Memo to FBI: Build it right

When the time comes to actually design a new FBI headquarters, they’ll have some good models to reference.

Now, federal building designs range from splendid to just plain awful. Sometimes the awful ones become run down, like the FBI headquarters. Sometimes old buildings become repurposed and regain some dignity. Several agencies share the former Woodward & Lothrop warehouse, a historic Washington landmark. Inside it’s not so bad. It’s in a bustling neighborhood with lots of amenities nearby.

Some EPA staff members will remember working in the old Southwest D.C. federal center before it was torn down. I visited it a couple of times. It was the type of place that would make you say, thank goodness I don’t have to arrive here every day. The place was a dump, dark and dreary inside, and in need of maintenance. Plus it was in a stretch of neighborhood without much going on.

Think about the FBI’s needs. Security, of course, scaled to accommodate a lot of people. A variety of internal working spaces for the range of job types housed under one roof. If he hasn’t already, FBI Director Jim Comey should drive out to the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency campus on the outskirts of Fort Belvoir. Producer Lauren Larson and I went out there for interviews. The building floored me, no pun intended.

In fact, it also impressed DoD reporter Jared Serbu, who wrote about the building when it opened in 2011.

NGA doesn’t let you bring in phones or cameras, so I couldn’t take any pictures. But this link shows the Google Earth view of the unusually shaped building. (You can also download a high-resolution image of the building at the NGA website.) The long, teardrop-shaped structure on the top is a skylight, flooding the giant central commons space on the first floor in natural light. And because the corridors link to the atrium, like a Hyatt Regency hotel, a lot of that light flows into the halls and makes walking the halls feel like an experience connected to other people. You can peer down from as high as eight stories into the atrium.

The building also has exterior windows, something not all secretive or classified activities have.

Like so many facilities of this type, it sits isolated, with only a couple of access roads and checkpoints. If you work there and want to go out for lunch, you’ve got a major schlep because there is nothing to walk to. But NGA provides amenities — a big and diverse cafeteria, a Starbucks and a Dunkin’ Donuts. Also a dry cleaner, beauty salon, credit union and — close to my heart — a great fitness center. Built at a cost of $1.7 billion to house 8,500 employees, the building is no Motel 6.

When I visit a federal office or any of the hundreds, maybe thousands, of businesses I’ve visited over many years, I always ask myself, would I want to work here, in this physical environment? Having been a couple of times into the crumbling FBI building at 9th and Pennsylvania Avenue, N.W., the answer in that case is no. It’s even forbidding from the outside. On a winter midday, walking the couple of blocks of Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the FBI evokes nothing so much as Pyongyang.

If the FBI moves to a greenfield campus in Maryland’s Prince George’s County, it will have needs similar to those of the NGA. When moving in, then-NGA director Letitia Long described the building as purpose-built for NGA’s mission.  FBI people will, one hopes, have the space, light, facilities and amenities they need to enjoy working there.

Federal buildings are for federal employees, of course, and they shouldn’t necessarily have the lush types of build-outs you see in white-shoe law firms or old-line companies like the tower of the defunct Eastman Kodak (where George Eastman’s office was finished in rare hardwoods). On the other hand, federal structures should reflect the best in American architecture and design since they belong to, and therefore reflect, all of us. By the same token, the work environments provided to federal employees should be designed to enable both productivity and a basic sense of well-being.

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