Edie Cohen -- Interior Design, 9/1/2010 2:48:00 PM
What prompts an architect practicing in London to cross the pond and trade his drawing board for meetings and management?What prompts an architect practicing in London to cross the pond and trade his drawing board for meetings and management? David Burney joined New York's Davis, Brody & Associates to try his hand at a pitch for the Hudson River Piers redevelopment. "I fell in love with the city. Now I've got the wife, the kids, the dog, and the mortgage, all in Brooklyn," he says. After Davis, Brody, where he worked on the Samuel B. and David Rose Building at Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, he moved to the New York Housing Authority, where he was director of design and capital improvement when Mayor Michael Bloomberg was elected. Burney picks up the narrative: "Bloomberg found me through Nat Leventhal, who had been president of Lincoln Center and was on the mayor's transition team. I serve at the pleasure of the man."
Burney's agency, the New York City Department of Design and Construction, oversees the building and renovation of civic facilities in all five boroughs. That means police, fire, and EMS stations, courthouses, senior centers, libraries, museums, and theaters. Infrastructure is included; schools and housing are not. All this entails managing a portfolio of $6.5 billion and a personnel count of 1,100, among them interior designers, architects, engineers, and administrators. On a municipal scale, the DDC is analogous to the U.S. General Services Administration. "We're a professional project-management agency," he explains. "We have no political agenda."
Priority number one when Mayor Bloomberg appointed Burney was his indefatigable quest for excellence. No longer does the A&D community deem city commissions jobs of accommodation. Instead, A-list firms large and small are hungry for these plums. So how did Burney up the city's game to the level of Grimshaw, UNStudio, and Work Architecture Company? He started by reaching out to the AIA, letting it be known that commissions would be granted through "quality-based selection." No bidding wars. No assumptions that larger firms with more experience were necessarily right for the job.
Here's how it works. Essentially, Burney and the DDC operate on a request-for-proposals basis, tied to size. For projects under $15 million, only firms with a staff of 10 or less can submit a mini proposal. Burney then establishes a pool of 20 contenders. As projects come up, he matches them with firms. "It's like a dating agency followed by a marriage counselor," he says. For jobs with budgets up to $25 million, his pool is eight larger firms. Think Steven Holl Architects, Selldorf Architects, Snøhetta. For projects over $25 million, the DDC puts out an independent procurement or RFP. A case in point is the $1.5 billion New York City Police Department Academy, slated for a 35-acre site in College Point, Queens. That commission went to Perkins + Will.
Need more proof positive of the attraction between the DDC and top-tier designers? "During our last RFP, we had 239 entries," he reports-then returns to his favorite topic. "We're looking to get design back on an equal footing with time and budget." However, while scheduling and finances are measurable, evaluating design is another story. Peer review helps. So does a matrix he modeled after a Royal Institute of British Architects initiative. This "design quality indicator" considers such factors as engineering construction. Sustainability is essential as well. Every project must shoot for a minimum of LEED Silver certification. The DDC has even published a green-building reference book funded partly by the Design Trust for Public Space.
Ultimately, he questions: "Is this the best we can do?" Formal recognition of "the best" public projects comes via the annual Awards for Excellence in Design. For 2009, the 11 members of the city's Design Commission weighed in, choosing 13 winners including the Kew Gardens Hills Branch Library by Work AC and the Marine Company 9 firehouse by Sage and Coombe Architects. Burney is now busy readying this year's projects to go before the Design Commission. But ask him what he does on a typical day at the office, and you'll get a terse reply: "Mostly I answer phones." Talk about understatement.