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How Form Follows Function
Inside the Design of Secure Government Facilities

Architects and designers must understand the often complicated responsibilities of secure government facilities in order to provide the most functional buildings for people to best achieve their mission.


By J.J. Tang, AIA, M.SAME


 An early conceptual design of a new unified combatant command headquarters depicts two solid masonry bars that enclose a central, airy atrium protected by layers of security measures. IMAGES COURTESY HDR


The combatant commands of the United States integrate and coordinate the necessary command and control capabilities to provide the most accurate and timely information in support of national security. These dynamic functions give national leadership a unified resource for greater understanding of specific threats around the world and the means to be prepared and respond to those threats rapidly.

To help enable accomplishment of these objectives, administrative and operational facilities designed with cutting-edge technologies, coupled with top security, in a protective environment, are needed. How to aesthetically express these mission-focused objectives is a challenge.

It is the responsibility of the architect to give these sophisticated building types their deserved architectural attention while also satisfying distinct functional requirements. We must first understand the importance of the technology and the security measures employed for the facility. Then we need to let these components inspire our design and architectural expression, or as we so often express it: form follows function—a fundamental principle of our profession.


A multi-layered design approach known as the security-in-depth method is critical for command and control facilities. Security-in-depth utilizes measures including separations, setbacks, hardening of structural façades and electronic security to create a layered defense against threats. The misnomer about a facility with security-in-depth design is that it must be a windowless fortified bunker with layered fences topped with barbed wires.

However, once you truly understand the requirements of security-in-depth design and use them to organize the project site, programs and building forms, the outcome could be vastly different from the stereotypical fortified bunker. A distinctive and attractive architectural expression can emerge, creating a pleasant working environment. Due to the often-changing mission of strategic headquarters facilities, the most up-to-the-minute information and communication technologies need to be incorporated throughout. In terms of technological evolution, 10 years is a very reasonable change cycle. Today’s most advanced information and communication technology could easily become obsolete and then discontinued in this timeframe, replaced with the next generation of more advanced methods of communication.

In terms of lifecycle, facilities must be designed and constructed to last at least 50 years. In terms of mission change, though it is possible that within a five-year timeframe the current mission architects are being asked to design for could no longer be required. The facility must then be adaptable for another mission—one that may not have been thought about in the original plan. In this build typology, flexible and adaptable design becomes extremely important, and one of the most critical program requirements. No one can predict what the next generation of technology might be and how the building we design today might be used tomorrow. But the facility still needs to be designed to help ensure maximum flexibility and adaptability in its structural system, infrastructure and support systems, architectural components, furniture and equipment.



The security-in-depth strategy for a new unified combatant command headquarters in the United States began with analyzing the complicated program, then categorizing and grouping various functional spaces into different hierarchical security zones, based on the critical nature of the mission and the activities that would occur in a particular zone. A team led by HDR designed these security elements starting from the perimeter and working inward to the core of the facility and its most critical assets.

The essence of the design involves two heavy, solid masonry bars that enclose a central, airy atrium protected by layers of site security measures. The design appears deceptively simple. However, this elegant, straightforward architectural expression is the logical result of a thorough analysis of the complicated building program, while strictly following the security-in-depth design criteria.

Beyond the security gate of the compound, the facility is accessed by a ring road that feeds parking for staff and visitors. The design establishes a remote visitor center and a loading dock/material storage facility for visitors to enter and deliveries to be made. These two remote facilities are connected to the main building through an enclosed corridor from each point of entry.

Upon entering the main building, various security zones are organized around an atrium. The atrium is a node that acts as a focal point and as the primary element of orientation, both from the exterior and within the building. It also allows air and light to penetrate the building and establishes a sense of place and scale for the occupants of the complex. The secure public space, including the conference center, auditorium and cafeteria, are all directly adjacent to the atrium. This provides a central gathering place. Offstage departmental offices are organized into two rectangular “office bars” that flank the north and south sides of the atrium. Various secure administrative spaces in the two “bars” are connected via elevator banks and bridges in the atrium. From there is the basement level, the most secure area in the facility.

