Casey Jones was appointed director of design excellence and the arts for the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA) in July 2009. He oversees three interrelated programs: Art in Architecture, Fine Art and Design Excellence. The first two programs focus on individual works of art commissioned for and installed in federal buildings; the last in ensuring that new and renovated federal buildings are works of art in themselves. Jones’s job entails overseeing the peer review program and special initiatives that relate to the design quality of GSA projects.Jones, who is trained as an architect, worked for the GSA for a number of years under former lead architect Ed Feiner, who founded the Design Excellence program in 1994. From 2005 to 2009 he was partner in Jones/Kroloff, an architect selection advisory firm, with Reed Kroloff, director of Cranbrook Academy of Art and Art Museum. Clients included the Broad Art Foundation and the Whitney Museum of Art, FIT and Yale University, as well as Friends of the High Line and Brad Pitt’s Global Green USA. Current projects undergoing peer review at the GSA include federal courthouses in Bakersfield, California, and Billings, Montana, the new headquarters for the Department of Homeland Security in Washington, D.C., and a new FBI campus in San Juan, Puerto Rico, as well as modernizations of federal office buildings in Cleveland, Honolulu and Roanoke, Virginia.Casey Jones spoke with Alexandra Lange on December 12, 2009.Alexandra Lange
What have you been working on since you started your job as director of design excellence and the arts at the GSA in July? Casey Jones
There are a tremendous number of projects in play at the moment because of the Recovery Act
. GSA is tasked with spending $5.5 billion of the Recovery funds on improvements to existing federal properties and construction of federal properties that were already designed but on the shelf. We have been putting together peer reviews for that and also concept approval meetings.
The other thing we have been doing is trying to figure out, given the mandate from the White House to produce buildings that are high-performance green buildings, how to get more representation from the sustainability community into our peer process. Lange
GSA has been doing sustainable projects for quite a while. Are there specific goals for sustainability the new projects have to reach?Jones
The GSA was one of the first institutional clients to mandate that our buildings were at a minimum LEED Bronze, and then that was upgraded to Silver. We still have Silver as a minimum standard, but we are doing lots of things to try and exceed that. We are migrating to more of an integrated design method for the development of our projects, rather than putting all of the emphasis on the strength of the lead designer. In order to get a truly sustainable building you need to think about how all the systems are going to integrate and reinforce each other right from the beginning.
It is not only the design of the building but also stressing, in accordance with what the White House is calling for, that we locate them in downtown neighborhoods, close to transit centers. That buildings are integrated into their cities in a way that allows us to maximize benefit for everybody.Lange
Is there an idea that everything needs to be close to public transport, or are there other ways to address that call from the White House?Jones
A lot of what we are looking at today are renovations to existing buildings that were built in what I would describe as a less enlightened time relative to these issues. To try and create more welcoming plazas. To try and make them better neighbors to the fabric that exists around them. For new construction, perhaps locating on sites that cities are having a difficult time getting local development to move on or that fit within larger goals of how they want to develop.
One of the poster children, if you will, is a courthouse we are doing in Toledo where we have worked closely with a lot of other government entities, state and local, to try and position the new courthouse so that it ends up creating a civic center mall. That mall will be something that future development can be organized around, so that the city can maximize its downtown tenants and build a stronger core. The lead designer for that project is a guy named Mehrdad Yazdani who is at Cannon Design
Is there an emblematic project in terms of renovations?Edith Green–Wendell Wyatt Federal Building, Portland, OR. Design: SERA Architects and Howard S. Wright Co.Jones
In Portland, Oregon, there is a project for the Edith Green–Wendell Wyatt Federal Building. That is one of those buildings you will know is sustainable when you walk by it. Often sustainable features are kind of tucked away, mechanical systems and so forth, but we are actually recladding the whole building to be a green façade. I think it will be a really provocative design. You couldn’t find a better location for it than Portland, which has been very aggressive in trying to create a more sustainable city.Lange
Landscape architecture has been taking on a new role in the wider design profession, so it makes sense to me that that landscape architects would be incorporated into any sustainability initiative.Jones
I completely agree. I am excited about that there is currently money set aside for us to do some demonstration landscapes that would be sustainable. We are in the process of deciding which buildings we can have the most effect on. There is the opportunity to show how landscape can take a leading role in integrating properties that, for one reason or another, aren’t working in context of their communities. That really is the direction in which urban design has been heading and it is a nice way of mediating between the architectural scale and the urban scale.
Why is the GSA doing more retrofit projects now? Is it because of the economy?
I don’t think it is because of the economy. A great thing about the Recovery Act is that it is allowing us to address deficiencies in our buildings that have been hard to fund in the past. It is sometimes much easier to get funding for a new construction project than for more mundane, smaller-scale improvements to existing properties. There was quite a backlog here at GSA of properties that we really wanted to modernize.
How has the economy affected the Design Excellence Program?
The growth in the private sector over the past five years meant that a lot of architects were pursuing private-sector projects. Now that the economy has reversed itself, we are seeing far more firms pursuing our projects. Where we used to have 20 or 30 firms pursuing a new construction project, we now have 80 or more firms. We have a broader range of designers to choose from, but it makes it much harder on the firms because the competition is much stiffer.
What skills did you learn from your private design consultancy, Jones/Kroloff, that you are now bringing back to the GSA?
Whether in private practice or here, my role is helping people who have an interest in design try to connect to it. In the private sector I had a large number of clients who in essence were trying to create their own Design Excellence programs, but they didn’t have a road map. When you deal with so many clients and a range of institutions, you very quickly begin to see what the critical components in the process are. First and foremost, it is selecting good firms. It is also working very closely with those firms, once they are on board, to ensure that the development of the design stays on track and that you get a balanced product. Design doesn’t end up getting sacrificed to budget or schedule, but budget or schedule don’t end up being sacrificed because of design.
Are there other new directives coming from this White House?
No, not really. Sixteen years ago when Design Excellence was being set up, it is fair to say that GSA was not a leader in developing new buildings. The program has garnered enough attention from the private sector and from the press that the government sees it as one of the things that works quite well. The dollars that are available may vary, but the Clinton, Bush and now Obama administrations have all been very supportive. This administration is very focused on strengthening American cities. It is very focused on high performance green buildings and sustainability. I think we were already headed there with our program. For now we are very well positioned.