June 01, 2004

By Staff
Appeared in Today's Facility Manager

The USDA's South Building once had an unofficial honor bestowed upon it. Although its initial purpose was to house both laboratories and offices, the building was considered the largest office building in the world after it was fully constructed in 1936.

Unfortunately, the building only held this distinction for a few years, until construction began on the nearby Pentagon in the early 1940s.

While it may have lost its number one status, this facility that is part of the USDA's headquarters complex remains a structural feat. This mammoth building is over two million square feet and encompasses two city blocks in downtown Washington, DC. There are six floors, an attic located above grade, and two levels below grade. The historic Headhouse and Tailhouse, which run parallel to one another, are connected by seven wings.

The South Building has had a long lifetime serving the needs of the thousands of government employees who have used the facility to further the nation's agricultural needs and perpetuate the stewardship of the country's forests and rangelands. In the 1990s, however, USDA personnel realized the apparent need to renovate the building with new systems and also keep the building up to code with ADA accessibility and life safety requirements.

Plan Development
As it is responsible for all government buildings' space leasing arrangements, the General Services Administration (GSA) has established tenant standards. One of the goals of the USDA was to bring the South Building up to speed in this area. Brad Crown, principal architect for the renovation who works for Washington, DC based Shalom Baranes Associates explains,"They [GSA] want their buildings to meet these goals and to bring all up to current code as much as possible."

Due to the sheer size of the renovation project, exploratory studies were developed to see how construction should be carried out and what could be done to preserve different aspects of the building.

Crown states, "we went into the building cold; none of us worked on it prior to our involvement with this. It [gave us] a chance to develop what the building's status [was] on a range of issues from life safety to ADA accessibility. We took those parameters and came up with three options to address deficiencies."

The project team which is made up of a joint venture between Shalom Baranes, a project management team from USDA, and the Washington, DC office of Syska Hennessy devised a master plan for the phased renovation of the entire building. The project would include the replacement and upgrade of mechanical, electrical, plumbing, life safety, telecommunications, security, and vertical transportation infrastructure.

Initially, the master plan broke the renovation into eight to 10 construction phases. Funding and tenant relocation constraints could extend that out to as many as 13 phases. To date, the team has completed phases one and two and is presently engaged in the renovation of the third phase.

Historical Preservation
Located just half a block from the National Mall, the South Building is similar to the style of many of the early 20th century federal government facilities with its trademark limestone, classic brick, and terra cotta elements.

There has been a movement to make the South Building a landmark. Thus, a paramount directive for the project was to keep certain areas of the building intact, because they were considered historic.

Michael Sazonov, project manager, USDA explains, "We had to meet all the National Capitol Planning Commission (NCPC) requirements through [GSA's] Historic Preservation offices."

According to Crown, the GSA was a go between for the project team and the various local agencies that weighed in about their preservation demands.

Sam Brunetto, vice president, Syska Hennessy says that along with the entire Headhouse and the Tailhouse, the other historically significant areas include the first floor, basement, sub-basement, and the seven wings that connect to the Headhouse and Tailhouse.

Brunetto and his organization has played a decisive role in maintaining the historical integrity of the interior. "In those [historic] areas, we retained the original corridor," says Brunetto. "This work included renovating doors, restoring windows, and installing a replication of the original lighting fixtures."

Demolition And Build-Up
In its original incarnation, the South Building housed seven miles of corridor. So in stripping down the corridors and various areas, the team had to be cognizant not only of the historical aspects, but also had to make sure parts of the building wouldn't come down.

"It's not difficult; it just keeps you on your toes to make sure that any penetrations through the floor respect the fact you want to keep [the foundation in place]. You don't want to go cutting up the wood jousts in your house, because that's what's keeping your floor up," Crown says.

"In this current phase, the middle third of the Headhouse is being renovated. As the major east/west circulation path between all of the building's wings, all of the floors' central corridors are to be retained," Crown states.

In the areas which were not deemed historic, USDA employees had a choice in how they wanted to develop their office footprints. "Some have opted for open office space and some of themÑabout halfÑhave opted for fixed center corridors," Crown states. The fixed center corridors are close in style to what was there originally.

In accordance with the arrangement the project team made with the historical preservation organizations, the basements and the first floor could not be changed. However, in the wings, floors two through six could be altered by USDA.

The existing HVAC system consisted of perimeter induction units on each floor and central outside air handling units in the attic above the wings. They were removed and replaced with central air handling units located in the attic mechanical space above the wings.

