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Mr. President: Tear Down Those Walls!

Whenever I get a chance for some free time on trips to Washington, DC, I walk or run along the National Mall. Our nation’s capitol is arguably one of the most beautiful cities in the world, especially in and around the monuments and memorials.

But then I walk a block off the Mall and see all those ugly, boxy buildings, and I wonder:

“What if we demanded as citizens that
these monstrosities get torn down?”

In my mind, they represent everything that makes government less efficient and effective:
1. They create physical silos that reinforce the lack of inter-agency coordination. There’s a separate building for every agency. And that physical separation leads to divisions among agencies that inhibit communication and coordination. I don’t have any real numbers (if you got ’em, share ’em!), but my hunch is that most facilities aren’t filled to capacity any more…and over the next ten years, as Boomers retire or work part-time, they’ll start to feel like ghost towns. They’re already echo chambers. Wait until no one’s there to absorb the sound. Demolish a dozen of these mini-dominions of power and co-locate similar functions in inter-agency teams (that is, once or twice a week when they meet face-to-face. Otherwise, enable them to work from anywhere, connected by web-based networks).
2. People are forced to travel into these places every day. If you’ve ever traveled in or out of Washington, DC between 7:30a – 9:30a and 3:30 – 6:30p on any given weekday, you feel my pain. DC’s roads are among the most congested in the nation, and it’s due in large part to the reality that require people to drive to these workplaces, wasting time, adding stress and damaging the environment through all that exhaust. If we tear down the buildings and ask people to work from home or telework centers, we could cut the cars in half! And we’d eliminate the need to make a sophisticated argument for telework. Mandate the removal of buildings and we’ll force agencies to think more creatively about where people get work done.
3. They suck energy and replace green space. How much energy does it take to run just one of these buildings? In a 2007 address to the Senate, GSA Commissioner Dave Winstead said:
“We recognize that buildings in this country consume about 40 percent of the total energy used in the United States and as much as 70 percent of the electricity. GSA has an opportunity — and a responsibility — to lead by example and to demonstrate how we can reduce energy consumption by intelligently integrating energy and efficiency in building design and still create places where people can work effectively.”
Forget “design.” Think “destroy.” In addition to energy efficiency and the resultant cost savings, imagine even more green expanses on the National Mall. Don’t build new museums…give us gardens and great places to sit outside while we work or more places to play softball and soccer and fetch with our dogs. Make the Mall a National Playground where we reinforce the First Lady’s “Let’s Move initiative to get Americans to exercise.
What do you think? What are other potential benefits of tearing down government buildings, not only in Washington, DC, but across the country?

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Avatar photo Bill Brantley

Interesting ideas. I like the campus approach where you can co-locate many of the different agencies. Having a common meeting area can encourage the inter-agency coordination you advocate.

Andrew Krzmarzick

Hey @Gwynne and @Bill – I understand the importance of face-to-face encounters. In fact, I was remarking that the real value of the Gov 2.0 Expo was not the workshops, but the interactions of all of in between the sessions! So what if those same conversations you described below were happening in telework centers much closer to our homes? Imagine people from multiple agencies interacting in these places, sharing ideas for interagency collaboration or connecting with people in similar job functions where they might learn more effective ways to perform their jobs? Tearing down the buildings in DC (or other downtown facilities across the country) could force us to reconstruct the “where” behind our work…without necessarily sacrificing that human component.

John Sanger

I think the point is we need to figure out the best way to achieve our various work tasks, support the higher level government missions, and to determine if we are organized to do this.

Sometimes face to face is best, sometimes not. Does work at home mean an isolated silo as Gwynne says or is it an opportunity to interact in your community, with your neighborhood. A teleworker needs social interaction, working at home all day merely creates a “need” to engage in schools and community activities. Interaction is at the core of successful operations but the challenge is creating opportunities to optimize our time together, provide tools for the random moment of inspiration and still allow the effectiveness of telework to enhance productivity while reducing our fiscal and economic impacts. It is a paradigm shift but is the Community ready to tap into this resource?

Typically buildings are only used 40% of the time, does it make sense to heat/cool the building and generate emissions for the other 60%? If the President wants a 50% participation in telework, we owe him a plan that will capture the multiple benefits that a strategic plan can provide rather than simply increasing the inefficiency of the space we already have..

Andrew Krzmarzick

Great stuff, John (can’t wait for your regular writing! 😉

Like this a lot: “Does work at home mean an isolated silo as Gwynne says or is it an opportunity to interact in your community, with your neighborhood. A teleworker needs social interaction, working at home all day merely creates a “need” to engage in schools and community activities.”

I like your idea of telework community centers. Move the office from a city center to the community – the “suburbanization of the workplace”, if you will.

Paul Eric Davis

I don’t like many of those buildings, but many attractive buildings are also energy-inefficient. Being the son of an architect (who designed many similar buildings in the ’60s and ’70s, my other concern is that building design “fashions” change. Many mid-century buildings that we don’t like now may be viewed as important models of period architecture in another few decades. Lack of foresight decades ago contributed to the destruction of many early 20th century office buildings in the District that weren’t considered special at the time, but today would be considered so. Look at the former Patent Office (now the National Portrait Gallery), which almost got hit by the wrecking ball. Finally, I feel that the last thing cash-strapped gov’ts should be spending money on now is tearing down perfectly functional buildings to erect new ones. Too many other desperate priorities!

Igor Alves

Been following Govloop for awhile – this is my first comment…

This post touches on an issue I have thought long about – the space in which we work, which in turn influences architecture and city planning.

Before my current position with the census bureau, I researched and was close to opening a “co-working” space, a cafe-like, design-oriented. relaxed working center that would be packed with professional amenities, and include networking and educational opportunities for all participants. “Co-working” addresses the lost productivity and pollution of commuting, the energy costs of building maintenance, and the banality of “cubicle-life”. I consider it more than telecommuting in that, unlike working from home, the worker can pick and choose when to intereact with other (perhaps strategically selected – for example a co-working space more oriented to IT workers, another for sales and marketing folks, etc.) co-workers in the space.

Clearly, the technology already exists for being just as productive out of the office as in the office – so that is not a barrier.

However, as Gwynne brings up, there are multiple benefits to bringing people together in a concentrated area – a working metropolis – not only because people can feel energized by working with live coworkers, but also because their density boosts economic and social activities in the area.

I think the co-working concept addresses this a bit as well in that the ideal space for co-working would be easily assessible by public transport, and thus most likely to be located in a socially engaging area. With that said, nothgin prevents a company from allowing workers to be off-site 50% of the time only, or some other %…

Caryn Wesner-Early

There are ways of dispersing the workers all over the country or even all over the world without losing the important face-to-face interactions we all thrive on. Go over to Virtual Worlds in Government to discuss getting the best of all worlds, virtually!