The General Services Administration has broken ground in Portland, Ore., for a new type of federal office building that GSA says could represent the future.
"It's high-tech," Public Buildings Service Commissioner Lester L. Mitchell said. "It's something that we should be doing, because it's cost effective."
The path to the front edge of the technological curve has been fraught with delay, however, including problems with the traditionally cumbersome federal procurement process, agency officials point out. Still, GSA is cautiously looking to put up three major high-tech buildings, including structures in Long Beach, Calif., and Overland, Mo.
Many of the building changes that the federal government is just thinking about already have been implemented in the private sector, according to agency designers. Mitchell said the idea is to "incorporate state-of-the-art technology in our building design program" by equipping new buildings with special wiring, raised flooring, heat and cooling controls and electronic security systems.
In August, GSA began work on the Portland project by awarding a $35.5 million contract to Blount Inc., a Montgomery, Ala., general contractor. In 1986, when the 535,000-square-foot structure is completed, the Bonneville Power Administration will use it as its headquarters, consolidating offices that the agency now has spread throughout the area. (Blount underbid Bethesda-based George Hyman Construction Co. by just $275,000.)
The Portland building, which is being billed as an aesthetic and functional masterpiece by GSA designers, will do everything short of talking back to its owners. In time, it may even be modified to do that.
"Some of the new Japanese cars can be brought in and hooked up to a computer," said Edward A. Feiner, GSA's director of design management. "The car then can speak to you and tell you that you didn't change the oil on schedule this week or your brakes are wearing out."
Feiner said heating, cooling and other monitoring systems eventually may be hooked into similar systems as part of the attempt to save the government time, manpower and, of course, money.
"If we don't have to pay someone to go out and check the furnace to see if the filters are clean, we'll save money," Feiner said. "Our stock of buildings has to be ready to take on the new information age . . . to sense the direction we are going."
Feiner emphasized that GSA is not trying to get too far out ahead of the technology curve with untested ideas.
"Even if the government is behind the private sector, eventually we catch up," he said. But "we're doing it very pragmatically and very rationally. We're doing it very carefully and slowly."
Although some agency officials dispute the origins of the high-tech concept, Public Buildings Service officials say the approach was developed by Richard Field, deputy assistant commissioner for design and construction.
In a June 1983 memorandum to then-Public Buildings Commissioner Richard O. Haase, Field said he wanted to "embark on a high-visibility project in 1984" and asked permission to "develop state-of-the-art design criteria . . . that accommodates integrated office automation systems and utilizes technologies that minimize costs of maintenance, operation and physical security."
Although Haase quickly agreed, there have been pitfalls. For example, Haase and former GSA Administrator Gerald P. Carmen tried to swing a deal with United Technologies Corp. to develop most of the high-tech systems in a new building. That idea ran afoul of procurement regulations requiring competition.
"We had a good idea and there should be, in government, a way to try it and see if it would work," Haase complained recently. "Instead we found a lot of red tape."
Field said the problem was that United Technologies wanted a specific system installed, including brand-name products produced by its subsidiaries -- such as Otis elevators and Carrier air conditioning units.
GSA officials then sought to incorporate many of the high-tech concepts in a new Boston federal building. But because the design process for that building had begun in 1978, planners finally determined that making too many changes would not be cost effective.
Portland presented the next opportunity. It is now expected to include these features:
*Raised flooring. This seemingly nuts-and-bolts change will allow telephone and computer lines to be connected in what GSA officials say is a more accessible and less costly manner than normal. Feiner, however, states in a Public Buildings Service fact sheet that the "overall cost of installing a raised floor system is slightly higher than conventional flooring systems in spite of reduced costs for floor finishing and reduced wiring costs for both power service and communications equipment." He said that, although the raised flooring costs more than conventional flooring, the system will minimize time lost by the lack of telephones or computer systems for employes.
*Integrated voice and data telecommunications. GSA believes that allowing voice and data communications over a common system of wiring -- or fiber optics communication cables -- will make it easier to add, remove or alter equipment.
*Centralized monitoring. Heating, air conditioning and lighting will be centrally monitored. Feiner said in his fact sheet that "the centralized monitoring system offers a greater degree of comfort-level management in a rapid-response time frame when compared to conventional heating/ventilation/air conditioning control."
However, Feiner said the "net savings are difficult to quantify in advance of construction." He projected that most of the savings will come from reducing the number of people needed to maintain building operations.
*Direct digital control. A microcomputer will handle temperature fluctuations to eliminate the problem of having heating or cooling spikes. Feiner said the traditional systems are "more expensive to implement, install and operate on a total cost basis."
*Heat recovery system. Heat generated by computers and other equipment will be collected and used to help heat the building. Feiner said the "break-even point of initial cost versus energy savings is difficult to predict in advance since the cost of energy during the life cycle of the building is not known."
In future projects, GSA plans a number of additional features, including making the buildings structurally safe from earthquakes by using state-of-the-art building shock absorbers, requiring the use of high-tech furniture to economize on space used by employes, designing the buildings on computers and installing automated lighting controls that shut off power in unused rooms if employes forget.
Mitchell, however, paints a much more optimistic picture than his technicians. He said his staff and National Bureau of Standards research show "that the economies and efficiencies are there when we consider state-of-the-art technology.
"I believe that, where we have an opportunity to increase productivity and reduce our operating cost of building management, the idea of the use of high technology is sound," Mitchell said. "We want our buildings to reflect a quality design and one that produces a safe and productive environment for our employes."