Sonja Shields, AIA, is a senior project manager for the Washington, D.C. office of HGA, architect of record for the Arthur J. Altmeyer Social Security Administration Building in Woodlawn, Maryland, a modernization project. Creating a 21st century workplace wasn’t just about upgrading a 1960 building originally designed by Baltimore architect Richard Ayers, says Shields. It was about adapting a workplace to last another six decades. In 2022, AIA Virginia recognized the Altmeyer Building with an Award of Honor in the architecture category for the modernization’s sensitivities to both environmental imperatives as well as social sustainability concepts that are redefining a much broader conversation nationwide about what it means to work in an office. Here she talks about HGA’s approach and its partnership with the project’s design firm, Snow Kreilich Architects.

One of the things that the jury noted in recognizing the Altmeyer Building is its transformation from an “unremarkable government building” into something suited for 21st century demands. Snow Kreilich Architects, as the design firm, and HGA, as the firm of record, were hired to address programmatic challenges for a critical agency. What were they and how did you prioritize them?

The highest priority — it’s hard to say highest because everything was equally important — but I would say the highest priority was making the building as energy efficient as possible. The old building had single pane windows and no insulation whatsoever in the walls, so that was our starting point. We had a narrow floor plate to work with and we managed to fit everyone and everything we needed to with that constraint, but the narrowness of the floor plate also gave us a great opportunity to easily allow sunlight to reach all the way through from the windows to the center of the workspaces. The building is perfectly sited to begin with, so we could harvest a lot of daylight already. Ultimately, we modernized it using a glass and aluminum system that reached a high EnergyStar rating and exceeded ASHRAE guidelines. All of these things came together to make this project work.

HGA and Snow Kreilich have collaborated in the past, but how did it work on this project?

We worked really well with them in dividing up the responsibilities. They were in charge of the aesthetic of the office building’s envelope and the lobby, as well as the aesthetic of the auditorium, and HGA took the lead on the design of the upper floors. We worked together from a design perspective in places like where the skin of the building touched the workplace — and we worked closely to try and figure out how those points of intersection would look and function.

How did the Social Security Administration’s challenges as an agency come to bear on how they imagined a new workplace?

They didn’t specifically talk about their particular challenges as an agency with us, per se, but they did have a goal to become more efficient in the use of their spaces. They’re a unique client that’s aware of the public perception of their purpose as an agency and the work they do, and so we understood there would be a certain level of scrutiny — so we had to be really thoughtful about the look and feel of the entire project, and the materials we selected.

They wanted to centralize a lot of the workforce and also plan for an increased population, and needed to achieve an upgrade for their building that was flexible and efficient. We’re designing for the next 50 years — that was a constant guideline during the design process. This building was already 60 years old before we started working on it, and we want this work to last at least as long. We planned flexible spaces to accommodate a shifting workforce in the future, but we also had to accommodate space for technologies, requiring us to raise floors for wires and so on.

Altmeyer building lobby
“It’s a solid sustainability story,” says Sonja Shields, AIA, a senior project manager with HGA. “We went into this knowing we’d take the skin off the building and re-use the original concrete structure from the 1950s, which reduced our carbon footprint significantly.” Kendall McCaugherty, Hall Merrick McCaugherty Photographers (courtesy HGA Architects).

Beyond the obvious benefit of thermal performance for worker comfort, limiting temperature fluctuations improves the overall integrity of the building itself. But does this site in this part of our region have special considerations?

Because our mid-Atlantic region doesn’t have the climate extremes of the far northern states or the far southern states, we have a good situation here — and we used a fairly conventional passive solar design strategy in this project. Shading the south side, getting most of the daylight from the north, and so on. The other thing we had to consider in terms of context was the fact that our site, the Altmeyer Building, immediately connects with three other structures that share a central plant. So, even though our building was shut down for the modernization and even if we had to upgrade the systems, we had to keep that central plant functioning while we completed our work. That went very well in the end.

Outside of performance, this project has been linked with durability, resilience, and carbon footprint reduction as key drivers of the design. What’s really the heart of the design concept of this modernization project?

This project was relatively straightforward — it’s a solid sustainability story, working with an existing floor plate and shifting things around to adapt to new demands. We went into this knowing we’d take the skin off the building and re-use the original concrete structure from the 1950s, which reduced our carbon footprint significantly. At the same time, we had to upgrade it for things like progressive collapse, for instance, or new structural loads for heavier file cabinets, or moving staircases to compliment the more efficient floor plate redesigns.

There’s a history of the Social Security Administration on this campus, as the old structure represented for so long. It stood out for its entire history — for different reasons over the years — and we wanted it to continue to stand out in positive ways above and beyond an important legacy. We wanted this project to stand out because it’s good for our environment and a more secure space for employees, not to mention because it satisfied the requirements we discussed with the client.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

William Richards is the Editorial Director of Team Three, an editorial and creative consultancy based in Washington, D.C.