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GSA's Design Excellence Program raises the bar for federal buildings

By Don Douglass

Rendering of the United States Courthouse in Eureka, California
Rendering of the United States Courthouse in Eureka, California

We often hear references to GSA’s Design Excellence Program at our building dedications and groundbreaking ceremonies, but what is this program and how does it affect the quality of our new construction and build-to-suit leases across the region?

As builder for the federal civilian government, GSA plays a critical role in preserving and adding to America’s architectural and artistic legacy. The facilities we build today will be part of our country’s future as well as its history and will be in use for generations to come.

In 1994, GSA established the Design Excellence Program in an effort to change the course of public architecture for the federal government. Since its inception, we’ve been engaging many of the country’s most skilled and innovative architects, designers, engineers, and artists on our building projects.

“The Design Excellence Program helps us design and build facilities that reflect the dignity, vigor and stability of our government while promoting high-quality contemporary designs,” said Regional Chief Architect Maria Ciprazo. “When people visit our buildings, they see a unique expression of design from a wide range of the country’s best designers, engineers and artists.”

The Design Excellence Program provides a foundation for the seamless integration of sustainability into GSA’s portfolio and sets the example for construction in the private sector. The process starts well before the buildings are even designed as Design Excellence mandates that site selections for projects should support effective sustainable design strategies. The program also ensures that prospective architects are selected based in large part on their commitment to sustainable design, as demonstrated through their past performance on design as well as their philosophy and design intent.

The Design Excellence Program has made great strides in simplifying our process for selecting architects and engineers for major projects and incorporates private sector peer reviews as a mechanism to provide feedback to the project architect/engineer. Once a design is complete, it’s presented to the Public Buildings Service Commissioner for final approval. This is truly an integrated process that relies greatly on close collaboration between GSA employees, our tenant agencies and private industry experts.

The program’s umbrella goes far beyond just new construction within GSA. It includes lease construction (build-to-suit), interior design, urban development, sustainability and Art in Architecture components.

Region 9 has a number of ongoing or recent new construction and build-to-suit lease projects that have benefited from the Design Excellence Program. Examples include the United States Courthouses in Yuma, Arizona; Bakersfield and Eureka, California; and the new FBI facilities in Honolulu, Phoenix, Tucson, and Sacramento, just to name a few.

Rendering of the John M. Roll United States Courthouse in Yuma, Arizona
Rendering of the John M. Roll United States Courthouse in Yuma, Arizona
Rendering of the main entrance to the John M. Roll United States Courthouse in Yuma, Arizona
The centerpiece of the courthouse is a solar panel canopy.

The John M. Roll U.S. Courthouse in Yuma, Arizona was awarded to Ehrlich Architects, in partnership with Sundt Construction, in November 2010 after they won a design-build competition sponsored by the GSA Design Excellence Program. The courthouse design reinterprets and updates the classical American courthouse while adapting to the Southern Arizona climate utilizing 21st century durable materials and energy efficient technologies.

The centerpiece of the courthouse – a large, solar panel canopy – brings the latest in innovative technology to the forefront. The panels will use the bright Arizona sun to generate one quarter of the building’s electrical demand and the shade they provide will shelter employees and visitors and create an open and accessible ambience. The design also features living walls, two dozen highly efficient, independently controlled air fans, and locally sourced Arizona sandstone. As the sandstone reflects the constancy and permanence of our legal system, the two-story glass lobby demonstrates its transparency and equality.

The program also seeks to include Design Excellence factors in each solicitation for larger scaled, turn-key or build-to-suit facility proposals. For projects under $50 million, the credentials of the lead designer, project team, and proposed design concept are all evaluated according to the key Design Excellence factors, and a member of GSA’s National Peer Program assists with the selection.

FBI Hawaii Regional Headquarters
This build-to-suit lease project was part of a comprehensive national program to consolidate FBI offices and improve overall agency collaboration and efficiency.

“The Design Excellence process emphasizes contemporary ideas and mandates such as energy efficiency, sustainability and the creation of a building that is an appropriate representation of the Federal Government within a highly public context,” said Supervisory Architect Keith Lew.

For example, the recently completed 155,000-square-foot FBI Hawaii Regional Headquarters is an energy-efficient building with many above standard features, many of which came out of the Design Excellence process. The architect’s contemporary design marries modern technology with the surrounding Hawaiian milieu and topography. The building includes exterior glazing that facilitates natural light reaching into the facility and reduces the need for artificial lighting and conserves energy. The facility also includes an exterior courtyard with a water feature where employees can decompress.

The process, in the case of the Eureka Courthouse, has resulted in a 17,162-square-foot, one-story lease facility design that houses a magistrate courtroom. With construction set to start in October 2013, the Region 9 Design Excellence coordinator Paul Andrade not only participated in the preparation of the source selection planning and evaluation, but also provided expertise with the courtroom mock-ups

“Developers and designers just seem to think differently when they know that design excellence is required in the process. They know that only the most effective design will be selected and that the competition bar has been raised,” said Don Douglass, Region 9’s Fine Arts Program Architect.

For more information about GSA’s Design Excellence Program, the agency has produced a video entitled GSA Design Excellence: Changing the Course of Federal Architecture. Watch the video on GSA's YouTube Channel >

Christi Chidester and Traci Madison contributed to this report.

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