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How Your Firm Can Win Federal + Military Projects

How Your Firm Can Win Federal + Military Projects

The civilian and military branches of the federal government are looking for innovative, smart-thinking AEC firms to design and construct their capital projects. Our sources give you the inside story.

By By Edward Keegan, Contributing Editor | November 11, 2011
Lobby of the Wayne N. Aspinall Federal Building and U.S. Courthouse, Grand Junction, Colo., a $14.3 million, ARRA-funded GSA mod
This article first appeared in the November 2011 issue of BD+C.

The U.S. government, through its departments, agencies, and military services, remains one of the largest clients for many architecture, engineering, and construction firms. BD+C Giants 300 firms like AECOM, URS, Lend Lease, and Jacobs perform billions of dollars of work for federal civilian and military clients every year, as do many medium-size and even some boutique firms. Getting a generous slice of the federal/military design and construction pie is, for many AEC firms, a vital business strategy.

However, if private-sector development is going through one of its most difficult periods right now, construction at the federal level may be facing even greater challenges, given the specter of budget constraints and the struggle over the national debt.

In that context, Building Design+Construction asked high-level representatives from three of the most active federal entities—the General Services Administration, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and the Naval Facilities Engineering Command—for “the owner’s perspective” on how the Building Team can work more successfully with them in these difficult economic times. Here’s what we learned.

The General Services Administration is the division of the Public Buildings Service that operates as landlord for the civilian portion of the federal government. The GSA is responsible for new construction as well as leasing space to serve its client agencies, such as the Department of Justice, the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office, the IRS, and the Social Security Administration.

The GSA owns or leases 9,624 properties in the 50 states, representing more than 370 million square feet of space. This inventory includes some 481 historic properties, such as the Old Executive Office Building in Washington and numerous landmark courthouses and office buildings. All this makes the GSA arguably the largest non-military landlord in the world.

The GSA’s client agencies can be tough customers to deal with. “We have sophisticated clients,” says Bill Guerin, the Public Buildings Service’s Assistant Commissioner for Project Delivery. An architect by training, with a degree from the University of California at Berkeley, Guerin has devoted his 29-year career to service with the federal government, first in California, more recently in Washington, D.C. “Government work is rules-based,” he says. “You have to jump through a lot of hoops if you want to move from private work to public work.”

Currently, the two busiest builders among GSA’s clients are the federal courts and the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol, the latter of which has been intensely active building land ports of entry along the Canadian and Mexican borders. Many of these projects fall under the GSA’s acclaimed Design Excellence program. Their funding has been largely through the $787 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009.

1. Demonstrate durability, long life. The feds build for 50- to 100-year cycles, so use products and systems that can last.

2.  Follow the client’s rules—and the Brooks Act—to the letter. You’re dealing with Uncle here, so keep all your paperwork in shipshape order.

3.  Don’t bait and switch. Make sure the team leaders you paraded at the interview are the ones who show up on the job.

4.  Understand the client’s unique goals and needs. Like private-sector clients, each federal/military agency has its own priorities. Listen carefully and make them feel special.

5.  Emphasize value, not value engineering. The budget is the budget. Your job is to show how much long-term value you can produce within the dollar constraints.

6.  Check the BIM situation. BIM may or may not be required, so check with the respective agency. Federal clients are looking to see how BIM can help them with ongoing operations and maintenance.

7.  Think LEED Gold and up. LEED Gold and 30% better energy efficiency have become the price of admission. You’ve got to do better. On the near horizon: LEED Platinum and net-zero energy use.

8.  Integrate your project delivery. A contractual IPD agreement will probably not be required, but government/military clients want to see Building Team integration through such mechanisms as joint ventures or design-build.

9.  Don’t be afraid to apply. Government clients are looking for fresh faces and fresh ideas. Show how your expertise in the private sector or at the state/local level can be applied to federal/military work.

According to Guerin, each of these clients has a strong sense of the programmatic needs for its buildings, which may result in vastly different architectural expressions. The federal courts want to project a sense of stability and endurance in their architecture, to symbolize the solidity and permanence of the federal judicial system.

On the other hand, U.S. Customs and Border Patrol wants its new ports of entry to reflect change. For example, new border stations are experimenting with technology that uses the energy generated by cars braking to power the lights.

Guerin says most architects, engineers, and construction professionals are “thrilled” to work with GSA client agencies. “These agencies know what they want, but they’re open to new ideas,” he says.

