Building for the Future: How Tech Is Reconfiguring Office Space

Technology has made travel agents irrelevant, killed off record and video stores and rendered paper maps obsolete. Now it’s taking aim at your office.

When the General Services Administration moved headquarters workers into temporary offices in 2010 for a renovation project, it discovered that many were actually at their assigned desks and offices “under 40 percent of the time,” said Janet Pogue, lead designer for the GSA headquarters renovation, and principal in the Washington, D.C. office of Gensler, the architecture and design firm which headed the redesign.

That spelled opportunity to the architects. By finding a way for workers to share space efficiently, a building that had provided office space for 2,300 could easily accommodate many more. Gensler determined GSA’s new building needed only one workspace for every two workers, allowing the agency to give up rented office space elsewhere, saving $24 million per year.

Technology had changed worker behavior over time, making those reductions possible. Today, as the FBI and Department of Homeland Security each plan new headquarters, such challenges also present opportunities to think differently and become more flexible so their new facilities can change over time.

Along with architects, engineers and other planners, their goal is to create structures that will remain useful and cost-effective for decades to come – even though it’s impossible to anticipate all the many ways technologies will change the way people work.

Designers say smart buildings will know where employees are within their facilities, and information technology systems will know where they are when they’re out. “Going to work” will mean something other than commuting to an office. Mobile computing and cloud-based applications will enable more and more employees to work from practically anywhere.

In courtrooms, expert witnesses might appear as holograms so they don’t need to travel across the country to testify. The same technology could be used for virtual meetings and training sessions.

Throw in artificial intelligence, machine learning, automation and robotics, and the picture grows more fantastic. How will those technologies change the jobs and workforce of the future?

“There is an increased focus on the use of technology to make work more efficient across the board,” said Ryan Colker, director of the Consultative Council at the National Institute of Building Sciences. But it’s hard to anticipate future needs because “there’s such wide variation across buildings and what goes on within them.”

So it’s essential to plan and design with change in mind.

“The more you can build in flexibility, the better off you are,” Colker said. Modular and prefabricated components that can be quickly and easily reconfigured are valuable. Prefabricated panels designed “to plug and play” will come complete with electric and fiber-optic cables and will “allow you to go in and swap things out,” he said.

Raised floors, common in office buildings for the last several decades, can accommodate ventilation and make it easy to reroute wires. And as sensors and controls get smaller and go wireless, there will be less need to disturb walls to reroute embedded wires.

There’s “a push toward the integration of IT systems and building systems” onto a single “information backbone.”[DS1] [NT2]

But going wireless and switching to common information backbones pose cybersecurity challenges that are still being worked out, Colker said. “The folks on the IT side have a better handle of cyber risks” than do building operators, he said.

FBI’s New Headquarters
Architects and builders are experts in design and construction. IT integrators are experts in planning technology installations, designing them to support both current and anticipated needs and managing cybersecurity and risk.

For the new FBI headquarters now planned for either northern Virginia or suburban Maryland, security is a major concern and one of the main reasons behind the planned move. The new headquarters will include some 2.1 million square feet of office space and support about 11,000 workers.

The FBI’s mission expanded after 9/11 as counterterrorism became a principal focus. New units include a national security branch, an intelligence directorate, a cyber division and a weapons of mass destruction directorate, adding to the agency’s scale and complexity. Its IT workforce expanded as well.

In size, technology and agency culture, the FBI simply outgrew its current headquarters building. Situated six blocks from the White House and opened in 1975, the building “presents a challenge to staff collaboration and information sharing,” Associate Deputy FBI Director Kevin Perkins told a U.S. House subcommittee in 2013. “The compartmentalized structure of the building confounds an agile workforce.”

According to the Government Accountability Office, much of the current 2.4 million square feet of office space cannot “support current and future information technology needs.” Even worse, Perkins told Congress: Surrounded by busy streets in the heart of downtown Washington, D.C., the building does “not provide an appropriate level of protection against threats.”

New government standards now require buildings to be set back far from traffic. The new FBI headquarters is to feature blast-resistant facades and have separate structures for welcoming visitors and screening mail.

In a glimpse of what it might have in mind for the future, the FBI last year sought proposals for a 2,800-square-foot “pop-up lab” where employees could test new work stations and novel floor arrangements.

A notional floor plan included “active” work areas, “focus” work areas and “active/focus” work areas, as well as an informal “front porch” meeting area, a smaller “campfire” meeting area and a small “focus-huddle” space for two.

The FBI explained: “The FBI is exploring how the workplace will function and evolve in the 21st century and how its employees will work, interact, and collaborate in the office environment.… Changes in Information Technology, employee demographics, and corporate culture will dramatically alter expectations and uses of FBI workspaces.”

At GSA, Reserve a Desk
The GSA tackled that problem in 2013, guided at least in part by its desk utilization data.

In the renovated headquarters, assigned desks gave way to “a reservation system” in which employees reserve the kind of work space they want each day – there are individual work stations, communal work tables, team work areas, and small and large meeting rooms.

By surveying workers, “we found out that as people are more mobile” they more often work outside the office. When they do go to the office, “they are there to connect with other people and collaborate. So we increased tremendously the area where people can meet – not just conference rooms, but open areas and a variety of settings,” Pogue said.

Big conference rooms were replaced by smaller rooms and open meeting areas. It turned out that most meetings involved only a handful of employees, so large conference rooms were deemed a waste of space.

