolidate 6,000 employees at the suburban Federal Center in Suitland, Md., bureau managers were eager to create a place that would attract talented staff and keep them in place. Previously housed in three outdated facilities and an assortment of temporary trailers, the bureau was desperate to shed its reputation for housing employees in substandard buildings—in this case, buildings located in a threatening environment where workers' cars were routinely vandalized. “We were charged with making a building that would reclaim the campus for the community,” says Gary Haney, a design partner at Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM) in New York. To address the problem, SOM created a 2.5-million-square-foot headquarters that is handsome, inviting, secure, and packed with on-site amenities—such as a lending library, a credit union, medical offices, and a gymnasium— that simplify everyday life for employees.
Situated on 80 acres at the southern terminus of the Green Line on Washington, D.C.'s Metrorail system, the $331 million office building is a model of sustainability, meeting the challenge of the U.S. General Services Administration to obtain a Silver LEED rating. Public rights-of-way, a planned park, and the desire to orient the building toward the nearby Metro station left a workable site shaped like a boomerang. To accommodate a quirky funding process, the eight-story-tall headquarters was designed as two separate buildings. They appear to grow from a single mass and splay apart, embracing a courtyard.
As design began, SOM's first hurdle to overcome was the Census Bureau's aversion to the site. To convince the agency how welcoming it could be, the architects produced a sketch of the building with wavy vertical lines spaced across the façade. “Think of it as being in a park—not as an urban building in a rundown area,” the agency was told. The idea caught on, quite literally, as the basis for the playful brise soleil made of 16,000 glue-laminated, white oak blades. Behind the wooden screen are green-tinted precast spandrels and glazed vision panels that match the cast of the landscape. Elevations facing the courtyard are absent of fins, fully glazed to maximize daylight inside the offices.
SOM further addressed the mammoth scale of the 1,100-foot-long building by eroding its massing and selecting alternative materials for the envelope. Major program areas—including the lobby, cafeteria, conference center, auditorium, and library—project outside of the building's main volume, adding visual interest and establishing landmarks that give the complex the feeling of a self-contained campus. Clad in Brazilian ipe, each of these elements is rendered unique through its combination of form and fenestration.
While environmental factors were high on the list of priorities, more important was the building's mandate to function as an office building. The design team rejected the bureau's previous workplace model—a 1930s ideal of private offices along lengthy, double-loaded corridors—and set out to research the business world's latest thinking on the corporate workplace, then apply those lessons to a government agency.
A key outcome of the predesign research was SOM's recommendation of an open office plan that would bring in plenty of natural light. In order to maximize the effect of light filtering into the building's two narrow bands, the office floors have low-partitioned, open workspaces surrounding the perimeter. Enclosed offices with glass fronts and internal support rooms are located in the core.
“We were very conscious of it being a quiet, heads-down work environment,” says SOM design partner Stephen Apking, head of interiors in the New York office. Prevailing wisdom in the corporate world, however, demanded areas for open communication and spontaneous conversation. How to blend the two? SOM clustered resource areas into strategically placed nodes that function as activity centers for each department. Rather than string the departments lengthwise through the building on a single floor, the architects stacked them in two-floor suites connected vertically by nodes that contain a connecting stairway, pantry, lounge, copy center, and gathering space.
Workspace and office furnishings were selected based on their compatibility with standards established early on by the designers. Knoll's Morrison workstations, for example, feature combinations of wood and metal that closely matched SOM's criteria. That made for an easy decision. The project also afforded SOM the opportunity to introduce a line of carpeting, called Way, that it developed collaboratively with Milliken. Inspired by cityscapes and geologic formations, the carpet lays out in overlapping patterns that create a three-dimensional effect. “Its design was an investigation into creating patterns that are scalable,” Apking says. “This large-scale building was the perfect place to test it.”
Pedestrian movement is channeled along a sweeping, curved circulation spine called “the Street.” To animate it, SOM lined one wall of the corridor with a custom tectonic wall made of laser-cut, medium-density fiberboard that creates an interesting pattern and provides an orienting thread through the complex.
A coordinated system of paint, fabric, and material colors also lends order to the Street, giving individuality to various elements of the building and doubling as a wayfinding tool. So, as one walks through the Street, bright, vibrant colors from paint manufacturer Sherwin-Williams announce the passage into new zones of the building. The combination of the curved Street and variations in color conspire to make the huge building seem comfortably scaled. “You only experience one section of that curve at a time,” Apking notes. “You are in one color zone, but you see and anticipate the next color.”
Ultimately, SOM produced an uplifting office complex that allows for concentrated individual work while fostering the kind of collaboration needed to assemble and process immense quantities of data. And when it comes to the U.S. Census Bureau, that's what counts.
Vernon Mays, editor at large for ARCHITECT, is curator of architecture and design at the Virginia Center for Architecture.
PROJECT U.S. Census Bureau Headquarters
ADDRESS Suitland, Md.
CLIENT U.S. General Services Administration
LEAD ARCHITECT Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM)—David Childs, Gary Haney (design partners); Peter Magill (management partner); Elias Moubayed (project manager); Anthony Fieldman, Rod Garrett (senior designers); Mark Igou (senior technical coordinator); Aybars Asci, Kim Van Holsbeke, Takuya Yamauchi, Magd Fahmy, Noppon Psjutharnon, Devawongs Devakul Na Ayudhya, Joyce Ip (designers); Michael Carline (technical coordinator)
DESIGN/BUILD ARCHITECT HKS Architects
INTERIOR DESIGNER SOM—Stephen Apking (design partner); Peter Magill (management partner); Nazila Shabestari Duran (project manager); Nestor Santa-Cruz, Donald Holt, Dale Greenwald, Nicholas Cotton, Mary Broaddus (senior designers); Catherine Haley (strategic planner); Cynthia Mirbach (furniture designer); Elizabeth Marr (senior technical coordinator); Amber Giacometti, InYa Ching Hsueh, Celine Jeanne, Jennifer Lee, Ashley O'Neill, Michele Pate, Jeremy Singer (designers)
ASSOCIATE INTERIOR ARCHITECT Metropolitan Architects & Planners
LIGHTING DESIGNER Domingo Gonzalez
Associates (base building); Cline, Bettridge, Bernstein Lighting Design (interiors)
ENGINEERS SOM (structural); Wiles Mensch Corp. (design civil); SOM (M/E/P); Walter P. Moore & Asociates (design/build structural); Soutland Industries/GHT Limited (design/build M/E/P); A. Morton Thomas and Associates (design/build civil)
DESIGN/BUILD CONTRACTOR Skanska USA Building Inc.
CONSTRUCTION MANAGER DMJM/Heery joint venture
CONSULTANTS EDAW Inc. (planning/landscape and environmental analysis); Rolf Jenson & Associates (Fire Protection); CDC Inc. (curtain wall); Lerch, Bates & Associates (vertical transport); Shen, Milsom & Wilke (telecommunications); Polysonics Inc. (audio, visual, and acoustical)
COST $331 million
PHOTOGRAPHER Eduard Hueber/Arch Photo Inc.