Like most things in Washington, federal architecture is steeped in history, guarded by tradition — and under constant threat of budget cuts.

Across the country, and especially in the nation’s capital, federal office buildings are hemmed in by regulations aimed at preserving their design both for aesthetics and functionality. With more than 130,000 properties in its portfolio, the federal government is the single largest owner of real estate in North America.

All of these buildings, whether on Pennsylvania Avenue or operating in a satellite city elsewhere in the country, need to meet a two-fold requirement. First, they must provide efficient and economical facilities for the use of government agencies. Second, they have to provide “visual testimony to the dignity, enterprise, vigor and stability of the American government,” according to the General Services Administration.

“It should be our object to meet the test of Pericles’ evocation to the Athenians, which the President commended to the Massachusetts legislature in his address of January 9, 1961: ‘We do not imitate, for we are a model to others,’” say the GSA’s guiding principles.

Keeping them that way requires federal agencies to undertake constant and costly repair programs, which are not always a priority in department budgeting. As a result, many have a growing backlog of deferred maintenance.

Deferred repair costs among civilian agencies ballooned to $76 billion in 2021 from $51 billion in 2017, according to data compiled by the Government Accountability Office. That’s after federal construction and maintenance spending dropped every year from 2009 to 2013, and has yet to return to pre-2009 levels.

The departments of Energy, Health and Human Services, Interior and the General Services Administration attributed increases in their deferred repair costs to funding constraints, material cost increases, deliberate deferrals and data collection changes.

All four selected agencies said that maintenance funding had not been keeping up with costs, leading to increases in deferred maintenance and repairs.

The maintenance needs for those properties are “continually outgrowing the work being done to address those needs each year, despite the GSA, the agency that acts as the federal government’s property manager, requesting budgetary provision for $1.3 billion worth of repair and modernization projects” in 2021, according to Gordian, a provider of construction cost data, software and services for building projects.

As inflation has driven up costs of everyday goods, prices have also risen for construction materials, according to an analysis by the Associated General Contractors of America.

GSA construction projects from 2014 to 2018 alone show that federally funded construction projects trend 15% to 25% higher in cost than the same projects would cost if funded privately.

“Federal design requirements impact both the practical designs and aesthetic designs of spaces,” Gordian said in its report. “On the practical side, agency facilities are constructed to meet or exceed a 100-year lifecycle — much longer than most commercial or privately funded projects.”

This means federal buildings must be built with highly durable materials that can withstand the effects of time and the impact of a blasts, should an attack occur, it said.

The federal government also sets minimum wages for its contractors that frequently exceed rates for similar work in many states.

And buying priority is often given to building materials from domestic manufacturers, which can cost more.

Department of the Interior officials said in the report that the agency had property that became more expensive to repair as time went on. Officials also said that increased visitation on federal lands led to even quicker degradation.

Health and Human Services also said in the report that aging facilities, particularly Indian Health Service facilities that are more than 75 years old, have contributed substantial repair needs.

Even the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent supply chain issues added to spikes in repairs.

Aging federal structures

In some cases, agencies chose to postpone repairs on purpose, especially if maintenance at that stage of a structure’s lifetime seemed futile.

As many as 45,000 of the 130,000 federally owned and operated facilities are underutilized and outdated, Gordian’s report said.

For example, officials from the Interior’s Bureau of Reclamation said that they deferred maintenance on spillway gates at the Hoover Dam because the water level in the reservoir decreased enough that the agency was unlikely to have to use the gates.

Similarly, Department of Energy officials said that a substantial amount of the agency’s deferred maintenance was for facilities that were approaching their end of life.

Agencies have also developed new methods or systems for tracking and determining maintenance needs, which in turn led to an increase in deferrals.

Energy officials said that the main cause of an increase of about 35% in estimated deferred maintenance and repair costs from 2018 through 2019 was a National Nuclear Security Administration initiative based on new software to calculate costs.

Officials said this new method led to about a $2 billion increase over previous calculations.

The GAO report also said that total repair funding is murky because annual presidential budget requests, appropriations laws, and supporting documents typically don’t aggregate funds for deferred maintenance.

Molly Weisner is a staff reporter for Federal Times where she covers labor, policy and contracting pertaining to the government workforce. She made previous stops at USA Today and McClatchy as a digital producer, and worked at The New York Times as a copy editor. Molly majored in journalism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

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