January 2010

Government’s ambitious building plans

In 2010, the tables have turned. In a challenged economy, government looks more attractive to architects than the private sector. With the enactment of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act in 2009, government was tapped by the current administration to help stimulate the nation, with building and rebuilding as cornerstones of economic recovery. Architects took note.

Photo © André Souroujon

The recent infusion of capital may obscure the fact that federal agencies, and the General Services Administration (GSA) in particular, have been at the forefront of developing and promulgating contemporary design and building practices, including implementing aggressive, positive programs for streamlining selection processes; devising new ways of bringing projects to the marketplace and under construction; adopting environmental guidelines; and ensuring design quality.

It has not always been so. In a panel discussion on the role of government buildings in the 21st century, convened in Washington, D.C., on December 9, 2009, by the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, the GSA’s Commissioner of Public Buildings Service, Robert Peck, reminded us that as late as 1962, it took the gravitas of Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan to inveigh against mediocrity in building and planning and signal government’s potential symbolic role in fostering the subsequent Design Excellence Program. Mercifully, Moynihan’s arguments, as articulated in Design Excellence in Federal Architecture, took hold.

The result is a “through the looking glass” era in which worthy public projects such as courthouses, border stations, and federal office buildings by leading practitioners populate cities across the United States. Such projects not only challenge our design boundaries but help implement advanced engineering and environmental solutions for a client that demands long-term, optimal performance. It helps to have a client with a long-term viewpoint, and the GSA often intends to own its properties for more than a century.

Obviously, the GSA does not stand alone. Other agencies play a critical role, commissioning work domestically and abroad, many with stimulus dollars. The Department of the Interior bears responsibility for major renovation of historic properties, such as Ellis Island. Its own guidelines form the structural backbone for millions of dollars of preservation work accomplished by, and for, others. The Department of Defense (facility upgrades and new construction), the Veterans Administration (medical facility upgrades), and Housing and Urban Development all have money, and work.

Why don’t we feel the stimulus fully yet? As of July 1, 2009, we reported that only $1.1 billion of an anticipated $5.5 billion in design and construction had been spent on 120 buildings. However, the GSA hopes to spend roughly 90 percent of its entire $5.5 billion by the end of 2010 — an amazingly quick response. Among the anticipated work are mega projects, including a $435 million headquarters for the Coast Guard (see “A Stimulus Success Story,” page 39) as well as $450 million for the Department of Homeland Security. Not all projects contain such overwhelming budgets: Numerous greenfield projects, such as courthouses and office buildings, will be built for a tenth that sum, together with retrofits for energy and functional improvement to the large stock of midcentury structures that populate most cities in the United States.

When one agency, in this case the GSA, is commissioning such intense work, and all of it is outsourced, it inevitably raises the question if it is possible or advisable — that is, as AIA EVP/C.E.O. Christine McEntee has noted, is it in fact a question of whether a project is “not shovel ready, but shovel worthy.” Consider how the numbers of GSA employees has shrunk from more than 40,000 in the 1970s to approximately 12,000 today. Les Shepherd, the chief architect of the GSA, admits that while things are moving swiftly, architects report that enforced tight schedules are yielding greater profitability — a first for many firms when working for the agency.

The list of challenges facing government buildings mimics those faced in the public sector, though some have heightened consequence. In addition to the questions of sustainability (how energy efficient should a new building be if it is to eradicate its total carbon footprint?), government buildings confront the need of increased security, a thorny issue, while continuing to serve as the visible, accessible symbols of this nation’s ideals — a lofty, and hopefully not unattainable, goal.

Furthermore, the country’s demographics and preferences are changing. Former minority populations, such as Hispanics, are growing, and immigration continues, bringing in waves of people with differing ambitions and expectations of the role of government and of the workplace. Simultaneously, the nation is increasingly moving toward its urban centers, underscoring the need for a coordinated planning effort that recognizes societal change through the social services and amenities, transit, landscapes, and buildings we provide.

Thankfully, at a low ebb in our corporate health, the nation’s largest client and largest property holder has embraced an enlightened approach to planning, architecture, and construction. The Design Excellence Program, now led by director Casey Jones, stands intact, with support from the agency’s leadership, with a goal of expanding the definition of excellence to all commissions. Architects will look, amazingly, to government in 2010, not as Big Brother, but as a partner, helping to kick-start the engine, and even to point the way toward quality practices for the future.

If you wish to write to our editor-in-chief you can email him rivy@mcgraw-hill.com.