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Building Team Awards, USPS Philadelphia Center: The Postal Worker's Paradise

Construction of the USPS's new mail facility in Philadelphia kept 4,000 jobs in the city and created a dignified workplace for postal employees.

May 01, 2006 |

For sixty years, Philadelphia A/E firm Kling has taken pride in designing buildings for people.

"Our fundamental conviction in approaching the design of every project is that architecture is for people," wrote the company's founder, Vincent J. Kling, in 1969. "Today the most pressing need is for humane spaces in which people can live and breathe."

But can such a people-centric design philosophy be applied to a 926,923-sf, $163 million, 50-acre behemoth of a project that has 4,000 workers coming in and out of it everyday?

The Building Team behind the U.S. Postal Service's Philadelphia processing and distribution center (PD&C) answered with a resounding yes. Keeping in mind the efficient circulation of mail and the thousands of workers that would one day inhabit the massive building, Kling's designers held pre-construction meetings with neighbors, added extra green design elements to extend the building's life, conducted in-depth analyzes of all systems, and used airy and engaging work areas to create a people-friendly, approachable design.

The USPS first realized it needed a new facility to accommodate high-tech, modern mail delivery in 1975. Philadelphia's Main Post Office was still on the corner of 30th and Market streets, where it was constructed in 1935 on the west bank of the Schuylkill River. The building was designed to receive mail by air (it had a helipad on the roof), truck, train, or water transportation. With the decline of the railroad industry and the aging of the building, the Main Post Office wasn't efficiently serving Philadelphians anymore.

After 25 years of location analyses, the USPS and the city of Philadelphia designated a 50-acre brownfield industrial site (once the home of a GE manufacturing facility) near Philadelphia's International Airport and Interstate 95 to be the home of the PD&C in 1997. This site had deteriorated for years after being vacated by GE. It had an unstable fill layer, random areas of sub-grade trash, and brownfield contaminants. The redevelopment of this property would remove a no-man's land from Southwest Philadelphia and replace it with job opportunities and a strong institutional presence.

In 1999 the government agency awarded Kling the A/E contract for the facility and picked the general contractor, a joint venture of J.E. Dunn Construction of Kansas City and INTECH Construction, Philadelphia. Jacobs Facilities of Laurel, Md., along with Gilbane Building Co.'s Arlington, Va., shop, were picked as the joint venture construction manager on the project around this time.

Representatives from the Building Team and the USPS would spend the next two years attending meetings and trying to accommodate the interests of the residents. Noise, truck traffic, and view infringements were their main concerns. The site design was modified to include significant landscape buffers, screening plants, lighting fixtures that were 100% dark-sky compliant, and other measures that kept the community happy.

The architects also had to design the building to conform to the USPS Standard Design Criteria. Incorporating the voluminous criteria into the plans was a project in and of itself for Kling, but much of the "green design" principles of the criteria will help the facility down the road. Extensive life cycle analyses of systems and specific definitions of minimum equipment efficiencies helped produce a building with favorable operating and maintenance characteristics.

Systems that resulted from the analyses were:

  • Roof insulation with a thickness optimized to allow the release of excess equipment heat in the summer while containing heat in the winter.

  • A light-colored PVC fully adhered roof system utilized to reduce solar absorption and the resulting cooling load.

  • Evaporative cooling employed to efficiently dissipate the abundant heat generated by the mail-processing equipment.

  • Chillers that exceed code-mandated efficiencies, to reduce operating costs.

  • Variable air-volume fan systems utilized to track the fluctuating space temperature demands.

Many other green design elements recommended by environmental consultant Roy F. Weston Inc., of Philadelphia made it into the finished building, too.

Today, state-of-the-art workroom machinery, such as optical scanners and bar coders, gathers, sorts, bundles, and directs about eight million pieces of mail a day.

Adding the human touch

Achieving the human element was the most difficult challenge the Building Team faced: how to take a straightforward mail processing facility that caters to speed, efficiency, and processes, and make it inhabitable, workable and enjoyable for a workforce of 4,000.

Kling's design solution was to let the box breathe. A circulation "spine" serves as a link between the workroom and administrative spaces. All the employees—whether mail sorters or top administrators—enter the building through the same entrance, which is filled with natural light through an atrium and skylights.

"Here everyone enters with a sense of dignity and satisfaction that they're a part of something bigger than themselves," said Richard Farley, AIA, PE, principal-in-charge from Kling. "The desire to create an exciting workplace is reflected in the design of the building and best expressed in the central atrium space."

Two-story glass walls surround the entrance and give workers a view of the City of Brotherly Love's skyline. Kling describes the look of the building as "soft industrial," similar to a modern, corporate office building. Farley said metal exterior panels and strip windows were used to emphasize the building's horizontal proportions.

Common spaces such as locker rooms and a full-service cafeteria (with outdoor seating) were placed equidistant from administrative and workroom spaces alike to put all the employees on an equal plane.

The systems were also designed to be efficient not just at moving mail, but also to help employees use them efficiently. The split-level workroom and its new machinery provide a drastic boost in efficiency from the five-floor model that was used in the Main Post Office. Getting the mail in and out of the building is just as important as moving it through the building. The two sides and back of the workroom are lined with 111 docks for mail trucks to drop off and receive shipments.

The Building Team provided the USPS with a model facility that is now the standard that planned distribution centers in other big cities will be judged against. The architecture reflects the philosophy of its owner, the USPS. It respects its neighbors, and runs in an energy- and cost-efficient manner. A simple, streamlined contemporary approach was successful in the design of such a large building. Countless meetings with the community and the Building Team itself were the keys to delivering a facility that's utile, welcoming, and a dignified place to work.

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