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The Three Biggest Myths about Federal Building Design

The late Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Hon. AIA, once said that “architecture is inescapably a political art.” Throughout history, societies have used architecture as a statement of their values.

The federal government is no exception. Uncle Sam owns and leases millions of square feet of buildings across the country and around the world, from courthouses and military barracks to border stations and embassies. No matter their size or location, they share one important trait: they are brick-and-mortar symbols of the United States.

Representing architects before the federal government is the reason the AIA moved its headquarters to Washington a century ago. Today, the AIA works to ensure architects have a voice in the debate over federal architecture, from the rules regarding energy standards to the ways in which architectural services are procured. Often, that means playing the role of educator, explaining to policymakers and the public what architects really do, and dispelling a few myths along the way.

Here are a few of the most common myths:

    Myth 1. Design is about making buildings pretty. Nobody disputes that aesthetics are an important goal of the design process. But simply looking at a building’s façade, or its color, obscures the reality that design is about achieving multiple goals simultaneously: ensuring occupants are safe and secure, making the structure accessible, creating productive workspaces, using resources as efficiently as possible, and perhaps most importantly when talking about public buildings, ensuring a good return on the taxpayer’s investment. Colors matter, but design, unlike beauty, is more than skin deep.

    A related misconception is that architects only care about the way buildings look. That would come as a big surprise to anybody who’s sat through the Architecture Registration Exam, or taken hours upon hours of continuing education, as architects do in order  to ensure they are up to date on the latest building codes and standards. Beyond simple appearances, architects learn what materials are the most durable, what designs hold up to the elements, and that what works in the humid tropics won’t last in the chilly north.

    Myth 2. Design costs more, and takes longer. Government buildings are complex structures that are intended to last for decades or more. Small investments in time and money at the outset yield better results down the road. Part of the problem comes from the federal budget process, which emphasizes initial costs over the lifecycle costs of a building. Imagine if prospective homeowners couldn’t take out mortgages, and instead had to pay in cash. Since that’s essentially what the federal government does, policymakers are motivated to find the lowest initial cost, rather than the total taxpayer cost of the building.

    Myth 3. The government simply can’t afford to build extravagant buildings. Tell that to Abraham Lincoln, who in the darkest days of the Civil War was said to have drawn inspiration from seeing the Capitol dome rise above Washington. Was the dome cost-effective or practical? Perhaps not, but its value is priceless. These days, high performance building features like super-efficient HVAC, lighting and electrical equipment, 21st century building operation systems, and state-of-the-art security tools often drive the cost of construction. These systems aren’t extravagant, but necessary to ensure the health and safety of occupants, which ultimately is a building’s most fundamental goal.

Every day architects and their fellow design and construction professionals work hard to deliver structures that are cost-effective, accessible, efficient, and safe. Federal buildings represent the nation, and serve as symbols of America at home and abroad. They will stand long after we’re gone. The role of the architect is to make sure they are done right.

 

Back to AIArchitect June 13, 2014

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