Fast Facts

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

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Highlights

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.

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Recommendations

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.

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
General Services Administration
Priority Rec.
This is a priority recommendation.
1. 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)
Closed - Implemented
The General Services Administration (GSA) has spent more than $8 billion dollars to construct 78 new federal buildings through its Design Excellence Program. Beyond construction costs, some design choices 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 during planning and design without estimating most O&M costs. Specifically, according to GSA officials GAO interviewed and planning documents GAO reviewed, when planning and designing new buildings, officials estimate the costs of major energy systems, such as boilers and chillers. However, based on GAO's review of GSA and industry data, these systems only account for about one-third of O&M costs in Design Excellence buildings. GSA officials stated that they do not estimate the remaining two-thirds of O&M costs-which include maintenance, cleaning, and landscaping-until late in the building's construction. GAO also 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. Moreover, GSA's procedures for planning, designing, and constructing new Design Excellence buildings do not direct GSA to estimate O&M costs during planning and design. While these procedures generally require firms to submit documentation on budget and schedule, they do not call for information on expected O&M costs. Without procedures that clearly emphasize the need to more fully consider O&M costs in Design Excellence buildings during the planning and design stage, GSA and other stakeholders may not have a complete picture of all relevant information necessary to make informed decisions on how to best design future federal buildings. As a result, GAO recommended that GSA update existing procedures to require GSA officials to estimate the full O&M costs during the planning and design of new Design Excellence buildings. In 2020, GAO confirmed that GSA developed a cost estimation tool that will allow officials to estimate the full O&M costs based on a large number of design choices, such as whether the building included an atrium, as well as expected cleaning, maintenance, landscaping and energy costs. While GSA did not require its officials to estimate the full O&M costs, GSA's development of a modeling tool, related training and emphasis on estimating full O&M costs meets the intent of our recommendation. GSA is training staff to use this tool and also updated procedures that emphasize the need for GSA staff and contractors to estimate the full O&M costs. By taking these steps, GSA and other stakeholders will have a better understanding of the impact of design choices on O&M costs and can make more informed decisions on how to best design future federal buildings.
General Services Administration 2. 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)
Closed - Implemented
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.
General Services Administration 3. 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)
Closed - Implemented
The General Services Administration (GSA) has spent more than $8 billion dollars to construct 78 new federal buildings through its Design Excellence program. Beyond construction costs, some design choices can increase costs without improving the functionality of the building for government workers and the public. In May 2018, GAO reported that GSA makes design choices for Design Excellence buildings during the planning and design without fully considering the effect of these choices on functionality. GAO's survey of 78 building managers of Designed Excellence buildings found that increased spending on certain design choices did not always provide improved functionality for the building tenant. For example, GSA building managers GAO surveyed reported that in many buildings (67 of 78) atriums and lobbies (i.e., vertical penetrations) have increased O&M costs due to higher repair, cleaning, and energy costs. According to GSA officials, when they carry out their planning and design for Design Excellence buildings, they do not differentiate between buildings that will be public-facing and those that will not. This approach was due, in part, to the fact that GSA's procedures for planning and designing new Design Excellence buildings do not call for consideration of how design choices may have different functional benefits, including whether the interior and exterior of planned buildings would be accessible to the public. Federal standards for internal control state that federal agencies should use complete and relevant information when making decisions and designing control activities, including procedures to achieve objectives. By taking a "one size fits all" approach and not considering the functionality of design choices, GSA may be selecting design choices that increase O&M costs without improving functionality. As a result, GAO recommended that GSA update existing procedures to require GSA officials to further consider how design choices may affect building functionality during the planning and design of new Design Excellence buildings. In 2020, GAO confirmed that GSA developed a modeling tool that will allow officials to evaluate design choices for a wide range of functional space types. GSA is actively training staff to use this tool and also updated procedures that emphasize the need for considering functionality of various design choices. While GSA did not require its officials to further consider the functionality of design choices, GSA's development of a modeling tool, related training and emphasis on considering functionality of design choices meets the intent of our recommendation. By taking these steps, GSA has a better understanding of the impact of design choices on building functionality and can make more informed decisions on how to best design future federal buildings.
General Services Administration 4. 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)
Closed - Implemented
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.

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