With a billion dollars a year to spend, half for new construction, the chief architect occupies design's power corner: Thirty border stations are in the pipeline. Forty courthouse projects are “active,” including those in Toledo, Ohio; Charlotte, N.C.; Greenville, S.C.; Anniston, Ala.; San Antonio; Harrisburg, Pa.; and San Jose, Calif. Work is under way in 120 federal buildings, some new, some being modernized.

“It is a great compliment to that effort that we can talk about GSA buildings in the context of an overall discussion of great architecture,” says Mack Scogin of Mack Scogin Merrill Elam Architects in Atlanta, who led the 2004 Design Excellence jury. Looking ahead, he cautions, “How effectively Shepherd manages to balance the demands of excellence and the constraints of cost-consciousness may determine his legacy.”

Shepherd downplays his mission as “not so much” change. But he has shifted the emphasis of the most powerful client in America toward high-performance buildings and innovative approaches to workspace designs that put people first.

“Worker productivity and being a great place that people want to come to work” is more important than figuring out the program for “200 people times X board feet of space,” he says.

On the wall of his office, four prints hint at another interest. They show interior projects rather than exteriors. Anyone searching for the personal preference of Shepherd will notice that Meier designed two.

Shepherd prefers talk of substance over style. He notes that he has worked as a project manager on every single project type the GSA handles. “I know what it takes to make a project happen, and I've been in Washington long enough to understand the politics,” he says.

Architects can expect him to be a stickler for being on schedule: He is driven by the passing of time, he says, recalling a lesson learned from a junior-high band teacher (for whom he played the saxophone): “To be on time is to be late. To be early is to be on time.”

He is equally adamant about keeping on budget. High-profile, high-cost new construction may take a back seat to cheaper retrofits.

He hopes that security features, which can account for 10 percent of the cost of a building, will become an opportunity for designers to push beyond rows of bollards. Shepherd just signed off on a “Perimeter Security Desk Guide,” to be published in March, which will ease architects through the minefield of options and requirements for GSA projects.

Shepherd gets high marks from many American architects, who appreciate that he has worked his way up the system, held his own on design reviews, and takes phone calls. But even those who know him are not yet sure how he intends to make his mark as a leader.

“I definitely want to maintain the stature of Design Excellence and the idea that public buildings continue to get recognized for giving something back and truly being public buildings,” Shepherd responds. “I want to make it better.”

Linda Hales is a design critic at The Washington Post.