Michael Kirkham

Helping to shape the buildings that we encounter on a daily basis—even those we would rather not visit, like police stations and hospitals—public architects take a unique seat at the table while serving as the client or owner’s representative. Their direct influence may often go unsung, but the impact their guidance brings to the design process has far-ranging effects throughout the profession.

When stepping into their roles, public architects have the opportunity to set state- and local-level standards and design-process guidelines that ripple through the design community, says David Trevino, AIA, senior program manager in Building Services for the City of Dallas and a member of the AIA Public Architects Committee Advisory Group.

“Public architects have not only the ability, but the responsibility, to lead and lay the groundwork for good design,” says Trevino, who, after 24 years of private practice, has spent the last 12 as a public architect. In Dallas, his leadership has led to several award-winning projects and the city’s full embrace of sustainability initiatives—in 2008, Dallas became one of the first U.S. cities to pass commercial and residential green building standards. Trevino says most municipal buildings constructed in the last decade have received at least LEED Silver or Gold certification, with a handful reaching Platinum.

Rona G. Rothenberg, FAIA, chair of the Public Architects Committee Advisory Group, also believes that, in addition to managing resources and creating safe spaces for the public, leading and educating are the public architect’s biggest responsibilities. “You could call yourself a demonstration practitioner,” she says.

Implementing new standards and best practices now has greater importance in light of President Obama’s comprehensive plan to combat climate change, which was unveiled in June. A reaction to the devastation Superstorm Sandy brought to the Mid-Atlantic region in October 2012 and the long-term effects of climate change in the U.S., the plan is a series of executive actions aimed at cutting carbon emissions and promoting greater national energy independence.

With buildings consuming 48.7 percent of the country’s energy and serving as the greatest source of carbon dioxide emissions, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration’s 2011 figures, the plan’s success depends in large part on how the country is designed and built—and retrofitted.

The federal government carrying the flag of sustainability is nothing new. In 2006, 16 federal agencies signed a memo of understanding committing them to high-performing federal buildings. A year later, Congress passed the Energy Independence and Security Act authorizing the creation of the Office of Federal High-Performance Green Buildings, whose website reveals 65 of the government’s best-performing buildings. They range in size from the 1.14 million-square-foot Internal Revenue Service Kansas City Campus to a comparatively microscopic 160-square-foot solar-powered guard post for the National Renewable Energy Laboratory’s Wind Site Research Area in Golden, Colo.

While the success of these past initiatives was driven by public architects, the fate of the president’s plan now hinges on their embracing it—bridging the gap between the public and private sectors will be invaluable. But as scientific evidence and political discourse continue to diverge on the issue of climate change, the president’s plan undoubtedly faces an uphill battle.

Rothenberg, senior manager of the statewide design and construction team for the Judicial Council of California Administrative Office of the Courts, has spent her long career as an architect for large institutions serving as the owner’s representative for capital and facility programs and projects. She notes that the green building concept is already hard to sell to some owners and developers, who see the additional first costs but need to be shown the initial capital investment needed and associated long-term operating benefit. Even in the notoriously forward-thinking and innovative state of California, she says, they are “fighting for the lives” of sustainable initiatives because many outside the design environment do not place as high a priority on green institutional buildings as do architects.

“To implement the president’s vision, you need to start with yourself and your community,” says Rothenberg, suggesting that practicing even simple low-cost sustainability measures, such as instituting a basic recycling program or installing low-energy lighting fixtures, can have a lasting impact and put owners on the path to grander plans, such as turning to the International Green Construction Code or striving for LEED certification.

“Owners don’t want to do it if it’s just to get a certification or a plaque,” Rothenberg says. “But when you get your first rebate check after you replace the windows or install an energy-efficient HVAC system, that is such a big win.”

While the bottom line will always be one of the driving factors in private sector-architecture, the duty of public architects beholden to a much more significant and diverse board of directors is to sway official and public opinion.

“If you’re looking at the building process as a football game, public architects have the ability to set the rules of how the game is played,” says Edmond Gauvreau, AIA. As a supervisory engineer with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Gauvreau faces perhaps the most imposing board of directors: the U.S. Congress. However, while he and his colleagues are in charge of the rulebook, the Corps solicits and welcomes stakeholder input for all of its projects.

While talk of government guidelines and strict, comprehensive building standards sounds like it would lead to nothing but dreary designs, that’s not the case, says Gauvreau, who is also one of Trevino’s and Rothenberg’s colleagues on the Public Architects Committee Advisory Group. The installation of such rules, coupled with collaboration between public architects and private practitioners, often winds up aesthetically pleasing—sometimes even astoundingly so.

Gauvreau illustrates his point by citing the Corps’ collaboration with ZGF Architects. ZGF designed—with input from the Corps—the Food and Drug Administration’s Pacific Regional Laboratory and Los Angeles District Office in Irvine, Calif. The building became one of the ZGF’s cornerstone projects and incorporated sustainable design features well before LEED certification became a commonplace goal.

“They came up with a lab building that didn’t look like a government building,” Gauvreau says with a laugh, noting that the project was selected for R&D Magazine’s Laboratory of the Year Award in 2004.

By reaching across to private practice, public architects vastly improve the way we move through public space and have a significant voice in how capital is invested in the long term—collaborations with private practitioners can only strengthen the built environment. Their seats are often invisible but they are powerful, and the success of the president’s climate change plans rests largely in their embrace of it.“That’s the power of being a public architect,” says Rothenberg.