Personal cubicles were banished, and employees were given 18-by-18-by-12-inch lockers for storing personal belongings.

Now, when they arrive at the headquarters building, employees swipe their badges and head to their reserved work area. “Occupancy sensors” detect their presence and can adjust the lighting, heating and air conditioning to suit the individual’s preferences, Pogue said.

Sensors constantly gather data about the number of people in the building and where they are. “If the building is only three-quarters occupied, you can ask people to move off of a floor or out of a zone” then turn off lights, heating or air conditioning in the unused areas to save money.  “It’s a very cool feature,” she said, one that is sure to be incorporated into more buildings in the future.

WiFi is available throughout the building, because phones are not. “WiFi is a must,” Pogue said, and it needs to be everywhere. “Often times, [designers] don’t think about how people move about in buildings.” Then WiFi is installed in work areas only, but not in elevators or in stairwells.  “It needs to be throughout,” Pogue said, even on rooftops and in the spaces between buildings on a multi-building campus.

“Work occurs in all those spaces. You don’t want to lose your connection while walking across campus, or riding in an elevator,” she said. And rooftops can be turned into attractive work areas, too.

Constant Change
Though the renovated GSA headquarters may be state-of-the-art today, it won’t be tomorrow. Building designers can only guess at which technologies will dominate in five, 10 or 20 years.

“We don’t know what’s next. Telepresence rooms are taking off, but not for everybody,” Pogue said. “People are using video teleconferencing more, but now you can do it in the palm of your hand or with tablets, iPads and laptops.” The time for elaborate teleconferencing rooms may already have come and gone.

Server rooms are headed in the same direction. “Everything’s going to the cloud. You’re not seeing big server rooms like you used to,” Pogue said. “Everything is getting smaller and more powerful and the infrastructure doesn’t have to be there in every building.”

Of course, the cloud introduces other challenges. Bandwidth-hungry cloud-based services can clog internet connections if they’re not adequate to the task. That, in turn, can interfere with an entire office’s productivity. Services like virtualized desktops demand substantial throughput. And latency due to overcrowded connections is a killer for voice over IP.

The interior spaces of offices aren’t all that’s changing. “You will see an increased focus on [building] sustainability,” said Colker. Some builders are striving for “net zero” buildings that generate as much energy as they use, rely more on sunlight and fresh air and recycle their water and waste.

And while there are growing concerns about cybersecurity, the software and hardware for better cyber defenses isn’t likely to require major physical changes in buildings, Colker said.

To avoid obsolescence wrought by changing technology, “you can’t build around any given technology,” cautions Bob Schwartz, an architect with the St. Louis firm HOK. Schwartz designs courthouses and law enforcement facilities – government buildings that are expected to function for decades, endure hard use and keep abreast of changing technology.

Courtroom Technology
Buildings must be designed to adapt easily as new technologies come along. Schwartz foresees a day when witnesses might appear in court as three-dimensional holograms, or the courtroom itself might exist in virtual reality.

But that’s probably years in the future. In the nearer term, courtrooms will have to change to accommodate more video, he said. Increasingly, citizens are capturing crimes with cell phone cameras, surveillance and security cameras sprout up inside buildings and along city streets, police cars and officers are fitted with cameras. Already in some parts of the country, defendants make their first appearances in court on video in arraignments and at other procedural hearings.

But the increased use of video is also raising questions. Poor quality video images could prejudice a case, Schwartz told the American Institute of Architects. So attention must be paid to lighting and presentation. “The American Civil Liberties Union is currently investigating the effects of video arraignment within the justice system,” he said.

Nonetheless, “video is going to be huge,” Schwartz said in an interview. And while many courtrooms today can accommodate video, “the amount and the prevalence” is going to mushroom. That means altering courtrooms to accommodate video monitors, speakers, microphones and cameras.

Digital records are another technology transforming courthouses. The move to digital is underway nationwide, Schwartz said. Convenience is one factor – digital records are easier to retrieve and search, and multiple users can have access to the same record at the same time. Money is another factor. Staffing and maintaining the space to store vast volumes of paper records can cost millions of dollars annually. Much of that cost can be eliminated by switching to digital files.

But like other technologies, digital documents aren’t problem-free. Long-term preservation of files is a troublesome issue. “Formats go out of date,” Schwartz said. Files saved in today’s formats may not be readable a few decades hence. But in the U.S. justice system, they have to be, so that’s a problem that must be solved.

While technology is ever changing, there are some constants that building designers can count on. Whatever the technology, it will still require electricity and for the time being, a wired fiber-optic network.

Raised floors and decorative woodwork can accommodate needed changes in wiring. And while wireless technology might eventually eliminate the need to change network wiring, the technology “is not quite there yet,” Schwartz said. Wireless is too slow and provides too little bandwidth even for many current technologies. It also raises security concerns, he said.

While modular and prefabricated components add to building flexibility, in some cases entire prefabricated buildings – or “popups,” will be the answer, Pogue said.  Built to last about five years, they will be as transient and disposable as the technology they are intended to accommodate.

1 Comment

  1. Charles Bolton

    Technological advances can become limitless as long as people would not stop having creative ideas for it. Technology place a great role in an office space and there’s no reason for us to not use them because it makes our everyday job more productive. The imagination for the future is limitless because humans as per generations contributes something very great in this world.


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