Last month, after 10 years at the General Services Administration (GSA), David Insinga, AIA, was officially named chief architect for the Public Buildings Service (PBS). Considered one of the most influential architectural roles in the government, the chief architect oversees thousands of PBS owned and leased assets. Though Insinga declined to comment on the potential implications of the incoming administration, the new chief architect told ARCHITECT about his path to public service and what his predecessor, Les Shepherd, has taught him at GSA.
What initially attracted you to public service?
I was originally attracted to public service because of 9/11. I spent 20 years in the private sector working for architectural firms and 9/11 was a wake up call for me in many ways. I was working for Gensler and I came across an opportunity to work for the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts in 2002, where I worked closely with GSA on the construction of new federal courthouses.
Working with federal judges was very inspiring. Many had had long careers in the public sector, others came from lucrative law practices to the bench with high ideals. They’re smart and dedicated, hardworking people.
What do you expect to be the biggest challenges in this role?
Right now, I think the biggest challenge is the change of administration. We go through this every four to eight years. There’s nothing specific about this administration but the challenge is to learn about their priorities and figure out how we can help support those priorities.
I’m not ready to comment on [the Trump administration's potential impact on GSA work].
What would you say were the priorities of the Obama administration?
Sustainability was a large one and so was supporting local community—trying to be an economic catalyst in the communities where we were doing projects.
What did you learn from Les Shepherd from his time as chief architect?
Les has been a great mentor for me. I will always be grateful for the opportunities I had learning from him. He taught me to surround yourself with great people, or the best people you can, and to step back and learn from them, listen to them. The programs that fall under the Office of Chief Architect include historic preservation, fine arts, urban development, engineering, and total workplace, and the people that we have working in those divisions are hardworking, smart, well-educated, really dedicated people.
Another thing I learned from Les is that we really owe a debt of gratitude to the architects, engineers, and contractors that work on our projects. Many of them could be working on private-sector projects making a lot more money but they look at [our projects] as an opportunity to contribute to the country, to provide a legacy of great design throughout the country, and so their excitement and interest in our projects is really wonderful to see.
How are you encouraging new architects to get involved with public service design?
I want to go around to schools and encourage people to come work for the government or to work on government projects. It’s a great opportunity [because we are] really open to new design. We’ve hired architects that are emerging talent and by the time the project’s finished, they’re well known and respected in the profession. It’s just a great opportunity to stretch their wings.
And we’re a good client for design teams. We try and support fresh designs. Our foundation is based on Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s guiding principles for federal architecture where he [determined] that designs should be of their time, and that’s something we strongly encourage. We want to see new ideas and especially as sustainability becomes more important in our culture. We want to see creative ideas on how people can achieve reduction in energy use, water use, and waste.
What are the biggest challenges architects are confronting with these projects?
I do think sustainability and reduction in energy is a big challenge because we need to be approaching net-zero. Most of our projects or our buildings are in urban areas and achieving net zero in an urban area is very difficult to do. But I think that’s [a challenge] not just working with GSA—many customers are starting to require the same thing.
Do you have a favorite building or structure that you’ve worked on during of your time at GSA?
The first real project I started with the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts was the construction of a new federal courthouse in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and I continued working on it when I came to GSA. It was the first project where I sat in on the interviews to select the architect and was able to see that entire process from beginning to end.
Another one is the Warren E. Burger Courthouse in St. Paul, Minn., which was a renovation, so it was a very different project than Cedar Rapids, which was entirely new construction. We worked with a great team of people and it was a wonderful learning experience. I had great people to teach me about the court system, which was important in understanding how a courthouse functions. I learned a lot from those two projects.
Note: This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.