Federal Center South

From the SEGD Archives, circa 2012:

Rivers Run Through It

A U.S. Army Corps of Engineers office in Seattle integrates architecture and environmental graphics to celebrate the region’s life-giving rivers.

When ZGF Architects entered the competition to design the new Seattle district headquarters for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, its inspiration was omnipresent, literally flowing past the four-acre site.

ZGF won the competition with its Oxbow concept, a U-shaped footprint that mimics the historic bends in the Duwamish River and nods to the central role that rivers and waterways play in the region, and in the Corps’ mission.

Inspired by the famous Thomas Cole landscape painting and its evocation of the struggle between nature and civilization, ZGF’s design reflected not only the Corps’ work on the Duwamish Waterway over many decades, but the former industrial nature of the site, which was covered with old warehouses and asphalt prior to the new construction. “Our concept was context-driven, and it celebrates the river. That’s why it resonated,” says Allyn Stellmacher, Design Partner with ZGF.

To fully realize its river-centric vision, ZGF knew that additional layers of storytelling would be key, and it tapped Studio SC, a Seattle-based environmental graphics studio, to use wayfinding and placemaking elements to underscore the focus of the Corps’ work on the rivers.

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Building strong

The Corps’ mantra is “Building Strong,” and Studio SC took this to heart when designing the graphics and wayfinding system. It is embodied in a visitor's first impression of the site: a 36-foot-long cantilevered I-beam that serves as an identity sign and references the building’s exposed steel diagrid.

“It has a strength about it that really sets the tone for the building,” says Billy Chen, Studio SC Principal and Creative Director.

Just inside, a 10-by-34-foot welcome wall underscores the Corps’ mission. A topographic relief of the Duwamish—in Corps-brand red—is overlaid with a steel C-channel that bears text describing the Corps’ mission. Several LED reader strips are embedded in the acrylic relief, scrolling real-time water management data that represents the Corps’ work at the intersection of technical data and natural resources.

On-course wayfinding

Studio SC’s wayfinding program organizes the building into four quadrants, each named after one of the Duwamish’s four parent rivers. The system is introduced in the primary vertical access core, where a landmark three-story-tall graphic climbs the central stairwell and provides technical details about each river, such as coordinates, origin and length. Seating areas on the first floor of each quadrant reinforce the system and its placemaking mission, featuring stories of the namesake rivers’ geologic history and significance sandblasted into granite pavers.

To move employees and visitors efficiently through the building, Studio SC integrated department names and grid numbers directly onto exposed structural columns. Department names appear on magnetic-backed signs that can easily be moved when departments expand or move.

“The quadrant/grid system was a language that employees already knew from their old building,” explains Chen. “So we thought it made sense to continue with that system. And it’s easy and flexible.”

One of the project’s challenges, he adds, was determining the appropriate amount of wayfinding in the 209,000-square-foot space. “This is a secure building and visitors are escorted through, so the wayfinding system didn’t need to be extensively navigational, just conformational. That’s the beauty of the landmark graphics for orientation.”

Natural placemaking

A sense of campus community is central to ZGF’s design, and the architects configured workspaces in the oxbow shape and community space in its three-story atrium core. “That is where communal activities happen, and that’s one of the key components that creates a sense of place,” says Chen.

Accordingly, the Studio SC team focused many of its graphic gestures in gathering spots. In the cafés overlooking the Duwamish, graphics routed into reclaimed wood chart the river’s historic and current paths, and quotes from historical figures associated with the river provide cultural perspectives.

At the heart of the building, a three-story typographic expression of the Corps’ mission is routed into reclaimed wood, honoring its unique function at the intersections of the technical and the environmental, economics and nature, and history and progress. Graphics co-exist alongside rock outcroppings, native vegetation, and boardwalk-like pathways that give the building its “inside out” connection with the natural environment.

“This is not a building that the public visits, but hundreds of people work here and providing them with a strong sense of story and purpose was really important,” notes Chen. “The graphics really enhance the natural setting and materials palette, emphasize the key gathering spaces and encourage people to engage with the Corps’ history and with the natural environment.”


