- The Washington Times - Friday, July 25, 2008

Cool architecture can still mean being tough on a crime, the FBI has discovered as it expands its portfolio of buildings nationwide.

For decades, this buttoned-up organization has been represented by the unpopular J. Edgar Hoover FBI Building looming over Pennsylvania Avenue between Ninth and 10th streets NW. It’s one of the ugliest buildings in Washington, and its stark modern architecture, reflective of the aptly named brutalist style, is disliked even by the FBI’s top brass.

“Can you get us a new building?” Director Robert S. Mueller III asks rhetorically in greeting this reporter on a recent tour of the Hoover Building. His request becomes understandable when seeing how the 1974 structure is falling apart in places.

Around the outside, netting covers the projecting top stories to prevent chunks of concrete from falling onto pedestrians. The once accessible staircases and courtyard, where the public enjoyed concerts by the Beach Boys and the U.S. Marine Band, are blocked off with makeshift partitions.

“The offices are inefficient, and we are starting to look at alternatives to this site,” says Assistant Director Patrick G. Findlay, who manages the FBI’s growing portfolio of facilities.

Replacing the Hoover Building with a mix of governmental, cultural and commercial uses also is envisioned in a new plan for the Federal Triangle, issued July 10 by the National Capital Planning Commission and U.S. Commission of Fine Arts.

While the FBI ponders moving its headquarters to a new location, it is making a bureauwide push for more up-to-date design.

Under the leadership of Mr. Mueller, who assumed his post just a week before the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the FBI has embarked on a program to upgrade and replace its aging buildings, from training facilities in Quantico, Va., to field offices in cities from Boston to Denver.

Driving this building boomlet are growing numbers of FBI personnel involved in high-tech sleuthing and intelligence gathering who require high-security environments to carry out their crime-fighting.

“In the past, the work force was made up of agents and clerks,” says Joseph Persichini Jr., assistant director in charge of the Washington field office. “Now we have biochemists, linguists, electrical engineers, professionals of all types. The FBI is much more complex than it was 20 years ago, and we have to have sophisticated buildings that reflect that.”

Even the Hoover Building is being overhauled to keep pace with changes inside the bureau; six of its 11 floors are in some stage of renovation.

“We have added about 3,000 people since 2001,” Mr. Findlay says. “They are housed in 18 buildings scattered inside the [Capital] Beltway in addition to the headquarters.”

This demand for more office space, in turn, has led the FBI to move its more specialized facilities from inside the brutalist building to newer, more spacious locations outside the Beltway.

Fingerprint identification and background checks are carried out in Clarksburg, W.Va., where the FBI’s Criminal Information Services Division is housed in its own seven-building complex.

The crime laboratory, once housed in the Hoover Building, occupies a sleek, glass-fronted structure near the FBI Academy in Quantico. At 463,000 square feet, it incongruously sits next to Hogan’s Alley, where FBI training is conducted on a small-town movie set with a bank, a drugstore, a post office and other false-front buildings erected in the 1980s.

Designed by Washington’s HOK Architects, the five-story lab was completed in 2003 at cost of about $130 million to triple the size of the previous facilities inside the Hoover Building and allow for more adaptable work areas.

“When we designed it, the No. 1 crime identification was fingerprinting, and then it became DNA, and the science will change again,” says architect Bill Hellmuth. “The building’s infrastructure allows you to make changes to the labs as the science evolves.”

The three adjoining blocks of the lab are home to about 700 scientists and technicians who scrutinize a vast array of evidence, from DNA and hair samples to bomb fragments and firearms. Their forensic analysis is provided free to state and local law enforcement agencies as well as to the FBI.

A sculptural training and conference center has been designed for the lab but not built. It is among the dozens of structures the FBI is hoping to construct over the next dozen years as part of a master plan for the 550 acres shared by the bureau and the Drug Enforcement Administration in Quantico.

The proposed buildings include shooting ranges, a helicopter pad and a specialized facility for tear-gas and pepper-spray exposure. A major addition is planned for the FBI Academy’s interconnected complex of brick dormitories and classrooms, which are nearly as worn out as the Hoover Building.

“When all these are completed, it will be a city in the middle of the woods,” says FBI engineer Curt Moore.

More ambitious still is the ongoing effort to replace the oldest and most vulnerable of the FBI’s 56 satellite operations in cities all over the country. “Our biggest growth is in the field offices,” Mr. Findlay says.

Approved for construction through 2014 are 39 new buildings, estimated to cost $2 billion, that will support nationwide investigations into crimes ranging from computer hacking to counterterrorism. They are being developed under the direction of the General Services Administration (GSA), the federal government’s landlord, through a lease-construction program.

“There was no way we could deliver this in such a short time through federally owned properties requiring authorization by Congress,” says David L. Winstead, commissioner of GSA’s Public Buildings Service.

To hasten the process, he explains, the GSA selects a real estate developer who assumes the costs of designing and constructing the field office. The rent paid by the FBI to the GSA, in turn, goes into a federal buildings fund used to pay the developer, who ultimately owns the facility.

So far, of the 39 new field offices, buildings have been completed in Baltimore; Chicago; Birmingham, Ala.; Albuquerque, N.M.; San Antonio; Springfield, Ill.; and Tampa, Fla. Steeply rising construction costs have hurt GSA’s ability to deliver some of the other FBI buildings on time and on budget.

“The price of building materials went up 27 percent over the past three years, and the price of security features has also gone up,” Mr. Winstead says.

Field offices in Detroit and Charlotte, N.C., were put on hold when the developer, Higgins Development Partners of Chicago, underestimated the expense of building on the chosen sites. GSA is soliciting other firms to complete both projects.

The design of these FBI offices is driven as much by security concerns as by cost and location. Mandatory for each new building is a moat of green space to protect against truck bombs and terrorist attacks. This safety zone extends 100 feet from the fencing around the property’s edges to the buildings’ facades.

Protecting the office interiors are windows of laminated glass to resist bomb blasts and radio frequencies used for electronic eavesdropping. About a third of the office space is designed to accommodate what the FBI calls a “sensitive compartmentalized information facility,” a secure, soundproof suite where top-secret material is analyzed and stored.

Urban locations near courthouses and local police, such as the Washington field office on Judiciary Square, are still preferred for the new buildings but are becoming harder to reconcile with security requirements.

Mandatory setbacks from the street mean building on a larger site of seven to 11 acres on average. In addition to the field office building, the parcel typically accommodates an employee parking structure and a service annex. This smaller building provides a garage and an auto repair shop for the FBI’s fleet of cars, trucks and vans, and a crime lab for analyzing vehicles taken into evidence.

Yet for all their security and specialized requirements, the new field offices reflect surprising architectural variety, at least from the outside.

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