For AEC firms, one factor that makes the GSA refreshingly different from many private-sector clients is its emphasis on the long life of its buildings, a timeline that can extend as long as a century. “We’re building for the long term, so we use life cycle costing versus short-term costs,” says Guerin. While that perspective sometimes leads to intense scrutiny from both the executive and legislative branches that control GSA’s budget, the agency has been able to successfully argue for the long-term investment, says Guerin.

A strong component of that argument has to do with the symbolism of federal buildings. “We want them to look durable,” Guerin says. “They are meant to represent the United States of America.” If they are to express the longevity and endurance of the nation, the argument goes, federal buildings must use quality materials and systems and be built to the highest standards.

One of the GSA’s most ambitious current projects is the modernization of its own headquarters building at 1800 F Street, NW, in Washington, D.C. The 710,000-sf structure was originally built for the Department of the Interior in 1917. It has been home to the GSA since 1949 and was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1986.

Public Buildings Commissioner Peck:
‘We want you to challenge us’

Peck 3Robert A. Peck, Commissioner of Public Buildings for the GSA, is responsible for the nationwide asset management, design, construction, leasing, building management and disposal for 370 million square feet of government-owned and leased space, accommodating one million federal workers. He oversees an annual budget of $9.1 billion and a workforce of 7,005. In this video, he encourages Building Teams to challenge the GSA with fresh thinking.

Reed3Eleni Reed, GSA’s First Chief ‘Greening’ Officer
From a background in real estate (Cushman & Wakefield), Eleni Reed, PP, AICP, LEED AP, in 2010 was named first Chief Greening Officer at the General Services Administration. She talks with BD+C’s Robert Cassidy about the Public Buildings Services’ efforts to implement Executive Order 13514, which commits the government to net-zero energy use in its buildings by 2030, and implementing the GSA’s five-year Strategic Sustainability Performance Plan.

Davis 1GSA’s Lance Davis on ‘Design Excellence’
Lance Davis, AIA, LEED AP, Program Manager for Design Excellence Architecture+Sustainability in the Public Building Services’ Office of Design and Construction, discusses the GSA’s Design Excellence program and innovative technology in current GSA projects, notably at a soon-to-be LEED Platinum border station.

When new, the building was considered the first truly modern federal office building and remained a model for federal office buildings until the early 1930s. The four-year, $200 million renovation, by a joint venture of Whiting-Turner and Walsh Construction, will add 146,000 sf while restoring 1800 F Street’s place as a model for other federal facilities. Designed by the architecture/engineering team of Shalom Baranes in association with Studios and Syska Hennessy Group, the headquarters renovation will be “a technical marvel” when it’s done, says Guerin.

The 1800 F Street project is scheduled to achieve LEED Gold certification. The GSA has been a pioneer in LEED, at first requiring LEED Silver certification for all its new buildings, more recently specifying Gold. The GSA has completed 123 LEED-certified buildings, and some of the ARRA-funded projects that are nearing completion will attain LEED Platinum status. But that’s just the start. “We’re now requiring LEED Silver for our leases,” says Guerin. “That’s pushing the commercial real estate market.”

GSA’s greening efforts seem to be working. A recent post-occupancy evaluation of 22 GSA buildings ("Green Building Performance") showed 25% less energy use for GSA sustainably designed buildings versus the national average (66 kBtu/sf/yr vs. 88 kBtu/sf/yr), 19% lower aggregate operational costs ($1.60/sf vs. $1.98/sf), and 36% lower carbon emissions.

The U.S Army Corps of Engineers’ 34,000 civilian and military employees serve as the executive engineer for the Army, Air Force, Army Reserve, and Air Force Reserve. The process for getting a project with USACE is similar to that of other federal agencies, says Diane McCartin, a project manager with the USACE’s Louisville office: “We advertise A/E opportunities on the FedBizOpps website.” Typically, there’s a single-phase selection that’s based on providing best value, not necessarily lowest cost. “We judge qualifications based on work on similar projects,” says McCartin.

McCartin was the primary “owner” contact for the Armed Forces Reserve Center in Middletown, Conn., a $51.5 million project that was designed and built in 14 months from the selection of KBE Ventures, a Farmington, Conn.-based joint venture of KBE Building Corporation and Derita Construction. The 164,000-sf structure houses administrative, educational, assembly, library, learning center, vault, weapons simulator, and physical fitness areas for four Army Reserve units and six Connecticut Army National Guard units.