Federal Center South was an American Reinvestment and Recovery Act project, one of many designed to stimulate the economy post-2008, says Rick Thomas, Project Manager for the U.S. General Services Administration, owner/operator of the building and landlord to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

The competition was posted in late 2009 and by late March 2010, ZGF and its partner Sellen Construction had been selected. The project launched to an aggressive design/build schedule in July 2010 and was completed by October 2012.

The GSA’s goal, in addition to quickly releasing money into the beleaguered U.S. economy, was to enhance the energy performance of the buildings in its portfolio and create a 21st century workspace that would reflect the mission of the Corps of Engineers and encourage collaboration. As it turns out, agree Thomas, Stellmacher and Chen, the rigor of the design/build process was especially helpful in meeting those goals.

The intense collaboration required to keep the design/build process moving quickly also helped “de-silo” the project team and became a major asset in realizing the project vision, says Stellmacher. “The GSA had very defined standards in place that kept us focused on providing a high-performance building at the best value, not just the cost. The entire team had to stay very focused on the project, not on any specific member of the team. No matter who you were—engineer, architect, fabricator, graphic designer, construction manager, landscape architect—you could influence any part of the process through the constant discussion and dialogue.”

Studio SC became an important voice in the conversation. Adds Stellmacher, “We had worked with them before. We knew they think outside the box and that they love to find the stories to tell.”

Going for Gold

As part of the GSA’s energy performance criteria, the project team aspired to LEED Gold certification for the building. While Chen recognizes that the materials and processes used for EGD have little impact on the overall numbers, Studio SC and the project fabricator, Trade-Marx Sign & Display, took the sustainability goals to heart.

“One of our main philosophies going into the project was that we wanted everything to be as integral as possible, minimizing add-ons,” says Chen. “When we did add materials, such as the ADA signs, we tried to be as ecologically friendly as possible.”

Trade-Marx sourced recycled aluminum where possible and the team used Richlite, a recycled-content paper-composite material, for room signs. Exposed mechanical fasteners were used where possible rather than adhesives, and Trade-Marx specified Matthews low-VOC paints. Wayfinding signs on the building’s I-beams are magnetic and thus easily movable.

In addition, wood used throughout the building was reclaimed from an old warehouse formerly on the site, and Studio SC employed it for several placemaking elements, including the three-story typographic “spine” climbing one side of the central staircase and feature walls throughout. Original plans called for sandblasting the wood to achieve the level of detail Studio SC wanted, says Nic Chavez, project manager for Trade-Marx. “But once we got started, we discovered the old wood was so soft it splintered and broke out on us. It turns out that routing and hand-finishing worked best.”

Solving these and other problems on the fly—as well as value engineering in real-time, managing a lot of moving parts and dealing with multiple clients—made the project exciting and challenging for Chen’s small studio.

We set out to really show what EGD could do to enhance the architectural vision and tell the stories of the Corps and the rivers that are so important to this region,” says Chen. “I think we accomplished that.”

--By Pat Matson Knapp, eg magazine No. 06, 2013

Jury comments

“Fully integrates the nature and history of the facility through an engaging use of materials, color and texture. The fabric and context of the setting are prevalent throughout. This project confidently illustrates the power of a fully coordinated and collaborative approach to the design of the built environment—architecture, graphics, wayfinding and landscape.”


Client:  U.S. General Services Administration and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

Location:  Seattle

Budget :  $250,000 (fabrication)

Project Area:  209,000 sq. ft.

Open Date :  October 2012

Architecture:  ZGF Architects

Environmental Graphic Design:  Studio SC

Design Team:  Billy Chen, Mark Sanders (principals in charge); Billy Chen (creative director); Faith Berry (designer)

Fabrication:  Trade-Marx Sign & Display Corp. (primary fabricator), Creative Metal Arts (metal etching), Glass Pro (laminated glass with graphic interlayer), Quiring Monuments (stone engraving)

Consultants:  Sellen Construction (general contractor), Siteworkshop (landscape architects)

Photos:  Benjamin Benschneider Photography, Lara Swimmer Photography (as noted)



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