Casey Jones

Today, global architecture firm Perkins+Will announced that former deputy director of the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Overseas Buildings Operations (OBO) Casey Jones has joined the firm. He will lead Perkins+Will's civic buildings strategy from the Chicago office, overseeing "best practices for the design of public spaces and buildings," according to a press release.

ARCHITECT spoke with Jones about his year since leaving OBO, and his new role.

How have you spent your time since leaving the State Department?
I followed the advice of my academic friends and took a sabbatical. During that time I spoke at some conferences, served on design juries, relocated to Chicago, and tried to determine whether I wanted to continue in public service, go into academia, or work in private practice. In the end, I decided private practice was the right fit.

What led you to Perkins+Will?
I really respect the ethos of the firm. The people at Perkins+Will are committed to a broad set of social goals. Sustainability, resilience, and improving people’s lives aren’t just buzzwords or catchphrases here—it is in the DNA. Six days after joining the firm, I was volunteering alongside my new colleagues at a local food bank helping package up meals for people in need.

What projects will you be working on initially?
I am still getting to know the portfolio of Perkins+Will and Schmidt Hammer Lassen. [Editor's note: The two firms announced a merger last month.] We are interested in a broad range of civic pursuits, and both firms have a history of strong public projects. For example, there is a library that we just broke ground for here in Chicago that is going to be a combination of library and senior housing. The project allows us to get multiple returns out of the investment so that we’re not only meeting the needs of the broader community in the case of the library, but you’re also co-locating it with housing so that seniors get the benefit of being in a vibrant and dynamic community.

How will your expertise in civic projects will come into play at Perkins+Will?
In 1962, future-senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan authored the General Service Administration's “The Guiding Principles for Federal Architecture,” where he stated that public projects “must provide visual testimony to the dignity, enterprise, vigor, and stability” of the government. Civic projects are woven into the fabric of our lives and carry tremendous symbolism. Our job at Perkins+Will will be to bring our best talent to bear on these projects—at every level of government.

What are the biggest lessons learned you are bringing from your time at the State Department?
Good design is about making the best choices you can with the available resources—it’s not about gilding the lily. Being in public service is a tremendous privilege. At the State Department, I was responsible for everything from the point at which we established the preliminary scope and budget for an embassy (through design and construction), to the long-term maintenance of the property. It strengthened my respect for the people who operate and maintain facilities long-term. I know firsthand the headaches and trade-offs that clients face. The most cost effective time to address those issues is when the project is still on paper—that’s how you give a great design a long life. Perkins+Will shares that belief.

A rendering of Northtown Library and Housing in Chicago
Courtesy Perkins+Will A rendering of Northtown Library and Housing in Chicago

What are some of the biggest challenges in designing civic structures, especially in 2018?
There are a couple of things that are critical when considering the range of building types that provide services and resources to communities. One is that we find a way to maximize that investment so that the taxpayer gets multiple returns out of the project. You have to find ways that a library, for example, can be more than just a repository of books, but can also serve as a community center, or look for other functions or civic roles that a facility like that can serve.

The other issue is that technology has also brought with it the opportunity to kind of unplug yourself from society as a whole, and I think that people are hungry for places to come together and have shared experiences. And very often, those shared experiences happen in civic spaces, either spaces that are provided by governments or cultural institutions, and they are part of the fabric of our lives.

How does the political atmosphere impact civic construction? What are your thoughts on the trajectory of the current administration?
Every administration at every level of government brings their own perspective on how to use their resources to best serve the public. I know at the federal level, we enjoyed very healthy support at the General Services Administration from both Republican and Democratic administrations. Both parties saw the value of good design to the nation as a whole, and I can only hope that that continues and that whatever we elect to build, we think long-term and try and not just design for current situations. Federal buildings and local community buildings are multiyear investments—the need to service their communities for 25, 50, sometimes 100 years.

So far, it’s been hard to get a sense of what the direction is going to be. We are a year into the administration, and they just passed a budget. Since you cannot contract for new work when you’re under a continuing resolution, they have not had the opportunity to advertise new projects. So I think we’re just at the start of finding out what the opportunities might be and what the impact will be on the profession.

What is your biggest fear in re-entering the private sector?
That I might regret not having done it earlier!

Editor's note: This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.