Brunetto explains that by using vertical HVAC duct routing arrangements complemented by smaller horizontal distribution ductwork, it helped in preserving the lower floors' historic fabric. And yet, it still gave the USDA the flexibility it needed for space planning in the upper floors.

"We created bulk heads on the office side of the corridor and used that as a distribution raceway for air conditioning ductwork to supply air to ceiling mounted variable air volume terminal units," says Brunetto. "By putting the air handling units in the attic and having vertical duct distribution, we were able to work out a scheme that allowed the duct distribution on each floor to remain the same, yet gave the USDA the ability to alter the layout of the floors as needed."

The distribution comes from the attic; however, each floor has variable air volume (VAV) terminal boxes. Each wing is equipped with approximately 28 terminal VAV boxes, giving employees greater freedom with temperature choice.

Life safety features were a significant part of the project, because the old fire alarms would create massive problems for the smallest incidents.

"There are about 6,000 people involved [in the building], and every time someone burnt a bagel in the toaster, the fire alarm evacuated the building. You filled up Independence Avenue," says Crown.

To combat this outdated evacuation method, the building will have a selective evacuation plan that is set up in three zones: east, middle, and west. A voice activated fire alarm will evacuate the floor where the actual fire is, and the floors directly above and below it will be evacuated as well. Brunetto says this is in accordance with high rise building codes.

Horizontal fire safety doors are being installed, so people can evacuate through the fire door out of the danger zone. The existing sprinkler system protected only the basement, sub-basement, and selected areas of the first floor. However, the entire structure will eventually be protected with a combined automatic standpipe sprinkler system.

Electrical Updatev The electrical system was several decades old and desperately needed to be updated. "One of the big things we did in terms of electrical distribution, [was to] convert the supply voltage," asserts Brunetto. "The building is systematically being converted from a 208/120 to a 408/277 volt secondary distribution system. Through extensive pre-design survey and load analysis, a methodology for upgrading the 15 KV distribution system was established to demolish and replace the existing transformers and secondary substation switchgear." By making this change, the team was able to install energy efficient lighting fixtures throughout the building.

Occupancy sensors were also implemented, so that lighting controls would illuminate rooms only when personnel were present. With the modern equipment and efficiency measures, energy costs are predicted to be reduced by 20% to 25%. In addition to updating the voltage in the building, Cat 5 wiring and fiber optic cable were incorporated into the renovation design, so employees will have the most modern IT connections.

A main distribution frame room has been incorporated in the attic of wing five. It allows voice services to branch out to all wings and be distributed to each of the telecommunications closets.

Renovating While Functioning
Several thousand employees inhabit the South Building, and it was deemed essential for the renovation team to undertake the construction while most of the USDA employees continued to work at the facility. In doing this, systems had to remain functional.

"They initially moved about one wing's worth of people off site, so now it's a scenario like musical chairs. Each time construction stops, everyone has to change seats so they can vacate the next space," states Crown.

The off site location where the USDA relocated its personnel was the George Washington Carver Center campus located in Beltsville, MD.

Moving Forward
When the renovation is complete, it will allow the facility to house up to 6,800 USDA employees. As two phases have finished construction, many of the goals of the project team have been met, but still there are more to achieve.

The team wants to qualify for LEED® certification. As the project is in its third stage, sustainable principles are given greater consideration.

Back in 1997, during the team's initial involvement, sustainability had just begun to emerge as a design objective. However, there wasn't any industry consensus as to what constituted a green building.

Nonetheless, the project team was able to identify a number of integrated design criteria that would serve the USDA by reducing operations and maintenance costs while helping to conserve energy. Brunetto discusses that while LEED certification was not in mind before phases one and two were cvompleted, in phase three an effort was put forth to obtain certification. "We decided that we would try to do as much as we could in phase three under the guidelines of the USGBC. The ultimate goal is to have the entire building certified as it is completed."

The USDA has applied for credits for innovation in attempting to reduce water usage in phases one and two.

"Back before we even began phase one, they [USDA] recognized they were using domestic [drinking] water for part of the cooling system. They converted that themselves," says Brunetto.

While challenged with an enormous renovation, preservation measures, and a partial personnel occupancy, the project team has continued forth in the implementation of energy efficient measures and new engineering systems.

The team's flexibility and tenacity in working on such a grand project has kept things moving forward and allowed the building to adopt new measures. When the renovation is complete, not only will the future of the USDA's South Building be assured, but its history will remain intact.