Visualizing a Happier Workplace

Posted April 18, 2008 at 6:19pm

Congressional staffers don’t need a panel of outside experts to tell them that Capitol Hill offices aren’t exactly ideal spaces for getting work done.

But maybe it doesn’t have to be that way.

The American Institute of Architects unveiled recommendations on Friday for making the Cannon, Longworth and Rayburn House office buildings more efficient — and more enjoyable — places to work.

In a study commissioned by Chief Administrative Officer Dan Beard, AIA looked for ways to make improvements within the existing context of the House buildings that free up space and help offices operate more smoothly.

What is clear is that major change is needed as soon as possible — and it will take more than a few new cubicles to get it done.

“You need to look at a change in the culture,” said Norman Strong, an architect who served as the project’s team leader. “That is going to be needed to accomplish this.”

Finding additional workspace for House employees is key, the experts said. But the chamber needs to think as a unit, they said — not just as 440-plus individual offices with individual needs — if it ever expects to see improvements.

“What we’re looking at in this study is a new way of working,” Strong said.

Tackling technology is one key component. Right now, each office has its own computer server, which offers limited capacity and takes up office space (and generates heat, which increases energy costs).

Centralized servers would free up space and increase capacity, the report notes. AIA also recommended that the House create centralized resource centers for photocopiers, scanners and similar equipment.

Multiple centers could occupy each floor, and a few could be staffed and offer high-volume scanning equipment, decreasing the amount of paper generated by the House. Shared storage spaces also could be created, eliminating the need to store supplies in individual offices.

Individual office suites — which typically consist of three rooms — also must be configured differently. After all, removing the copy machine might not help that much.

“I’ve built shelves in our house,” Strong said. “And boy, they fill up right away.”

AIA drew up two concepts for the suites, which are designed to be more open and adaptable with features such as movable partitions and flexible furniture. Offices also should make changes that will help with ventilation and heating and cooling systems, such as installing operable windows.

But not everything needs to be done indoors. AIA recommended greening building courtyards and creating walkable streets that allow staffers to travel between buildings outdoors rather than just underground.

“We’re basically providing a campus instead of three existing buildings,” Strong said.

The recommendations aren’t perfect, as a few of the staffers attending Friday’s unveiling pointed out. AIA’s new Congressional suite designs, for example, fail to include workspace for interns — which is important, since almost every office on Capitol Hill employs at least a few, one staffer noted.

And buying the new equipment to make the changes? Easier said than done.

“I wouldn’t replace a computer if it exploded, or for any reason, because of our budget,” the staffer joked.

Another possible problem with the recommendations: Many Members take the biggest room in their office suite for their personal use, and AIA’s designs put Members in smaller rooms — making those suggestions far less realistic.

Those concerns are understandable, Strong said. Knowing that major infrastructure changes happen slowly on Capitol Hill, the AIA report urges the House to retrofit six offices — two in each building — to serve as pilot projects for making changes.

If those offices are monitored closely, the benefits created — such as lower energy costs and higher office morale — not only will help convince others that change is needed but will provide a blueprint for implementing change elsewhere on Capitol Hill.

Beard is hopeful that the House will move to implement the pilot projects, he said after the presentation. “I think that’s a reasonable suggestion,” he said.

Acting Architect of the Capitol Stephen Ayers, who also attended the unveiling, called AIA’s ideas “really intriguing.” He said he was particularly impressed by things that can be done in the short term, including opening up and better utilizing the west courtyard of Rayburn.

Perhaps the toughest challenge facing House office buildings — and what makes implementing AIA’s recommendations tougher — is the fact that the buildings are filled to the brim. Congressional spaces are five times more populated than the typical office building, Ayers said.

“I think ultimately we are going to have to engage and fix that problem,” Ayers said. “It’s only going to get worse over time.”

The upcoming renovation of the Cannon building could be the ideal time to make changes to how offices are laid out, Ayers said. That project is slated to begin in 2012 and will involve an entire reworking of the 100-year-old building, designed to tackle numerous life-safety and electrical issues.

(In fact, practically the whole campus needs work. The AOC estimates that about $1.4 billion is needed to tackle a backlog of maintenance and capital renewal projects.)

Beard echoed Ayers’ comments. An AIA recommendation to install better window treatments to improve both lighting and heating and cooling in offices is something Beard said he had never thought of, for example.

“It’s a low-budget item that can make a tremendous difference,” Beard said.

It is unclear how many, if any, of the recommended changes will come to fruition. A spokesman for the House Administration Committee, which would need to formally sign off on most of the ideas, said the panel appreciates Beard and the AIA “taking this preliminary step.”

“We look forward to seeing a presentation of any final recommendations,” spokesman Kyle Anderson said.