Federal Buildings:

More Consideration of Operations and Maintenance Costs Could Better Inform the Design Excellence Program

GAO-18-420: Published: May 22, 2018. Publicly Released: May 22, 2018.

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Contact:

Lori Rectanus
(202) 512-2834
rectanusl@gao.gov

 

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Since 1994, the General Services Administration has spent more than $8 billion to build 78 buildings under its Design Excellence program. Agency officials told us that some design choices—such as use of durable materials—decreased operations and maintenance costs. But others—such as multistory atriums— increased them. We found that the agency

makes design choices without fully considering effects on operations and maintenance costs

does not consistently collect and share information on how design choices affected these costs in existing buildings

We made 4 recommendations, including that the agency update procedures to address these issues.

Example of an Atrium in a Design Excellence Building that Survey Respondents Told Us Increased Operations and Maintenance Costs

Photo looking up concrete staircase under a domed glass atrium

Photo looking up concrete staircase under a domed glass atrium

Additional Materials:

Contact:

Lori Rectanus
(202) 512-2834
rectanusl@gao.gov

 

Office of Public Affairs
(202) 512-4800
youngc1@gao.gov

What GAO Found

The goals of the General Services Administration's (GSA) Design Excellence Program are to creatively design federal buildings that meet federal agencies' functional needs and become public landmarks. Some design choices for Design Excellence buildings have decreased ongoing operations and maintenance (O&M) costs, but others have increased those costs. GSA's building managers and tenants told GAO that design choices that have reduced O&M costs include the use of durable materials and low maintenance landscaping. Other design choices have increased O&M costs. For example, according to GAO's survey of 78 building managers of Design Excellence buildings, multistory atriums often led to additional O&M costs, including the need to erect expensive scaffolding for maintenance.

Atriums That Increased Operations and Maintenance Costs in Buildings Constructed under GSA's Design Excellence Program, according to Respondents

Atriums That Increased Operations and Maintenance Costs in Buildings Constructed under GSA's Design Excellence Program, according to Respondents

While GSA aims to create Design Excellence buildings that are cost-effective and functional, it makes design choices without fully considering their effect on O&M costs and functionality. For example, GSA officials do not estimate the majority of O&M costs, such as the building maintenance associated with their design choices until the design is almost finalized. This outcome is partly because GSA procedures do not direct GSA officials to develop such estimates during the design and planning of Design Excellence buildings and because building and regional managers responsible for addressing the O&M consequences are also not involved in the design and planning process. As a result, important cost information that could help building project teams make the most cost-effective design choices is not available to help them. In addition, while building managers GAO surveyed reported that GSA's design choices generally support a building's functionality, they also reported that some design choices increased O&M costs without improving functionality. For example, they identified design choices related to material color and lighting that increased O&M costs but did not enhance the functionality of the building for the tenants.

Although GSA has developed some information on how design choices can affect O&M costs, it does not consistently collect and share such information. For example, GSA has evaluated the performance of only six Design Excellence buildings, and does not systematically collect information on how design choices have affected O&M costs in all existing buildings. Without a process to collect and share such information, future buildings may not benefit from these lessons, and problematic choices may be repeated.

Why GAO Did This Study

Since 1994, GSA has spent more than $8 billion to construct 78 new federal buildings through its Design Excellence program. Some design choices can affect a building's O&M costs and functionality.

GAO was asked to review GSA's ability to manage O&M costs under the Design Excellence program. This report assesses the extent to which: (1) GSA's design choices affect O&M costs; (2) GSA considers O&M costs and functionality when planning and designing buildings; and (3) GSA systematically collects and shares information on O&M costs.

GAO conducted a web-based survey of building managers for the 78 Design Excellence buildings. GAO also visited 10 Design Excellence buildings in three GSA regions selected based on several factors, including geographic and agency diversity. GAO reviewed GSA documents, and interviewed GSA officials and building tenants. Information obtained through site visits and interviews is not generalizable.

What GAO Recommends

GAO is making four recommendations to update existing GSA procedures for planning and designing new buildings to: (1) estimate full O&M costs; (2) obtain information from personnel responsible for addressing the O&M consequences of design decisions; (3) further consider how design choices may affect building functionality; and (4) systematically collect and share lessons from existing buildings. GSA agreed with these recommendations.

For more information, contact Lori Rectanus at (202) 512-2834 or rectanusl@gao.gov.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Open

    Priority recommendation

    Comments: GSA agreed with the recommendation. GSA officials are in the process of developing a tool to estimate the full operations and maintenance costs of design choices during the planning and design, including how those choices will impact areas discussed in our report, e.g., cleaning, energy, and landscaping costs. This tool is scheduled for completion in 2020. Based on a demonstration from GSA, we believe that upon implementation this tool will address our recommendation by allowing officials to better understand the impact of design choices as they are being made. We will follow up with GSA in later in the year to validate that the tool is operational.

