The Obama administration has directed federal agencies to reduce their total real-estate square footage, in owned and leased space, starting in fiscal year 2016.

The plan, outlined in a March 25 White House Office of Management and Budget memo, doesn’t bar new federal buildings construction, but any added space would have to be more than offset by selling other, underused facilities or reducing leases.

The “Reduce the Footprint” program doesn't set an overall square-footage target for the government but asks each agency to come up with an annual goal.

David Mader, OMB controller, in a blog post said the new strategy “will improve the utilization of government-owned buildings, lower the number of excess and underutilized properties, and improve the effectiveness and efficiency of the portfolio.”

The new plan goes beyond a 2013 "Freeze the Footprint" directive that, at the time, told agencies to hold steady their total real estate space.

Agencies beat the 2013 plan’s goal, taking actions that, between FY 2012 and 2014, resulted in a net reduction of 21.4 million sq ft of office and warehouse space.

In FY 2014, agencies disposed of 7,350 buildings and 47 million sq ft of space, saving $17 million in annual operating and maintenance expenses, Mader added.

Those cutbacks are a tiny fraction of the federal government’s real property inventory, which totaled about 3.3 billion sq ft as of FY 2013. Of that, 2.7 billion sq ft were in federally owned space, and the rest was leased. The government's annual operations-and-maintenance cost for those facilities is about $21 billion.

Andrew Goldberg, American Institute of Architects managing director of government relations, says the new White House program "acknowledges the obvious, that there is not as strong an appetite ... for new construction and more an interest in trying to consolidate."

But he adds, "There still is a very large footprint."

Goldberg notes that, as agencies consolidate the overall space, "the buildings that they'll be consolidating into, if they do that, still need a lot of work. There's a big backlog of just general maintenance, repairs, retrofitting."

Mader said, “Consolidating properties and collocating agency office space is not only common sense but will provide more convenient access to the public and allow for upgraded facilities to provide more modern work environments for federal employees to conduct their business.”

The plan, spelled out in a new "National Strategy for the Efficient Use of Real Property," also calls upon agencies to use "space design standards" to make the best use of the office space that remains.

Goldberg says, "I think there are going to be a lot of ... opportunities for the whole design and contruction industry to be engaged in this [overall] process."

Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.), the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee’s ranking minority member, praised the White House plan. He said, “Taxpayers should not have to pay for the government to lease or own buildings that it does not need.”

In the last Congress, Carper introduced a bill that included a new pilot program to speed the jettisoning of excess federal properties. That bill cleared the committee in July 2013, but the measure went no further.

In 2012, the House passed a bill, introduced by Rep. Jeff Denham (R-Calif.), that would have set up a commission to recommend federal buildings closures, similar to the panels that proposed military-base closures. But the Senate didn't act on it. The White House in 2011 proposed similar legislation.

As the Obama administration has been implementing the 2013 Freeze the Footprint plan, it also has continued to request—and Congress has approved—hundreds of millions of dollars for new buildings.

For example, the General Services Administration’s fiscal 2015 appropriations for new buildings construction totaled $509.7 million, including money for two border stations in California and part of a new Dept of Homeland Security headquarters in Washington, D.C.