From the Government Studio

Inside the Fence: The Challenges of Working on a Military Base


This article is adapted from an Interview with the CRSA Government Studio’s David Triplett, AIA and Debbie Adams, AIA. The interview was conducted by Fran Pruyn on October 10, 2014.

So what makes working on a military base unique? Talk about the day-to-day work you do.

Manuals. There are manuals for everything and you have to know them and know how to apply them. They can be broken up into three categories:

  • Codes (which indicate the performance level something should achieve)
  • Standards (which describe the method by which to perform tasks)
  • References (which give guidance on how to meet the codes and standards)

Working on a military base means playing by the rules of the governing agency, and the agencies are layered. The Army Corp of Engineers, the General Services Administration, and the individual base itself all have different standards, and all fall under the standards of the FAR System (Federal Acquisition Regulation)

Budget and schedule rule. Compliance is what makes the government look good. Its common knowledge that aesthetics aren’t held in the highest regard on a military base, but even meeting stated needs is secondary to compliance.

The government uses a quirky, computerized review process called “Dr. Checks”. Any given project might have 15 people reviewing each other,each following a different standard. This promotes communication but presents challenges. For example, Lockheed Martin has to review CRSA’s current work at Hill Air Force Base, even though they have little knowledge of the project specifics, and don’t have enough of a stake in the project to care about cost or schedule. Unfortunately, each comment directly affects the time it takes to close-out a project because you can’t move to the next issue without sign-off on the current issue.

What are the best skills to have for this kind of work?

You have to be able to ask “what is the color of money.” Each dollar’s use is designated in a certain way and it can’t switch roles. This means up-front estimating is also a critical skill.

It helps to have a willingness and a memory: a willingness to dig into the standards, and a memory of what you find. Often answers to questions are buried behind three or even four layers of regulations.

Value written documentation. Even though a lot is spoken and verbally agreed on, the written word trumps the spoken word because spoken words can be forgotten and misinterpreted.

Know how to act like a lawyer, or hire one. A lot of the work centers on the legal interpretation of formal documents.

What are the good things you find about this kind of work?

Payment is guaranteed. The military is a client that simply will never default on a payment.

There is some enjoyment in the challenge. The challenge is largely technical and administrative, but it is rarely boring.

The government uses the ANSI D paper size rather than the standard ARCH D. This means a half-size document can actually be reproduced correctly on 11×17 paper. (It’s a small thing, but it proves quite useful.)

The theory behind all the regulation is good: the system is designed so that if half the government collapsed tomorrow, the other half could pick right up and complete the work. This is the power of documentation and process. Unfortunately, there are also problems inherent to the system. Bureaucracy happens when two entities try and manage each other and the tools which are supposed to help communication actually hinder it.

Any final thoughts?

Working for the government usually goes like this: read the standard, interpret the standard, apply the standard, and then write a lot supporting how you met the standard. 90% of your time is spent defending yourself. The rules matter because the cost of not following them is so high. Ultimately this becomes more than an environment, it becomes a way of life. And, at times, it takes an emotional toll…

A special thanks to Dave and Debbie, and hats off to our entire Government Studio. They work a hard line with high complexity and little appreciation.