Office Building  

by Brian Conway
The Planning Site, LLC



In the words of office design consultant and author Francis Duffy, "The office building is one of the great icons of the twentieth century. Office towers dominate the skylines of cities in every continent... [As] the most visible index of economic activity, of social, technological, and financial progress, they have come to symbolize much of what this century has been about."

This is true because the office building is the most tangible reflection of a profound change in employment patterns that has occurred over the last one hundred years. In present-day America, northern Europe, and Japan, at least 50 percent of the working population is employed in office settings as compared to 5 percent of the population at the beginning of the 20th century.

Photo of the Federal Building-Oakland, CA

Federal Building, Oakland, CA
Photo Credit: Kaplan McLaughlin Diaz/em>

Interestingly, the life-cycle cost distribution for a typical service organization is about 3 to 4 percent for the facility, 4 percent for operations, 1 percent for furniture, and 90 to 91 percent for salaries. As such, if the office structure can leverage the 3 to 4 percent expenditure on facilities to improve the productivity of the workplace, it can have a very dramatic effect on personnel contributions representing the 90 to 91 percent of the service organization's costs.

To accomplish this impact, the buildings must benefit from an integrated design approach that focuses on meeting a list of objectives. Through integrated design, a new generation of high-performance office buildings is beginning to emerge that offers owners and users increased worker satisfaction and productivity, improved health, greater flexibility, and enhanced energy and environmental performance. Typically, these projects apply life-cycle analysis to optimize initial investments in architectural design, systems selection, and building construction.

Building Attributes

An office building must have flexible and technologically-advanced working environments that are safe, healthy, comfortable, durable, aesthetically-pleasing, and accessible. It must be able to accommodate the specific space and equipment needs of the tenant. Special attention should be made to the selection of interior finishes and art installations, particularly in entry spaces, conference rooms and other areas with public access.

A. Types of Spaces

An office building incorporates a number of space types to meet the needs of staff and visitors. These may include:


Employee/Visitor Support Spaces

Administrative Support Spaces

Operation and Maintenance Spaces

B. Important Design Considerations

Typical features of Office Buildings include the list of applicable design objectives elements as outlined below. For a complete list and definitions of the design objectives within the context of whole building design, click on the titles below.


The high-performance office should be evaluated using life-cycle economic and material evaluation models. In some cases, owners need to appreciate that optimizing building performance will require a willingness to invest more initially to save on long-term operations and maintenance.

To achieve the optimum performance for the investment in the facility, value engineering provides a means for assessing the performance versus cost of each design element and building component. In the design phase building development, properly applied value engineering considers alternative design solutions to optimize the expected cost/worth ratio of projects at completion. Value engineering elicits ideas on ways of maintaining or enhancing results while reducing life cycle costs. In the construction phase, contractors are encouraged through shared savings to draw on their special 'know-how' to propose changes that cut costs while maintaining or enhancing quality, value, and functional performance. For more information on value-engineering, see WBDG Cost-Effective—Utilize Cost and Value Engineering Throughout the Project Life Cycle.


Tenant Requirements-The building design must consider the integrated requirements of the intended tenants. This includes their desired image, degree of public access, operating hours, growth demands, security issues and vulnerability assessment results, organization and group sizes, growth potential, long-term consistency of need, group assembly requirements, electronic equipment and technology requirements, acoustical requirements, special floor loading and filing/storage requirements, special utility services, any material handling or operational process flows, special health hazards, use of vehicles and types of vehicles used, and economic objectives.


The high-performance office must easily and economically accommodate frequent renovation and alteration, sometimes referred to as "churn." These modifications may be due to management reorganization, personnel shifts, changes in business models, or the advent of technological innovation, but the office infrastructure, interior systems, and furnishings must be up to the challenge.

  • Consider raised floors to allow for easy access to cabling and power distribution, as well as advanced air distribution capabilities to address individual occupant comfort.

  • Incorporate features such as plug-and-play floor boxes for power, data, voice and fiber, modular and harnessed wiring and buses, and conferencing hubs to allow for daily flexibility at work as well as future reorganization of office workstations.

Urban Planning

The concentration of a large number of workers within one building can have a significant impact on neighborhoods. Office structures can vitalize neighborhoods with the retail, food service, and interrelated business links the office brings to the neighborhood. Consideration of transportation issues must also be given when developing office structures. Office buildings are often impacted by urban planning and municipal zoning, which attempt to promote compatible land use and vibrant neighborhoods.

  • Consideration should be given when selecting office locations to the distance the majority of occupants will have to travel to reach the office. Studies including zip code origination should be conducted to determine the best location of the office. The development of new office locations will often necessitate relocation of employees, particularly if the office is moved or opened in a new geographical area. Consideration of the municipal resources should include housing costs and availability, traffic congestion, school system quality, cultural resources such as museums, sports teams and institutions of higher education, natural attractions such as coastal areas, mountains and public parks, availability of educated labor, crime rate and law enforcement, and civic infrastructure capacity such as water, waste water and waste processing.

  • Once a building has been constructed and occupied, it is critical that long-term performance be confirmed through an aggressive process of metering, monitoring and reporting. The results of this feedback should inform maintenance operations and be available as input to new design efforts.


Worker Satisfaction, Health, and Comfort—In office environments, by far the single greatest cost to employers is the salaries of the employees occupying the space. It generally exceeds the lease and energy costs of a facility by a factor of ten on a square foot basis. For this reason, the health, safety, and comfort of employees in a high-performance office are of paramount concern.

