How GAO Built Its Dream House

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Chapter 11, Hot and Cold Spots and Wind Tunnels

The first large-scale renovation effort occurred in the 1970s. The original vents and returns were designed to move air efficiently in the perimeter offices and an open interior space. Since GAO no longer needed to store records in the interior, it built offices in the center of the structure. Soon after the building opened, problems developed with "hot and cold spots" and "wind tunnels" because of what one official later described as "random construction" of offices and cubicles in the interior. Even the Comptroller General’s suite was not spared. In 1957, GAO’s administrative officer wrote to the building superintendent about problems in the executive suite:

"The stale, musty odors previously mentioned are reported to be particularly bad in this area and such odors tend to increase as the temperature begins to rise. Also, the occupants of this area have reported that the air becomes heavy and oppressive as the day progresses and becomes almost intolerable by mid-afternoon. Further, they report a feeling of extreme drowsiness and fatigue and, contrary to recommended procedures, find it necessary to leave the doors to the outer corridor open and to operate electric fans at the floor level in order to circulate the air. Conversely, they report that when the temperature is lowered to counteract this condition, the air becomes cool and drafty and results in considerable personal discomfort."

Comptroller General Warren in his office in the 1950s

Comptroller General Warren in his office during the early 1950s

The use of indirect lighting in the executive suite also caused problems. Noting that the poor lighting was affecting the eyes of the Comptroller General, the Assistant Comptroller General, and their immediate staffs, the administrative officer asked the Public Buildings Service to take corrective action. Elsewhere in the building, some employees took matters into their own hands and removed the covers from the trough-like light fixtures in an effort to improve lighting. In 1964, the administrative officer had to circulate a reminder to employees not to tamper with the lights but to report problems to the General Services Administration.

Hallway as it appeared during the 1950s-1960sJudged by present day design standards, the general look of the interior of GAO’s building was dull, with pale green or beige walls and dark green or medium gray office furniture. Larry Herrmann, who was GAO’s director of administrative services, described workspace in the 1950s and 1960s in an article written for The GAO Review:

"Few people below the GS-15 level had any work space that they could call their own, unless a desk in an office occupied by three or four other people would qualify; often four GS-13s would be found together. There was no privacy and one telephone might be shared by all of the occupants. The phones rang incessantly, throughout a work area, and getting an answer was a sometime thing. As late as 1968, one could stand at one spot on the fifth floor and see nearly 500 employees in the transportation audit function going about their daily activities."

Clerks in open work area, 1952

Some employees worked in cubicles or offices but in 1952, desks often filled large open areas, such as this one in the Reconciliation and Clearance Division

GAO undertook a major renovation of its building during the tenure of Comptroller General Elmer B. Staats. Officials sought to improve lighting and ventilation and to provide new furnishings for employees. In the 1970s, GSA began to emphasize "office landscaping," an integrated program of design concepts. In 1970, it remodeled a section of the GAO Building's first floor to serve as a design model. Then, between 1972 and 1978, GAO renovated and refurbished over 450,000 square feet of space at a total cost of over $3,216,000.

Renovated hallway, 1970s

Renovated hallway during the late 1970s

Portable vinyl-covered particle board partitioning with attached shelving replaced the existing 7-foot high plasterboard partitions and old metal partitions. New ceilings, lights, and carpets (11 acres worth, according to Herrmann), brightened the work areas. Air feed bars, disguised as black dividing channels in the new ceiling, and changes in the air ducts, helped improve circulation. Some 4,000 telephones were "installed, moved, upgraded, or rearranged." Modern office furniture replaced the old furnishings. Many of the new furnishings were burnt orange, yellow, beige, or avocado green, hues popular with designers in the 1970s.

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