Beneath the sleek, stainless steel skin of the Federal Center South Building 1202 beats a rough-hewn heart. Lumber salvaged from a timber-framed warehouse provides structure and weathered character for a central commons in the new regional headquarters of the United States Army Corps of Engineers (USACE).
The 209,000-square-foot building, completed through a design/build collaboration between architecture firm ZGF and Sellen Construction, occupies a 4.6-acre brownfield site on the Duwamish Waterway south of downtown Seattle. The Corps had spent decades in an adjacent 1932 Ford Motor assembly plant designed by Albert Kahn. However, the factory’s windows were inoperable, limiting fresh air, and daylight didn’t penetrate far into the 100,000-square-foot floor plates. Six-foot tall office partitions reinforced departmental separation. “While working with the Corps during the programming phase of the project, it was clear they wanted a cultural shift toward more collaboration,” recalls Rick Thomas, project manager at the General Services Administration (GSA).
Taking cues from nature and built context
Since the site lies beneath the flight path of a nearby airport, concerns about particulates, noise, and security prompted ZGF to design the building to focus inward. The resulting oxbow form responds to the twists and turns of the waterway while maximizing daylight and views from its narrow, 60-foot-wide floor plates. Open workspace curves around a central atrium—also known as the commons—containing shared services, such as conference rooms and kitchenettes, and functioning as the social heart of the building.
More than 200,000 board feet of salvageable structural timbers from an old warehouse demolished on-site were used for the building’s foundation and structural system, and 100,000 board feet of decking were repurposed as cladding for the atrium walls. “We were lucky that it was covered with whitewash rather than lead paint, and therefore was easy to remove,” notes ZGF Principal Dan Simpson. Rather than re-milling the wood, the architects embraced its imperfections and patina. Throughout the atrium, super graphics on both wood and glazed surfaces enhance wayfinding, and a three-story glazed wall features technical data on the area’s waterways.
Biophilic design elements incorporated in the atrium evoke positive connections to nature. A meandering bed of rock and slate interspersed with driftwood resembles a river, timber columns line its banks like trees, and recycled rainwater gurgles along channels cut into boulders. Overhead, steel trusses and sloped skylights covering the indoor garden are a nod to the adjacent Kahn factory. Stairs and sky bridges link the commons to the surrounding office space at multiple locations. “We built physical connections to create real connections between people,” Simpson says.
Workspace as comfortable as it is functional
ZGF clustered meeting spaces around the atrium to foster community and a collective identity among the 700 employees. “Our goal was to create an esprit de corps for the Corps,” explains ZGF Partner Allyn Stellmacher.
The architects selected 50-inch-tall workstation partitions for the open offices to preserve visual access within and between departments. “It’s now possible for people to poke their head over a partition and ask their neighbors a question,” Thomas notes. “In the old building, they couldn’t even tell if their neighbor was at their desk.” Members of the Corps can also choose to work at either desks or more informal seating areas and “touch down” work surfaces. “The building appeals to a younger generation used to taking their laptops and working away from their desk,” Thomas says.
The building’s flexible layout is possible thanks to an underfloor air distribution system that delivers 100 percent filtered outdoor air for ventilation and cooling. The natural process of convection exhausts air through the central atrium to a high-efficiency heat recovery system. The ultra-efficient building envelope, backed by perimeter hydronic heating and radiant cooling panels in the ceiling, further reduces heating and cooling demands. The Federal Center South Building 1202 is expected to perform within the top 1 percent of energy efficient office buildings in the United States.
“The Corps’ mission is integrated throughout the building, which reflects a dedication to restore and sustain the environment,” Thomas says. While the salvaged wood surfaces serve as a tactile reminder, perhaps the most heartening proof of this mission in action is the abundance of river otters playing in the waterfront site’s restored wetlands.
Key Design Highlights
- The building’s oxbow form enhances security while maximizing views and daylight.
- A central atrium with soothing natural features encourages social interaction.
- Members of the Corps choose between workstations, flexible lounges, and “touch down” work surfaces, where they can plug in their laptops.
- Sustainable features and systems will allow the building to perform in the top 1 percent of office buildings in the country.
Federal Center South Building 1202
- Architect: ZGF Architects
- Client: U.S. Army Corps of Engineers
- Where: Seattle
- What: 209,000 square feet on three floors
- Cost/sf: $270