Public buildings in need of repairs; Designs from '70s no longer functional, await modernizing


Like the platform shoes and polyester shirts that symbolize the era, Howard County's government buildings in Ellicott City are vintage 1970s -- and they're showing their age.

Built with sweeping open spaces and dramatic exterior designs, they predate most computer use, energy conservation and the explosive population growth that officials are struggling to keep pace with.

"You would never build something like this again," county Public Works Director James M. Irvin said, referring to the partition-chopped second floor of the George Howard Building -- the centerpiece of the county complex.

Faced with leaking roofs, struggling ventilation systems and office locations that force residents to visit a half-dozen places in several buildings to accomplish one task, the county is preparing for a major modernization and rearrangement of space.

"You used to design a building expecting it to last 100 years," said Richard C. Donkervoet, the Baltimore architect whose firm designed the 1976 Howard Building -- where the County Council and county executive work. "Now the life span is considerably different because of social and technological changes."

Still, Donkervoet said, his firm did a good job. "I don't think [the design] is dated," he said. "They wanted an image building."

Even the County Courthouse, enlarged and renovated a decade ago, is bulging at the seams and needs enlargement, and the 1974 police headquarters and the attached Northern District station, added a decade later, are undergoing a $3.9 million makeover.

The Chicago-based consulting firm GHK is studying the problem, and is looking at ways to use the newly acquired 200,000-square-foot Allied Signal building in Columbia. The county bought the one-story facility off Route 108 last year for $7.5 million. A report is due to County Executive James N. Robey by mid-March.

Could exceed $60 million

These recent actions -- along with capital budget plans for $21 million for an advanced emergency communications system and tentative plans for more than $20 million in western county police and fire facilities -- could push the total bill over $60 million during the next decade.

The county might not be able to afford all the changes, Irvin told the County Council last week, which is another reason the professional consultants were hired -- to set priorities and estimate costs. For example, renovating the Howard Building might require temporarily relocating everyone in it.

County Council Chairman C. Vernon Gray, a Columbia Democrat, made it clear that the council wants a role in the space study.

"Special [council] assistants need an office for confidential calls," Gray said, referring to the cluster of Dilbert-style cubicles for aides in the center of the council's offices.

Some improvements to county buildings have been completed. The Southern District police and fire station complex on Route 216 in Fulton opened in April 1994, and a large fire station next to U.S. 29 at Route 100 opened last year.

Acquisitions helping

Other recent acquisitions are helping to ease overcrowding.

The county bought the Gateway Building near Interstate 95 for $3.4 million in 1993. Renovations to the 93,000-square-foot high-rise brought the final cost to $6 million -- a bargain compared with a new building.

"We bought the Gateway Building for 40 cents on the dollar, and that took care of the immediate need," said Irvin.

Work on the Warfield police headquarters building in Ellicott City should be finished late this year, officials say. That building, where then-Police Chief Robey watched rainwater run down his office walls, is nearly empty of police officers.

"We've had a terrible problem with heating and air-conditioning systems since the buildings were added together," said Lt. Terry Schlossnagle, who is supervising the work.

'Water was squishing up'

"It was horrible," Robey said. "I looked down and moved my toes and water was squishing up from the carpet. They pulled 15 to 20 gallons out of that carpet."

Maj. Mark L. Paterni added: "Some offices had to be shut down in major storms." Spaces for storing evidence and records, and electrical systems and a mechanical security system were outdated for the county force, which has nearly doubled since 1984.

"Robey's office was terrible," Paterni said.

The county executive endorses the planned work, explaining that the recession of the early 1990s forced many projects to be put on hold.

Those who work inside the Howard Building don't share Donkervoet's fondness for it.

"It's not as functional as a [rectangular] high-rise," Irvin said. "This building was designed to be an open-office environment with no partitions." He gestured toward the small offices built from partitions that have gradually taken over, hampering the ventilation system.

"We've rewired this building ad nauseam," Irvin said.

That work has been done to accommodate computers, fax machines and printers. But those appliances have created more heating and cooling problems in the building, and they are worsened by the single-pane windows and thin exterior walls. And there's no room for fiber-optic cables.

But the highest priority, Irvin said, is to make the building "customer-oriented."

To get a building permit, "you have to go to Inspections, then Planning, then Engineering [in the nearby Carroll Building], then come back to Finance, get a receipt for fees paid and go back to Inspections," he said.

Simplify the process

The county wants to simplify such processes and improve service, he said.

That's also the reason for the expensive new communications system, said Richard Biggs, director of Technology and Communications Services.

For example, upgrading to an 800-megahertz system will allow Howard's police to talk directly by radio with officers in Baltimore County, instead of relaying information through dispatchers. When the new system is finished, Howard will be able to track emergency vehicles electronically, even while they are moving. That means they can be redirected to new calls.

For Cheryl Duvall, vice president of GHK, the Howard job has become personal. "This really matters to me," she said, explaining that her family moved to Ellicott City 18 months ago. Her husband visited many county offices to research plans for the area before they bought their house.

"We're challenging them," she says about her work with county officials. "When does someone need an open office [for team meetings] or a private office?"

The bottom line

Irvin said most workers want private offices for prestige, but the walls often cut off ventilation.

Duvall said the Howard building "is a great architectural design," but its thick, interior masonry walls might make it harder to reconfigure. The idea is to plan for residents' convenience while thinking about what might be needed in 10 years, she said.

Still, Irvin said, the bottom line remains: "Who should go where, and what is it going to cost?"

Pub Date: 1/17/99

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