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James Binkley, FAIA, and David Burney, FAIA, Honored with 2011 Thomas Jefferson Awards

Award recognizes design excellence in public and government

This year’s Thomas Jefferson Awards for Public Architecture honor two singularly unique practitioners who have had a vital and positive influence on architecture’s interaction with the public at large. The recipients—James Binkley, FAIA, a federal agency design leader, and David Burney, FAIA, a New York City municipal department commissioner—have all exemplified the architecture profession’s regenerative responsibility to improve the everyday lives of the public.

James Binkley, FAIA

Binkley is receiving a 2011 Thomas Jefferson award for his career as a public-sector architect who manages or produces quality design within his own agency.

Over the course of his long career in the federal government, Binkley has led three influential agencies in refining sustainability and design standards that have made the national government a leader in progressive, green design.

Binkley’s tenure with the federal government began in 1974 with the General Services Administration (GSA). There, he created a national design awards program that became a forerunner to today’s Design Excellence program, which has earned the GSA untold attention and renown for its commitment to sustainable and beautiful federal architecture. While at the GSA, Binkley also developed a post-occupancy building survey program to examine how government buildings perform once they’re completed, measuring their energy efficiency, productivity, and more. The program is still in use and has been adopted by both the Department of State and Department of Labor. It illustrates Binkley’s prescient understanding that only rigorous post-occupancy study can hold designers and their clients accountable to the aspirations of sustainable design. Binkley’s next federal post was at the Department of Energy (DOE), from 1978 until 1985. At the DOE, he led the development of a national energy standards program which became mandatory for all federal buildings. These energy standards are some of the most widely adopted in the nation, as nearly all state and local building codes use them.

Binkley recently ended his tenure at the U.S. Postal Service (USPS), where he was the agency’s senior architect. With this position, Binkley was responsible for changing the way the USPS hired architects and procured design services for its 29,000 buildings. After decades of uncreative and uninspired post office designs, Binkley was sure the agency could do better. With new sets of standards and procedures, he developed a design process based much more on firm qualifications and design excellence, and less on paying the lowest possible fees.

The results were regionally responsive and appropriate designs that set architects free to do their best work and created a new generation of postal facilities celebrated for their beauty and design savvy. Binkley took particular care in changing how the USPS builds large scale industrial post office sorting and shipping facilities, making them more energy efficient, productive, and sustainable. He also adopted cutting edge commercial retail design practices to increase customer service, satisfaction, and efficiency. Thanks to Binkley’s work, all new USPS construction and renovations must conform to LEED Silver certification, at an estimated saving of $90 million per year.

Since 1982 Binkley has been teaching classes on environmental design at the architecture school of Catholic University in Washington, D.C. He has also been an involved AIA member, serving as chair of the Public Architects Knowledge Community and the Committee on the Environment Knowledge Community.

“[Binkley] was a fervent advocate for public buildings being models of sustainable design,” wrote Bob Berkebile, FAIA, of BNIM, in a letter of recommendation. “This motivated his peers in other agencies to become more aggressive about sustainable design and [a] higher quality of design in general.”

David Burney, FAIA

Burney is receiving a 2011 Thomas Jefferson Award based on his career as a public official or other individual who by their role of advocacy have furthered the public’s awareness and/or appreciation of design excellence.

In the world capital of design, David Burney has tirelessly raised architecture standards and expectations for two major New York City government agencies. For the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA), the nation’s largest public housing agency, and the city’s Department of Design and Construction (DDC)--which is responsible for building all of the city’s municipal facilities-- Burney has continually raised the bar for design excellence, offering new resources for designers and new experiences of quality public architecture for city residents.

Burney began his career in private architectural practice, but in 1990 he became the director of design and capital improvement at the housing authority. While there, Burney re-oriented the agency’s design process away from the narrowly focused lowest-bidder budget constraints that had produced decades of grim, unsightly, and poorly functioning affordable housing. With Burney’s leadership, NYCHA focused on producing memorable, quality architecture. He established new processes and criteria for developer proposals and for architects’ designs. He also led programming research on how residents use their affordable housing units in order to make them more functional. While at the NYCHA, Burney oversaw the renovation and construction of 100 community centers, often attached to affordable housing developments. These centers of community engagement became beacons of support in some of the city’s poorest neighborhoods.

In 2004 Burney moved on to head the DDC, with a staff of 1,200 and an ongoing $5.7 billion capital investment program. This agency is responsible for building city facilities like libraries, courthouses, fire stations, and police precincts. Championed by his boss, Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Burney was tasked with executing the agency’s Design and Construction Excellence Initiative. Again, Burney was asked to raise the standards people had come to expect from public architecture, focusing on quality, not simply economical fees and low budgets. To accomplish this, Burney developed a new peer review process. He also dramatically increased the breadth and diversity of architecture firms hired by the city, paying special attention to small firms, and especially women and minority-owned companies.

The quality of the work both his agencies have produced is evidenced by the many design awards their buildings have earned. Also, Burney has helped produce several sets of influential design guideline reports. The “Active Design Guidelines” report (completed with the help of AIA New York), for example, advises architects on how to create spaces that encourage physical fitness.

A recommendation letter by AIA New York Executive Director Frederic Bell, FAIA, describes the DDC before Burney. “The agency was focused on issues such as speed of construction, reacting to political pressures driven by city council term limits, and short funding cycles,” he wrote. “There was not much attention given to the quality of what was being built. Architects were treated as contractors, not fully integrated into the culture of public works. David changed all that virtually overnight.”


James Binkley, FAIA. Image courtesy of the AIA Archives.


A USPS historic Georgetown lobby. Image courtesy of Joseph Romeo.


David Burney, FAIA. Image courtesy of David Burney.


The Active Design Guidelines report, completed with the help of AIA New York. Image courtesy of David Burney.


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Visit the AIA’s Honors and Awards Web site.


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