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As someone who once worked at 300 North Los Angeles
Street, the GSA’s chief architect remembers the
hulking building’s rabbit-warren offices.
WRIT TEN BY
Susan S. Szenasy
Cause for Optimism
This year’s competition entries embraced
a mission larger than high-performance buildings.
Les Shepherd arrived at our offices in late
February, carrying a loose-leaf binder bursting
with the 78 entries to the 2011 Metropolis Next
Generation Design Competition (see page 100).
Asked why he went to the trouble of creating
the analog document, Shepherd said he was
building a sourcebook of ideas for the General
Services Administration. He had a broader
agenda than his fellow jurors, who were there
to identify the best, most thoughtful, and most
forward-thinking ideas. Joining Shepherd were
Michelle Addington, an architect and engineer;
Larry Scarpa, an architect; and Brian Collins,
a communications and experience designer.
As the four settled into our small conference
room on that Saturday morning, they identified
some highlights among the entries projected
on the screen: designing green walls, using
cloud computing to save energy, turning single-use government buildings into community
magnets, and encouraging responsible behavior
by occupants. It also became clear to everyone
in the room that this new generation of designers has a larger mission than simply creating
high-performance buildings. It’s also advocating using the built environment to give back
to and nurture the natural environment.
For Shepherd, chief architect at the GSA, the
agency’s 362 million square feet of energy-leaking office space, in more than 9,000 federal
properties, are never out of sight or out of mind.
But he also confessed to a personal interest in
the ideas crowding his sourcebook. As someone
who once worked at 300 North Los Angeles
Street, in the Civic Center neighborhood,
Shepherd remembers the hulking building’s
rabbit-warren offices, their lack of air and light
in bright and balmy L.A., and the gray feeling
of malaise the interiors produced. If good
memories can set us dreaming, bad memories
can propel us to action. That day Shepherd’s
usual reserve was overshadowed by the potential to right the wrongs he suffered in his old
office. The entrants in this competition had
a real client in the GSA’s chief architect, who
had a real institutional and personal agenda.
Here was the U.S. government asking for
design help. And young citizen-designers rose
to the occasion. They formed interdisciplinary
teams within big and small firms, called in
consultants, and recruited former students,
all in order to deal with the complex issues of
designing for “zero environmental impact,” the
challenge put forth by the competition. In the
process, they have given us a glimpse into 21st-
century practice, with its deep awareness of
environmental and social sustainability. These
designers are intuitive environmentalists,
natural collaborators, and experts at using all
the technological tools at hand, even as they’re
learning to understand nature’s processes.
Consider the winning team, which formed
around the Next Generation challenge at the
Washington, D.C., office of HOK, a firm known
for integrating biomimicry—nature’s processes—into its many projects. Here it’s helpful
to put the team members’ game-changing
contribution in context: A few years ago, the
youngest of them could expect to toil away as
CAD monkeys. Now they’re adding important
analysis to the firm’s body of knowledge, fine-tuning their own expertise, and claiming their
place among a new generation of problem
solvers. The HOK team took to heart the words
of the GSA administrator, Martha N. Johnson:
“Try new things, take risks, be bold. Use the
tools that we develop together. Find new
partners, and leave no stone unturned.”