The Middletown project, a product of the 2005 Defense Base Closure and Realignment Commission, was solicited as a design-build project, but the USACE wanted prospective teams to stretch a bit, which is how KBE Ventures won the project. “The designers added an extra loading dock,” says McCartin. “That added functionality.” KBE principal and director of procurement Simon Etzel says that, with clients like the Corps of Engineers, it’s often not enough just to satisfy the program. “We added value,” he says.

Another factor that contributed to the Middletown project was its architectural style. “We always want our projects to fit in to the community, but this was more specific,” says McCartin. “We asked for’New England-style architecture’ and gave them examples of what we wanted.”

As the owner of the project, the USACE functions as the agent for the end users in all discussions with the Building Team. “The program is an iterative process that starts with the end users,” says McCartin, who came to the USACE with a real estate background. “The team has all disciplines—environmental, real estate, design, and so on,” she says. “We need a diverse team.”

Durability and permanence are important to USACE. A lifespan of 50-75 years is understood as the standard, says McCartin. The correct choice of building materials and construction systems is always done with this goal in mind, as long as those specifications fit within the prescribed budget. “Should it be a standing seam metal roof or a shingle roof?” McCartin asks. “It comes down to price and what’s the best value.” The Corps wants the Building Team to provide options, but it has to do so with final cost in mind.

The Corps of Engineers requires its new facilities to meet the equivalent of LEED 2.0 Silver certification through its own Sustainable Project Rating Tool, called SPiRiT (click here to download). According to the U.S. Army Engineer Research and Development Center website, SPiRiT is “tailored to meet Army-specific needs” while taking a whole-building approach that improves the facility’s life cycle management. As for the USACE’s energy-efficiency goals, “We’re strict about achieving 30% better than ASHRAE standards,” says McCartin.

Even though the SPiRiT process is self-certified, that doesn’t make it any easier than getting LEED certification, according to KBE’s Etzel. “Submitting the documentation to USACE was just as rigorous as dealing with the USGBC,” he says. The Middletown project is currently tracking Gold certification, exceeding the original requirement (Silver) set by the SPiRiT rating system.

McCartin says her biggest problem is working with Building Teams that don’t read and respond to documents; after that, it’s Building Teams that don’t respond quickly and effectively to problems that come up on the job. Of course, the USACE isn’t necessarily your typical client. “We have a specific process for delivery,” McCartin says. “It reflects lessons learned. We know what we need.”

The Naval Facilities Engineering Command is the oldest of the Navy’s System Commands, dating back to 1842. NAVFAC serves a similar role for the Navy and the Marine Corps as the USACE does for the Army and Air Force. It has an annual budget of $5 billion, with 3,000 Navy engineering professionals under the supervision of Joseph E. Gott, PE, a fire protection engineer by training and NAV FAC’s Chief Engineer and Director of Capital Improvements.

As in the case of the GSA and the Corps of Engineers, NAVFAC hires its Building Team members through a qualifications-based process under the Brooks Act (P.L 92-852), the 1972 law that prescribes the process for selecting architects and engineers for federal projects. “We look at past experience—what’s relevant,” says Gott. “If you’re thinking of trying to get a barracks project, then hotel design experience would be relevant.” In other words, your experience must line up in some tangible way with the project.

The General Services Administration was an early advocate of BIM. Since October 2007, GSA has required spatial program BIM models to be submitted to the Office of the Chief Architect for all major prospectus-level projects seeking GSA funding. The GSA also “encourages” Building Teams to “deploy mature 3D, 4D, and BIM technologies—spatial program validation and beyond—at strategic project phases in support of specific project challenges,” according to its BIM website.

While the Army Corps of Engineers has its specific protocols, they’re still engaged with common practices used in the private sector. “We try to follow industry standards,” says the USACE’s Diane McCartin. BIM is being used increasingly in USACE projects like the new $51.5 million Armed Forces Reserve Center in Middletown, Conn. “It’s been a good experience,” says McCartin.

The Naval Facilities Engineering Command is making BIM a part of its everyday requirements but not for the flashy, high-level 3D drawings it can produce. “We use it for management,” says Joseph E. Gott, PE, NAVFAC’s Chief Engineer and Director of Capital Improvements. “We are using it to see the maintenance cycle in digital form—‘Here’s what I need to do and when I need to do it.’” By the end of 2012, NAVFAC is going to have its own specifications for BIM—a development that’s worth watching for, as it’s likely to distill best practices from a number of federal and military agencies.

