Designing Successful Renovations for Federal Clients

by Eliza Vaughn
  Architecture, Engineering, Federal, Interior Design, Renovation, Sustainability

Naval Branch Health Clinic Medical Homeport in Groton, CTRenovation presents the opportunity to reimagine existing buildings, giving them new purpose and creating a better occupant experience. With President Biden emphasizing the United States’ responsibility to address climate change at home and abroad, renovation will be an important tool for reducing the carbon impacts of the built environment. Renovation reduces energy consumption in a number of ways: the embodied energy in the original structure, the energy used to demolish it, and new energy and materials to rebuild from scratch. Renovating federal facilities challenges design professionals to deliver needed square footage, functionality, and energy efficiency within a design solution that reflects the importance of the work taking place inside.

There is little more rewarding than transforming an existing space that isn’t functioning well into something unexpected and successful. Being ready for the complications of working within an existing building, understanding historic preservation, and getting creative when it comes to adding amenities are among our top tips for renovation success:

Working within an Existing Structure

From updating building infrastructure systems to meeting both the Architectural Barriers Act (ABA) and Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requirements, it is essentially universal for renovation projects to run into challenges related to designing within the existing structure. Modern accessibility and equipment require clearance space that can be hard to come by in older buildings. Conflicts in construction with unexpected as-built conditions are common, too. It is critical for the design team to be prepared to find speedy, creative solutions to these types of challenges.

In our work with the Veterans Administration, we often perform electrical coordination studies for VA hospitals, and the electrical distribution system architecture tends to require near full distribution replacement of NEC 700 and 701 systems to meet separation of systems and Selective Coordination requirements. One of the biggest challenges of working in existing facilities is being able to separate out the distribution branches into their respective systems and finding the physical space in the building to do so.

Preserving Historic Buildings

Historic buildings have stories to tell. Ensuring we preserve and honor those stories is critical to the success of historic renovation or preservation projects. Some instances may require a preservation specialist, but we also approach historic renovation projects armed with substantial knowledge. Our renovation of the U.S. Naval Academy’s Administration Building, which was designed in 1905 and is on the National Register of Historic Places, involved substantial historic design considerations.

Our design included repairs to the exterior façade, restoration of the original wood windows and doors, and repair and replacement of slate roofing and copper work. By working closely with the City of Annapolis and Maryland’s Historic Preservation Office, we were able to ensure this significant campus building will continue serving the USNA for years to come.

Meeting Sustainability Goals

From a sustainable design standpoint, renovation offers a long list of pros. Reimagining existing buildings typically preserves the existing structure, enabling designers to substantially reduce construction waste and new material demand. In terms of reducing embodied carbon, this is particularly impactful. As the Biden administration emphasizes efforts to reduce carbon emissions and fight global warming, reuse of the built environment through renovation will have an important role.

Learn more about embodied carbon in Tips & Tools for Law Carbon Lab Design

Having renovated hundreds of buildings for federal clients, we have found certain design considerations contribute the most to sustainability goals for a renovation project. Improving an existing building’s thermal envelope, integrating occupancy and daylight sensors, and implementing efficient new building systems are all key to reducing energy demand and operational cost. Rooftops also present opportunities to add features like solar photovoltaic panels to generate energy on site and green roofs to reduce the heat island effect.

sustainability in federal buildings

Pictured left, the Davis Barracks at West Point; Pictured right, the Defense Logistics Agency Headquarters.

We view sustainable design as simple best practice and have made it an integral part of all projects, joining high profile environmental initiatives including the AIA 2030 Commitment and the SE 2050 Challenge. Our Integrated Design approach and building science group are central to informing decisions that lead to high performance buildings.

Transforming Existing Space to Meet New Needs

While some look at an existing building and see constraints, we look at an existing building and see possibilities. Renovation can do remarkable things to reimagine existing spaces with new amenities that meet modern needs. Our portfolio includes renovations of federal office and administrative facilities, auditoriums, training, and healthcare spaces. For example, the Medical Homeport Clinic renovation at NSB, New London, is creating a more welcoming and efficient outpatient facility designed to prioritize patient-centered care.

In the case of the NAVSEA Humphreys Building renovation, the most critical project goal was to mitigate the emotional impact on the returning workforce following the tragic shooting on September 16, 2013. Our design team had primary responsibility for key design elements impacting this goal, including the creation of an interior memorial dedicated to those lost and affected by the tragedy, the enclosure of four existing atria, the cafeteria renovation, and the selection of new interior finishes.

federal renovations

To create a warmer, more welcoming environment and meet dual objectives for enhanced security, the historic atriums – previously open to the interior – were enclosed with a combination of glass curtainwall and wood veneer paneling, allowing transparency and minimizing noise and glare.

Coordinating Construction Phasing to Minimize Disruption        

In a renovation, construction is happening where people live, work, dine, or train, making careful phasing of the utmost importance. This involves helping clients determine the right swing space, which areas can be occupied and when, and providing connectivity for spaces that may remain occupied while others are being renovated. A NAVFAC project we recently wrote the RFP for involved renovating a large, five-story warehouse into an office building for roughly 1,500 people. In certain areas of the building an existing tenant was to remain (which already had full generator backup and large UPS system for their portion of the building). Reconnecting the existing tenant’s emergency systems while replacing the whole facility with an upgraded building service entrance switchboard and emergency system with two generators created quite a phasing challenge and life safety code analysis for new and existing occupant egress.

Contributors: Rachel Domencic, AIA, LEED AP; Sam Estep, PE, LEED AP; Chris Ankeny, PE, LC, LEED AP BD+C. To learn more about our federal design expertise, please contact Sam Estep at 757.455.5800 or