The Ultimate Insider
GSA veteran Les Shepherd is making interiors a focus
Laura Fisher Kaiser -- Interior Design, 10/1/2009 12:00:00 AM
The Design Excellence Award—winning San Francisco Federal Building by Morphosis; photo by Taylor Lednum. A rendering by Williams Rawn Associates, Architects, for the U.S. Courthouse in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, a project expedited after 2008 floods damaged the old one; courtesy of Doegoe.
Since its inception in 1994, the U.S. General Services Administration's Design Excellence program has been the single greatest boon to federal architecture. At least for exteriors. For the most part, interiors have been, shall we say, less of a priority.
"We're interested in improving the quality of the federal workplace not just in terms of energy efficiency but also through things like better lighting, comfort, and functionality," GSA chief architect Les Shepherd says. At June's NeoCon fair in Chicago, he signed a formal partnership with the IIDA, encouraging collaboration with affiliated professionals. The agreement is part of a larger initiative to give interiors their due.
A rendering of the U.S. Coast Guard's Washington headquarters to be built by Perkins + Will; courtesy of StudioAMD.
Shepherd is simultaneously elevating the role of the GSA's own interior designers, 40 spread across 11 regions. In one office, that meant transferring a "terrific talent," he says, to design and construction after a long exile in procurement. For all locations, that means encouraging the team to keep current on trends and issues by becoming more active in the IIDA. Perhaps most important, he's bringing interior designers into the GSA's private-sector peer review process during concept development—in response to a Design Excellence jury citing interiors as an area in need of improvement. The agency is furthermore requiring architectural engineers to have an in-house interiors staff or to partner with an appropriate firm.
Shepherd recently named Dianne Juba, who'd worked in GSA regional offices in Philadelphia and Chicago, to fill the new position of program manager for interiors. She's tasked with drafting design standards for every GSA property that's been built or modernized in the past five years, then providing a reference manual of paint chips, other finish samples, carpet swatches, and photos of fittings and fixtures to building managers. That's intended to prevent them from improvising when the time eventually comes to freshen up. In the meantime, there's the inevitable problem of employees feeling a little too at home in their space, so Shepherd has embarked on what he calls an "HGTV-style" video series demonstrating such low-cost, high-impact strategies as de-cluttering and depersonalizing.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration in Silver Spring, Maryland, by RTKL Associates with KlingStubbins; photo by Paul Warchol.
As a child in San Angelo, Texas, Shepherd dreamed of being an artist—until seventh grade, when he realized that architecture would allow him to combine his creative and math skills. He joined the GSA's San Franscisco office in 1988 and later served for seven years under Edward Feiner, the creator of the Design Excellence program. When Shepherd succeeded Feiner in 2005, construction costs were escalating, and the GSA, like private developers, was struggling to bring in projects on budget.
What a difference a recession makes. Not only are contract bids coming in lower, but the GSA has also received $5.5 billion in American Recovery and Reinvestment Act funds. An ARRA executive, Bill Guerin, is overseeing the distribution of the money to promote eco-friendliness in new construction and renovations, the latter to include furniture, lighting, and flooring. (More than 500 of the agency's 1,500 properties are mid-century.) The first $1 billion has led to the green-lighting of 120 office buildings, courthouses, border stations, and the like, some of which had been stalled for years. "That's how we had so many shovel-ready projects," Shepherd explains.
Sol LeWitt's mural at the U.S. Courthouse in Springfield, Massachusetts, by Moshe Safdie and Associates; photo by Taylor Lednum.
To make it easier for emerging talent to go after GSA work, the agency has streamlined its proposal process. "All you need is a design philosophy, one to two pages; past performance; firms you've worked with. It's no longer something like this," he says, holding up a bulging 3-inch binder. Julie Snow Architects, which won a 2008 Design Excellence Award, is building a Minnesota border station with cedar cladding that references the local logging industry. Studio Gang Architects has just been selected to design a courthouse in Anniston, Alabama.
In Washington, the GSA's own 1914 headquarters, getting refreshed over the next five years by Shalom Baranes Associates, will serve as a guinea pig. Shepherd hopes to retain the operable windows despite federal blast-resistance requirements. But he can hardly wait to trade his rattling old air conditioner for central AC and timer-automated shades.
Mack Scogin Merrill Elam Architects's rendering for the U.S. Courthouse in Austin, Texas, courtesy of Mack Scogin Merrill Elam Architects.
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