    Recommendation: The Administrator of the General Services Administration should update existing procedures to require GSA officials to estimate the full operations and maintenance costs of design choices in the planning and design process for new Design Excellence buildings. (Recommendation 1)

    Agency Affected: General Services Administration

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The General Services Administration (GSA) has spent billions of dollars to construct new federal buildings through its Design Excellence program . Beyond construction costs, some design choices, such as multistory atriums, can also affect how much the government spends for ongoing operations and maintenance (O&M) costs for the buildings . In May 2018 , GAO reported that GSA makes design choices for Design Excellence buildings without fully considering their effect on O&M costs with the personnel that are responsible for the O&M of new buildings . Specifically, GSA building and regional managers who are responsible for addressing the O&M consequences of design choices told GAO that they were not always integrated or asked to participate in planning and designing new Design Excellence buildings . GAO found that GSA's lack of consideration of how design choices may affect the O&M costs of Design Excellence buildings could be attributed to existing procedures that do not emphasize the need to consider such costs during the planning and design stage . As a result, GAO recommended that GSA update existing procedures to require GSA officials to obtain information from personnel responsible for addressing the O&M consequences of design choices at key decision points during the planning and design of new Design Excellence buildings . In 2019 , GAO confirmed that GSA updated its internal processes to involve stakeholders-including GSA officials responsible for managing facilities-during the design process. For example, GSA requires officials to document the involvement of the property manager before finalizing the design concept of a proposed new building . GSA also issued a memo requiring the use of these processes which was distributed to all eleven GSA regional offices . By taking these steps, GSA has increased the level of input on design choices from knowledgeable officials, which will give other stakeholders a more complete picture of relevant O&M cost information necessary to make informed decisions on how to best design future federal buildings.

    Recommendation: The Administrator of the General Services Administration should update existing procedures to require GSA officials to obtain information from personnel responsible for addressing the operations and maintenance consequences of design choices at key decision points during the planning and design of new Design Excellence buildings. (Recommendation 2)

    Agency Affected: General Services Administration

  3. Status: Open

    Comments: GSA concurred with this recommendation. GSA officials are the process of developing a tool that will include the ability to consider building functionality, e.g., purpose or function of the building and spaces, when estimating operations and maintenance costs during planning and design. This tool is scheduled for completion in July 2020. Based on a demonstration from GSA, we believe that upon implementation this tool will address our recommendation by allowing officials to better understand the impact of functional design choices as they are being made. We will follow up with GSA later in the year to validate that the tool is operational.

    Recommendation: The Administrator of the General Services Administration should update existing procedures to require GSA officials to further consider and document, during the planning and design of new Design Excellence buildings, how design choices may affect building functionality, such as whether a building is publicly visible and accessible. (Recommendation 3)

    Agency Affected: General Services Administration

  4. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The General Services Administration (GSA) has spent billions of dollars to construct new federal buildings through its Design Excellence program. Beyond construction costs, some design choices, such as multistory atriums, can also affect how much the government spends for ongoing operations and maintenance (O&M) costs for the buildings. In May 2018, GAO reported that GSA makes design choices for Design Excellence buildings without fully considering their effect on O&M costs. Specifically, GSA did not systematically collect and share information on how design choices made for previous Design Excellence projects have affected O&M costs with the project teams-consisting of a project manager, contracting officer, and other GSA officials-that are responsible for overseeing the planning and design of new buildings. As a result, GAO recommended that GSA update existing procedures to require GSA officials to systematically collect and share such information with these teams. In 2019, in response to our recommendation, GSA issued a memorandum requiring officials to use information gathered on design choices in existing buildings when designing new buildings, including the effects of these choices on O&M costs. In 2019, GAO confirmed that GSA obligated funds to evaluate the O&M costs for seven Design Excellence buildings and created a central repository for these building evaluations, which has been shared with officials responsible for overseeing the planning and design of new buildings. By taking these steps, GSA has increased the likelihood that future Design Excellence buildings will benefit from the successful strategies used by others to decrease O&M costs and reduced the possibility of repeating problematic choices that may have resulted in increased O&M costs.

    Recommendation: The Administrator of the General Services Administration should update existing procedures to require GSA officials to systematically collect and share information with project teams responsible for overseeing the planning and design of new buildings on the positive and negative effects of common design choices on operations and maintenance costs in existing Design Excellence buildings. (Recommendation 4)

    Agency Affected: General Services Administration

 

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