When the Federal Home Loan Bank Board decided it needed a new headquarters here for its growing staff, it gave the job to the General Services Administration, which builds government buildings. But the bank board, which regulates federally chartered savings and loan associations, told GSA it would design, construct, and furnish the inside of the building.
"I wanted it done our way," said George S. Oram Jr., the bank board official in charge of the building project. "I wanted it done super-duper."
The six-story, $47 million building under construction at 17th and G Streets NW, across the street from the Executive Office Building, will contain an ice skating rink, shops and a public restaurant. These features have drawn praise from those who want government buildings to be something more than monoliths that close up at night.
But the expense of the "super-duper" interior of the building has produced an acrimonious dispute between the bank board and GSA. The bank board's own figures show that the interior work will cost about twice what GSA says it normally spends on the inside of a similar building.
The ceilings, for example, will be made of lacquered wooden slats and will cost three times more than a standard ceiling, according to GSA. Custom desk-and-light systems will cost more than $2,000 per employee. There will be twice as much floor and air space per employee as GSA normally provides.
Two interior designers were employed by the bank board at a cost of $883,000. More money may be spent on installing American art rugs on top of existing carpeting in the building, according to bank board plans.
All this is being paid for by the nation's federally chartered savings and loan associations, which are required to support the bank board with feets it levies on them. The bank board's budget, however, is subject to approval by Congress.
The bank board and GSA have clashed over the need to change the location of sprinkler outlets and air ducts in the building - at a cost of $500,000, according to GSA - to accommodate some private offices the bank board wants.
While acknowledging that the bank board building is expensive compared to other federal buildings, Oram, who is executive assistant to bank board Chairman Garth Marston, said many of the interior finishes were needed to avoid what he called GSA's "cookiecutter" approach to building construction.
Oram said the building was originally designed so it could accommodate private offices or no private offices. For that reason, he said, the addition of private offices - requiring changes that he said should not cost more than $250,000 - was not a change at all.
"All my thoughts on this come from being a computer designer and having to plan for every eventuality," he said. "When they said, 'you're going to build this building,' I said all right, but it's going to be the best thing that happened."
Oram said the decision to install a wood ceiling originated with a desire to conserve energy:
"GSA wanted lights in the ceiling, so the desks had to be placed under the lights. They're trying to box you in. We would have had to turn off half the lights to conserve electricity. I said it was unsatisfactory, and somebody said, "why not have lights on desks."
"As long as we weren't going to have lights in the ceiling, it struck us that acoustical tile would not be acceptable. Somebody said to use wood on the ceilings to mark the aisles, somebody said run it all across the ceiling."
Richard Q. Vawter, GSA's public information director, said GSA has been using open-design offices with desk lighting since the early 1970s.
Oram said he hired consultants because "if I don't know something, I find people who do, and I'll find two so I can hear the evidence," he said. oram added, "I never do anything in a simple way."
Oram provided documentation that $3.6 million had been saved by substituting cheaper construction and making other changes in the building. However, the total cost of the interior -- $5.7 million -- comes to about $20 per square foot even when the savings are taken into account, compared with the $10 GSA says it spends on open design interiors and $15 on those with private offices.
Oram questioned whether some costs - about $3 a square foot - should be included in the bank board' figures. He said a "prominent" design firm had told him $12 would buy a low-cost interior job, whild $21 would buy a medium-cost one. Some of the costs will be offset by selling existing bank board furniture appraised at $505,000, Oram said.
The interior work has encountered a cool reception from the bank board's employees, who worry about the lack of privacy. So the board has spent more than $150,000 on a speaker system that will play a continuous noise - described by Oram as a "whooshing" sound - to block out other noises.
The bank board has also hired a Washington public relations firm to advise it on how to present the building to its employees and the public. According to the proposal of the firm - Fraser, Ruder & Finn - "The experience of government agencies and private industry teaches us that unless employees are fully informed and prepared for a move, there is substantial loss of efficiency on the part of those who remain. . .
"If properly implemented and integrated into community life, features in the design (of the building) can lead to acceptance of a new role for government buildings."
The firm counseled the bank board on these issues at the rate of $70 an hour for the time of one of its employees. The bill came to $8,400.
"We hired (the firm) to think," Oram said, "to sort our heads out as to how we're going to interact."