The White House: A power house in more ways than one

It’s one of the world’s most famous addresses, where the most powerful person in the world lives and works. And from January it will home to America's 46th president - Joe Biden.

But at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, Washington DC, all is not what it seems. For starters, the location means the White House residents have had to deal with stifling heat in summer and, as with all old buildings, the workmanship over the years has varied.

Many US presidents have complained about it – and also used it to promote new technology or encourage industry to build during downturns.

The site was selected by George Washington in 1791 and it’s been the home to every US leader since 1800 when the second president, John Adams, and his wife Abigail moved in.

But there have been issues from the beginning; Adams was dismayed to find no running water or indoor plumbing. That didn’t arrive for another 33 years for drinking and for fire protection.

Temperature control was also a problem. Washington DC has sweltering summers and freezing cold winters. In the early years, presidential families would literally head for the hills in summer. Things got better in 1840 when ducts were installed. The first air conditioning was installed in the form of an electric blower pushing air through ice and cotton sheets in 1881 specifically for staff to try and ease the suffering of a mortally wounded President Garfield. Additionally, a gravity hot-air heating system fed off of a self-contained furnace heated his and several other rooms through the ducts. But the system was limited to the state rooms until five years later when President Polk ordered its extension to the second floors.

None of which stopped President Taft, in the days before high security, from sleeping on the porch to escape the heat.

Moving with the times
Events forced a major overhaul after construction work caused a fire in 1930 that caused extensive damage to the West Wing. Proper HVAC units were installed in 1933. Even so, President Roosevelt chose to work in shirtsleeves with the windows open.

There has also been a constant battle over who pays for improvements. The first swimming pool, indoors, was finished in 1933 after a newspaper raised the money for Roosevelt, who suffered from poliomyelitis and needed to swim as part of his treatment.

President Lyndon Johnson never got the hang of the HVAC system and was rumoured to sleep under an electric blanket, even in summer.

Starting from scratch
Decades of wear and tear finally took their toll and in 1948 surveyors warned the building was in imminent danger of collapse. The overhaul left a façade with iron girders holding the main structure, effectively building a modern office and housing complex within the shell.

Artifacts lost at the time were later collected and returned in a project First Lady Kennedy began in 1961. She formed the White House Historical Association and since then it has sourced $50m from donations to assist with its upkeep.

Heating continued to be a problem for successors. President Nixon, relied on a burning fire in his private office, even at the height of summer.

Before leaving, he said its best asset was the staff and was frank about its modernisation over the years: “This isn’t the biggest house. Many, and most, in even smaller countries, are much bigger. This isn’t the finest house. Many in Europe, particularly, and in China, Asia, have paintings of great, great value, things that we just don’t have here.”

The next change was an outdoor pool installed in 1975 at the request of President Gerald Ford.

The most radical innovation was requested by President Jimmy Carter, who lived there from 1977 to 1981.

At the height of the oil crisis, he requested the installation of solar panels to heat water. They were mounted on the roof until quietly being removed on the orders of President Reagan in 1986. But he inadvertently backed recycling as the panels were installed at Unity College, Maine and they remained in service until recently.

Pressure points
President Carter also downplayed the image of the official residence: “I would say that the quarters at the White House are quite similar to those we enjoyed as the governor’s family in Georgia.”

With the pace of world events speeding up, so has the building. President Bush brought solar heaters back in 2003 for the presidential pool and some staff. Then President Obama ordered their installation for the living quarters.

The two most recent occupants have never seen eye-to-eye except on one issue. Presidents Obama and Trump have agreed that the low water pressure is a problem. Staff bought a specialist shower head for President Obama shortly after he and his family moved in.

Mr Trump, a property developer, has been less than impressed. In 2017, he described it as “a complete dump”.

Shortly after moving in, he demanded a new toilet seat and recently complained that low water pressure was preventing him from getting perfect hair.

In 2017, the now 27-year-old HVAC system was replaced and officials moved to the Old Executive Office building while the work was carried out. It coincided with President Trump playing golf for two weeks.

Pace of change
White House spokeswoman Lindsay Walters said: “The HVAC systems are 27 years old, but due to the 24/7, 365-day use a year, the estimated age of the system based off of usage is 81 years old.”

But Mr Trump has a different take on the problems: “The Obama administration worked out a brand new air conditioning system for the West Wing. It was so good before they did the system. Now that they did this system, it’s freezing or hot.”

The new incumbent will have to get used to the quirks of living at the world’s most famous address.

Tommy Vietor, who served as National Security Council spokesman under President Barack Obama, says: “It’s the best office I will ever have, but that building is old and the infrastructure needs constant improvement.”

For the next four years, water leaks in White House will be the lowest Presidential worry. As one ex-member of staff gleefully told the press, “It’s the only ‘leaks’ they can fix.”


Bunker mentality The Situation Room in the West Wing is the heart of the operation. Created for President Kennedy in 1961, today the 513m2 basement needs sophisticated HVAC to handle three conference rooms that host 5,000 people every day. Refitted in 2007, it can handle contact with 1,800 at once and process 2,000 items of data each day.

The handyman Although now 96, there is one President who could build a house. Every year, health permitting, Jimmy Carter has joined volunteers to build houses for people on low incomes. Last year, he joined Habitat for Humanity in Tennessee despite suffering a fall the day before that required stitches. “I had a number one priority and that was to come to Nashville and build houses,” he said. The former peanut farmer himself lives in a modest house and practices carpentry.

Fancy a tour of duty? You don’t need to be an American citizen to work the for US Government.

They say: “The federal government maintains a substantial presence overseas and the positions cover the entire spectrum of employment.” The UK government has renewed a Memorandum of Understanding with US counterparts covering “cooperation in research and development, production, procurement and logistics support”. The locations will be government buildings including embassies – also in Edinburgh and Cardiff – offices and military bases.

Join today? We found a vacancy for an HVAC engineer with the US Airforce at RAF Mildenhall in Suffolk. Contractor firm Engie offered as a permanent contract on 40 hours a week. Where do I find jobs like this? The main recruitment websites carry them or the websites of the companies that have the contract. BAE Systems is the eighth-largest US government contractor, according to USASpending.gov. Whichever government you work for, you will need a very high level of liability cover and get legal advice to be clear of what is expected of you. You will also need security clearance which involves significant disclosures about your career, personal life, finances and connections.

Post-lockdown In recessions, the government increases building and maintenance work to keep the industry going. In June, Amey was awarded as a co-contractor in the £200m project to refurbish homes for Armed Forces personnel. More than 2,000 jobs are being created to install better insulation, energy-efficient boilers and solar panels.

For US government opportunities, go to: uk.usembassy.gov/embassy-consulates/jobs/hrd/ To find UK government work go to: www.gov.uk/contracts-finder

Find out more Read about other unusual plumbing and heating projects, including Crossrail and a Commonwealth Games swimming venue here

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