On integrated project delivery, NAVFAC doesn’t require a strictly delineated IPD document, but there’s still a structured IPD-like partnering program in place. “I put everybody at the same table,” says Gott.

The USACE does not use formal IPD contracts, “but we have all the Building Team members in place when we’re developing the criteria as owners,” says McCartin. “We’re using the process without using the title.”

The GSA is using IPD on its San Ysidro Land Port of Entry and some form of integrated development (including design-build or joint ventures) on all its projects, but it is not a requirement. “We believe in the idea of integration,” says the GSA’s Bill Guerin. “Three-party agreements are not contemplated, but we’re talking about integration.”

Unlike the Corps of Engineers, NAVFAC generally does not require applicants to demonstrate lots of design experience at the selection phase, preferring instead to concentrate on candidate firms’ teaming skills, technical expertise, and relevant experience. However, says Gott, “We’re very specific as to who can do work. We don’t have mechanical engineers doing civil engineering.”

Most of NAVFAC’s building projects are performed under multiple work construction contracts. “We’ll interview 10 firms and select three who will then compete for a variety of projects over a period or time or over a specific geographic area,” says Gott. “It can be either an A/E or design-build situation; the process is the same.” Standalone contracts are usually used only for projects over $50 million.

Gott says NAVFAC always deals with a prime contractor, which may sometimes be a design-build entity, very often a joint venture with many subcontractors. He warns, however, that each subcontractor must be identified at the time the proposal is submitted.

As for NAVFAC’s priorities, Gott names his top two: 1) total ownership cost and 2) energy efficiency. “We’re always looking for the best value, based on the total ownership cost,” he says. “I will often use a standing-seam metal roof over a built-up roof, based on total cost of ownership. In fact, we’re going to be rolling out a total-cost template soon”—something to look out for.

Speed of delivery can also be your trump card. “If you can give me the same project at the same price, but earlier than the competition, you’re going to get the job,” Gott says.

Building durability is another important goal of NAVFAC’s construction program, with a 50-year lifespan considered typical. That may be the useful life with recapitalization and several occupancy changes occurring over that time span. “We’ll renovate and modify our facilities, and eventually demolish them,” Gott says. “We’re currently reducing our footprint, to reduce energy costs. That means that new construction involves eliminating old construction. We’re taking out the old, inefficient buildings—our ‘energy hogs.’”

NAVFAC has been part of the green building wave since the early days of LEED, starting with the reconstruction of the Washington Navy Yard. NAVFAC began requiring LEED Silver certification as a baseline for its construction projects in FY2009. It has completed 50 LEED-certified buildings, with another 500 or so registered for certification. Just last month, that bar was raised to LEED Gold. Certification must be done by a third party, but Gott does not rule out non-LEED ratings systems, such as Green Globes. “It’s a competitive marketplace, so there’s room for others,” he says.

He points out, however, that NAVFAC requires specific LEED points to be met no matter what certification program is used, specifically those promoting energy efficiency. NAVFAC is also required to use low-impact development to improve stormwater drainage on its sites.

So where do Building Teams go wrong with NAVFAC? When they stray from procedures. “Learn the submittal process,” says Gott. And be sure to bring the same talent you proposed to the table when it’s time to get the work done. “You can’t bait and switch,” he says.

Ultimately, the path to a successful project with NAVFAC is relatively straightforward, says Gott. The Building Team should focus on performance, quality, and best value. “Tell us how you’re going to do it, and do it,” he says. “It’s very objective.”

There’s no question that working with the civilian and military branches of the federal government can be tough. Each has specific protocols that reflect its long history, and no one is going to let any Building Team work on its own terms. But that doesn’t mean that you should avoid the work—especially since federal/military is a sector that actually has work these days.

“The biggest mistake is not applying for our work,” says the GSA’s Bill Guerin. “We want new faces.” Guerin notes that the GSA’s strong interest in innovation—a quality shared by NAVFAC and the Corps of Engineers—drives it to find new firms. “It’s always a challenge the first time. But you can learn quickly,” he says. “We want new ideas. Take an interest and try.”

In the words of Robert A. Peck, Commissioner of Public Buildings for the GSA, “Please bring us your best game. We need people to challenge us” with better products, better designs, and better programs. BD+C

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