Since 1995, the U.S. government’s Design Excellence Program has promoted good design—and in many cases, cutting-edge design—at courthouses, border stations, and other federal offices. The program—which started at the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA)’s Public Buildings Service (PBS) and recently inspired the U.S. State Department to launch an Overseas Buildings Operations (OBO) initiative for its embassies—manages the selection of designers and design review for buildings that house the federal civilian, domestic, and international workforce. Besides elevating the quality of federal architecture, Design Excellence has also brought substantial work to architects and other design professionals, from small projects to the new U.S. Embassy in Mexico City. Casey Jones, 45, has served as director of Design Excellence at PBS since 2009 and as director of Design Excellence for OBO since January. He spoke to ARCHITECT about what architects need to know to win federal projects.
Take the initiative.
Architects should be proactive about working for the federal government. Reach out to the agencies you want to work for among the GSA’s 11 regions, and speak with the regional architecture chief about projects. Find out what the GSA values in terms of the selection process. Consider this the research phase. “Architects will want to understand the market they are getting into and what the federal client is looking for,” Jones says.
When you pursue a project, make sure you know detailed information about the facility and the site. Be ready to demonstrate that you have dealt with this type of building facility before and that you understand the complexity of the project—and that your experience is matched to the nature of the project. That’s important, because competition has increased since the economic downturn, Jones says. “Historically, a GSA project would attract between 30 and 40 firms, but now it is in the range of 60 to 80 firms.”
“We are not afraid of bold design,” Jones says. “We’ve had buildings that are distinguished works of architecture, like Thom Mayne’s federal building in San Francisco. It’s a big tent.” For the Mexico City embassy project, the first under the Design Excellence Program at State, the short list includes nine firms ranging in size and design practice from Snøhetta to SOM. “What you have to do is convey the commitment of the lead designer and what you bring to the project in terms of the vision,” Jones says. “We also look at the designer’s capabilities with BIM and of course LEED. We require a minimum of LEED Gold at GSA and LEED Silver at State. You don’t have to be LEED certified, but to be competitive, you must be able to deliver LEED.”
Knock on the door.
“We are open to everyone,” Jones says. “Even if you have previous experience working on federal projects, you are not privileged. We work with emerging designers and those who have not had any federal commissions before. In fact, architects new to the program have been involved with some of our most notable buildings.”
Show your strengths.
For most projects, an evaluation committee selects the architecture and engineering team in a two-stage process. The first comprises a review of the lead designer’s credentials, including a portfolio of past work, a CV, and a statement of intent. The first round winnows down teams from around 50 firms to three-to-six firms. In the second stage, the firms assemble team members and put together a management plan to execute the project. “At GSA we typically interview the teams at this point,” Jones says. “We rank them, based on the strength of the information provided, and the top-ranked firm is asked to submit a proposal.”
If the project is especially prominent or complex, there may often be a third stage in which some or all of the stage-two firms will be asked to prepare a design submission. Up to this point, the teams are assessed based on the strength of their past performance. For projects that call for a special third stage, firms are given a modest stipend and asked to respond to a specific design assignment. This may be a one-day design exercise or a more considered, monthlong design competition, depending on the scale of the project. The design submissions are typically juried by an independent group of peer professionals who provide technical feedback on their overall quality, Jones says. Their findings are shared with the evaluation board that ultimately identifies the top-ranked team.
You are the nation.
“Whether the project is for GSA or State, always remember that you are representing the United States,” Jones says. Courthouses and other federal buildings exemplify the role of the federal government in local communities. Border stations on the Canadian and Mexican borders and embassies reflect our national values to other countries. “These buildings speak to our time,” Jones says. “They reflect the values of our current culture both at home and abroad.”