Additionally, the design enhances social dynamics by creating opportunities for formal and informal interaction, collaboration and a group identity. Through innovative wayfinding and branding, the vast space is broken down to the human scale, providing employees with a sense of place and ownership. The overall creative approach to planning and security-in-depth design will result in an innovative, secure work environment that will empower employees to better serve their mission and their country for years to come.



In designing a new command and control facility for a subordinate command of U.S. Africa Command, it was paramount to maximize flexibility and adaptability in program organization and building systems. HDR’s design team worked with the design-builder, the owner and staff from Africa Command to study multiple design options and interview user groups on site. By organizing and grouping various spaces belonging to the same functional zone together, the facility’s design essentially demarcates the entire space into three different zones—non-secure, secure, and most secure. This approach, paired with a raised access floor system for the entire building, streamlines the mission operations and facility management.

Interior design for the building was inspired by the requirement “to be able to easily maintain building infrastructure support systems.” Each zone is organized into a single open “loft” space with exposed duct work, light fixtures and a concrete deck located above to maximize flexibility and adapt to future changes and expansion. A few private offices in each zone are grouped together and placed in the middle of the loft space. Spaces requiring separations are grouped together and placed along the perimeter walls or at the entrance. All private offices are collocated within two solid, inner “banks.” Administrative cubicles are positioned in an open work environment that allows natural light in through windows in the exterior walls. Partitions separating different functional spaces have knock-out panels within them so that all spaces can be combined into one large, undisturbed operation “hall.” A single modular furniture system allowing various configurations is utilized throughout.

The ultimate result of this streamlined design is an easily maintainable facility that is adaptable to potential mission changes. The design contains various secure spaces that require specialized design to provide resistance to forced and covert entry; visual evidence of surreptitious penetration; a high level of sound attenuation; and electromagnetic shielding.

In designing a new command and control facility for a subordinate command of U.S. Africa Command, it was paramount to maximize flexibility and adaptability in program organization and building systems. The design also expresses local French and Arabic architectural style.



Even with special security requirements it is possible to design a building that does not look like a fortified bunker. Many creative solutions can make the facility aesthetically pleasing while bringing in abundant daylight to its workspace.

By employing intrusion and visual detection systems and satisfying Anti-Terrorism/Force Protection glazing requirements, windows, curtainwall and skylight systems can be added to the architectural design and articulation toolboxes. In many cases, the command and control building type requires electromagnetic shielding to wrap the entire exterior enclosures, including all openings. In this case an electromagnetic film could be applied to the entire glazing surface. If windows are not permitted in a particular secure zone, especially in some secure facilities outside the United States, there are still options to design an attractive building. One solution is to organize the building layout in such a way that frequently visited spaces are located at the building perimeters and form the main façades. The windowless functional spaces then are located in the less visual secondary façades, or imbedded in the center of the building block. HDR used this approach in the design of the subordinate command headquarters in Africa. The design expresses local French and Arabic architectural style of articulated window fenestrations on the main façades on the first floor and the second floor, with the windowless spaces grouped together and plugged into the back of the facility.



Highly secure facilities require 24/7 operations, especially in times of crises. To maintain operational demands, it is essential to undertake threat and risk assessments and ensure that the necessary resilience and redundancy is built into the design, such as incorporating power systems cooled by redundant and reliable HVAC systems. These features minimize single points of failure and provide reliability as high as 99.999999 percent.

From a structural perspective, resiliency and redundancy means that in the event of a natural disaster, such as an earthquake, tornado or hurricane, the facility must remain structurally sound and maintain operations. Designing to withstand extremely high wind speeds or meeting elevated seismic design criteria for both the structural and non-structural systems is often required. The designs of both the unified combatant command headquarters in the United States and the subordinate command headquarters in Africa include resilient and redundant design. Construction of the two facilities is ongoing and work is expected to be completed in 2016.

As architects and designers, we need to be able to understand the often complicated responsibilities of secure facilities because our ultimate goal is to provide the most functional buildings for people to be able to best achieve their mission. When mission informs design, it can become a powerful inspiration for architecture that can have a memorable and lasting impact.



J.J. Tang, AIA, M.SAME, is Principal, Federal Programs, HDR Inc.; 773-380-7900, or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..