United We Stand

We’re gathered on the exhibition floor of the Baltimore Convention Center, where NeoCon East, the annual trade show of contract furnishings, camps out for two days every autumn. The audience fills the lecture area with people from design practices of all sizes. A large group of designers employed by the government is also on hand, joined by eager manufacturers looking for customers. Everyone here, in fact, is looking for new opportunities after a year of elusive commissions.

We find encouragement in what we hear. According to government officials, this is “a pivotal time,” “a new day for government design,” a unique moment when designers’ training as problem solvers presents an “opportunity to make a huge difference” in the quality of life of 1.8 million federal employees. There is much talk of the Obama administration’s economic-stimulus package, especially the $5.5 billion allocated to the General Services Administration (GSA), which is responsible for 1,500 government-owned buildings and 8,000 leased properties, including 110 child-care centers in 31 states; and the $7.4 billion given to the Department of Defense, which is dealing with base reconfigurations and other massive projects.

These agencies are working toward upgrading and redesigning federal workplaces, housing, hospitals, courthouses, and more. To accomplish all of this quickly, they need the talents of architects, interior designers, and landscape architects. But navigating the alphabet soup of government bureaucracies requires a special understanding of complex documents, not a skill that is second nature to many small and medium-size firms. Here, however, there’s good news: 51 percent of government jobs go to small firms (including minority- and women-owned employers of people with disabilities), which are encouraged to team up with large firms used to navigating the huge federal labyrinth.

Collaboration is definitely in the air. And it’s reinforced by Executive Order 13514, signed by President Obama earlier in the month to “establish an integrated strategy towards sustainability in the Federal Government and to make reduction of greenhouse gas emissions a priority for Federal agencies.” The order details the need to design, construct, and renovate buildings that eliminate waste, protect water supplies, and prevent pollution, and it holds each agency responsible for documenting and disclosing the economic and social benefits that result from their efforts. The 15-page document (you can read it at Whitehouse.gov) encourages agencies to work together on such issues as greenhouse-gas accounting and reporting. This executive order surely belongs to a family of past visionary directives, including Harry Truman’s mandate to integrate the armed forces, that lead to positive changes in culture and behavior.

Asking people to work together is also at the heart of a new accord, signed by the GSA with the American Institute of Architects, the American Society of Landscape Architects, and the International Interior Design Association, all of which have pledged to collaborate to achieve design excellence, starting with 300 new projects funded by the American people’s tax dollars. This is a good time to recall the words of a Revolutionary War song: “United we stand, divided we fall.”

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