Let the Numbers do the Talking
Half of the U.S. Census Bureau's 12,000 employees now work in a 2.5 million-square-foot office in Suitland, Maryland
Laura Fisher Kaiser -- Interior Design, 11/1/2006 12:00:00 AM
After 65 years in the same two brick buildings, five miles apart from each other, as well as a couple of satellite offices, the U.S. Census Bureau was due for its own population shift—it was time to consolidate 6,000 of the bureau's employees. Under the auspices of the General Services Administration's rigorous peer-reviewed design-excellence program, the job of constructing and furnishing 2.5 million square feet of office space in Suitland, Maryland, a suburb of Washington, D.C., fell to design partner Gary Haney and interiors partner Stephen Apking, a member of the Interior Design Hall of Fame.
But what fun would a government project be without constraints? For starters, the site plan for the new Suitland Federal Center had to work around one of the brick buildings, which couldn't be demolished until employees had been relocated. In addition, because of federal funding approval cycles, the complex had to be built in two phases. And the facility was furthermore limited to eight stories to minimize its visibility from a nearby historic national parkway. At that height, the building would have become massively linear. "So we pulled the top apart," Apking says, "creating two curved wings—ribbons." Rising from a one-story monolithic base, these two structures are connected above by a walkway.
Between the two wings, the roof of the building's base serves as a courtyard that promotes naturally daylit interiors, just one factor that earned the project a LEED Silver certification. A green roof, a water-reclamation pond, and acres of eco-friendly carpet tile also contributed to making the census headquarters an appropriately sustainable gateway to the complex, which houses the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Office of Naval Intelligence, and the Washington National Records Center, too.
While the ground level of the building measures a rather astounding 1,500 feet from the library on one end to the delivery facility on the other, the wings that rise from that base are only 42 feet wide, so daylight penetrates to a spine lined with glass-fronted offices for senior staff. Worker bees sit along the perimeter in workstations with stained-oak accents and, sometimes, sliding doors. As Apking explains, "There's an enormous need for contemplative, thoughtful, heads-down work." When anyone looks up, the window screen's undulating fins of white oak make the view of trees feel more dynamic—besides providing dappled patterns of light and shadow.
When Apking began looking at how people would occupy the space, it became clear that spreading out large groups over one floor might sap their synergy. Instead, he stacked them one on top of another with connecting stairs. Each vertical neighborhood shares a "living room," a two-story box comprising pantries, informal meeting areas, and enclosed meeting rooms. These ipé boxes are either recessed in the building's shell or cantilevered out. (The designers call them innies and outies.)
In common areas and work spaces , the palette consists mainly of grays and sustainable woods punctuated by vivid accents. To orient people, Apking designed a color-coded way-finding system that progresses along the spectrum from violet to red. "As you move forward, you see not only the color you're in but also the one coming up—because of the curve of the building," says Apking, who matched the walls with carpet, tiles, and textiles. "We bring in richness and vitality by fully exploiting the range of a single color through different materials." The system also works vertically. For example, the pattern on the vinyl wall covering in the elevator lobbies grows denser the higher you go.
The need for a scalable floor covering prompted Apking to design the Way line of carpet tiles for Milliken & Company. Graduating from small-scale for offices to medium for hallways and large for lobbies, the pattern is an abstract landscape of lines and circles—"vectors and connecting points that form a net to walk on," as Apking describes it. The carpet tiles are, of course, a must for a raised flooring system, and they earned the census project the maximum LEED credit for carpet. That's because, besides consisting of at least 80 percent postconsumer recycled material and having an integrated backing that adheres without glue, the tiles are reusable. With the pattern dyed onto the surface, not woven in, they can be cleaned off and re-dyed for additional use.
The first phase of the project was barely finished before employees started arriving. A second phase will include a conference and training facility, an auditorium, a multipurpose room, a newsstand and sundries shop, a café, a credit union, a medical facility, and a fitness center—plus a library where members of the public can apply for access to the voluminous data collected and compiled by America's Fact Finder.
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