  • Utilize strategies such as increased natural ventilation rates, the specification of non-toxic and low-polluting materials and systems, and indoor air quality monitoring.

  • Provide individualized climate control that permits users to set their own, localized temperature, ventilation rate, and air movement preferences.

  • While difficult to quantify, it is widely accepted that worker satisfaction and performance is increased when office workers are provided stimulating, dynamic working environments. Access to windows and view, opportunities for interaction, and control of one's immediate environment are some of the factors that contribute to improved workplace satisfaction. See also the Psychosocial Value of Space.

  • Natural light is important to the health and psychological well-being of office workers. The design of office environments must place emphasis on providing each occupant with access to natural light and views to the outside. A minimum of 30 foot candles per square foot of diffused indirect natural light is desirable.

  • The acoustical environment of the office must be designed and integrated with the other architectural systems and furnishings of the office. Special consideration must be given to noise control in open office settings, with absorptive finish materials, masking white noise, and sufficient separation of individual occupants.

Technical Connectivity

Technology has become an indispensable tool for business, industry, and education. Given that technology is driving a variety of changes in the organizational and architectural forms of office buildings, consider the following issues when incorporating it, particularly information technology (IT), into an office:

  • Plan new office buildings to have a distributed, robust, and flexible IT infrastructure, which would allow technological access in virtually all the spaces.

  • During the planning stage, identify all necessary technological systems (e.g., voice/cable/data systems such as audio/visual systems, speaker systems, Internet access, and Local Area Networks [LAN] / Wide-Area Networks [WAN] / Wireless Fidelity [WI-FI]), and provide adequate equipment rooms and conduit runs for them.

  • Consider and accommodate for wireless technologies, as appropriate.

  • For existing office buildings, consider improving access to the IT infrastructure as renovations are undertaken.

See WBDG Productive—Design for the Changing Workplace and Productive—Integrate Technological Tools for more information about incorporating IT into facility design.

Secure / Safe

Terrorist attacks of the last decade have focused design on protection of occupants and assets against violent attack. Through comprehensive threat assessment, vulnerability assessment, and risk analysis, security requirements for individual buildings are identified, and appropriate reasonable design responses are identified for integration into the office buildings design.

  • Consider entrances that do not face uncontrolled vantage points with direct lines of sight to the entrance. Utilize site barriers and setbacks, perimeter barriers and blast resistances, access control and intrusion detection, entrance screening, package screening and control, open areas that allow for easy visual detection by occupants, and minimized glazing. See WBDG Secure / Safe—Security for Building Occupants and Assets.

  • First-time visitors, unfamiliar with their surroundings, may have trouble navigating the safest exit route from the building. Consider using increased signage and/or providing safety information and a building directory in welcome brochures. Also, review and evaluate safety plans on a regular basis. See WBDG Secure / Safe—Fire Protection and Secure / Safe—Occupant Safety and Health.


Energy Efficiency—Depending on the office's size, local climate, use profile, and utility rates, strategies for minimizing energy consumption involve: 1–reducing the load (by integrating the building with the site, optimizing the building envelope [decreasing infiltration, increasing insulation], etc.); 2–correctly sizing the heating, ventilating, and air-conditioning systems; and 3–installing high-efficiency equipment, lighting, and appliances.

Consideration should be given to the application of renewable energy systems such as building-integrated photovoltaic systems that generate building electricity, solar thermal systems that produce hot water for domestic hot water (DHW) or space conditioning, or geothermal heat pump systems that draw on the thermal capacitance of the earth to improve HVAC system performance.

Additional consideration should be given to the applications of other distributed energy sources, including microturbines, fuel cells, etc., that provide reliability (emergency and mission critical power) and grid-independence, and reduce reliance on fossil fuel grid power.

C. Example Design and Construction Criteria

For GSA, the unit costs for this building type are based on the construction quality and design features in the following table . This information is based on GSA's benchmark interpretation and could be different for other owners.

Emerging Issues


Photo of the Federal Office Building, San Francisco, CA

Federal Office Building, San Francisco, CA

The extensive inventory of facilities that are over 25 years of age present a significant recapitalization challenge. For GSA, its First Impressions Program addresses the quality of the entrance and lobby areas of its older facility portfolio. Key areas of concern for modernization include upgrading the exterior envelope, mechanical systems, telecommunications infrastructure, security, and interior finishes. Improving the workplace quality, energy performance, security, flexibility to accommodate tenant churn, maintenance overhead and life-cycle expectancy are important objectives for modernizing these facilities, Appropriate preservation for buildings on or eligible to be on the historic registry is part of the modernization effort.


With the advent of improved building technologies and controls it is crucial that high-performance buildings of all kinds be properly commissioned as part of a comprehensive quality assurance plan. In many instances, a process of ongoing commissioning has shown to be effective.

Some federal agencies and private institutions are moving aggressively in the direction of mandating commissioning for all high-performance structures in their portfolios.

Relevant Codes and Standards

There is an enormous range of criteria, codes, and standards that cover federal and private sector office building design. General criteria and guidance for office building design for federal facilities can be found in:

Additional Resources

Organizations and Associations


  • GSA LEED® Applications Guide
  • GSA LEED® Cost Study
  • How Buildings Learn by Stewart Brand. New York: Viking, 1994.
  • The New Office by Francis Duffy. London, England: Conran Octopus Limited, 1997.
  • Systems Integration: Increasing Building and Workplace Performance by BOMA International Foundation. 2000.


Building Types: