GSA wants to cast wider net for federal building architects

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Before it can hire contractors to build or renovate federal buildings, the General Services Administration’s Public Buildings Service has to engage architects. Over the years, some of the world’s top architects have designed federal buildings. Now GSA wants to ensure diversity in its roster of architects. It’s inked a memorandum of understanding with the National Organization of...

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Best listening experience is on Chrome, Firefox or Safari. Subscribe to Federal Drive’s daily audio interviews on Apple Podcasts or PodcastOne.

Before it can hire contractors to build or renovate federal buildings, the General Services Administration’s Public Buildings Service has to engage architects. Over the years, some of the world’s top architects have designed federal buildings. Now GSA wants to ensure diversity in its roster of architects. It’s inked a memorandum of understanding with the National Organization of Minority Architects. For more, the Commissioner of the Public Buildings Service Nina Albert spoke to the Federal Drive with Tom Temin.

Interview transcript:

Tom Temin: Ms. Albert, good to have you back.

Nina Albert: Thanks for having me, Tom, I always appreciate talking to you, as well as your listeners.

Tom Temin: And tell us more about the process of buying and contracting for architecture. It’s totally different than from construction and renovation. Because there is the, I guess the aesthetic element here that people sometimes take for granted.

Nina Albert: Well, as you know, or your listeners may know, the GSA is one of the significant landholding agencies within the federal government. We manage 1,300 federal buildings, which we own. Thirty percent of those buildings are historic facilities, which is quite remarkable. And we continue to build or renovate. And all of that activity requires designers, engineers, and then as you said the general contractors who actually build come a little bit later in the process. So we’ll go out, architects are involved in the development process, very, very early on. They’ll work with us on feasibility studies, really trying to scope the size of the building, how does it fit into a site. And then of course, as we pull the trigger and know that we’re going to move forward with a project, then they will be doing the design. And they’re responsible for the exterior of the building, they’re responsible for the interior of the building, and equally important in our world is making sure that our federal buildings as they interface and interact with space and community around us really ties in to the essence of the community. So they play an incredibly important role in development.

Tom Temin: And how does the selection work? Because again, it’s the appearance of the building and the interior environment that people are going to live with for the next 50 years. So it’s not something like making sure the concrete is to spec.

Nina Albert: That’s true. I think that the process for hiring architects is actually not so different from the process of hiring any other contractor. The difference is what particular qualities are you looking for? So we’ll put out an RFP. Firms will bid. We’re looking for qualifications, have they done projects that are similar to the one that we’re proposing? Who’s their team, because that’s really who you’re working with for probably a number of years? Are they qualified or do they have the time? And then obviously, what’s their price? So all of those things we evaluate and look at, and ultimately make a decision on.

Tom Temin: And tell us then about this agreement, this memorandum of understanding with the Minority Architects. I guess that puts GSA as a member of the National Association of Minority Architects?

Nina Albert: Well, I just want to say I’m so pleased that you even thought to highlight this as one of the stories that you’re doing, because diversity, equity inclusion and accessibility is one of the Biden-Harris administration’s priorities. And we believe that the GSA can play a huge role in advancing some of those goals. So the commercial real estate field and industry is not particularly representative and diverse. And so across all different groups of people and underrepresented populations in the workforce, we’re trying to reach out to. The National Organization of Minority Architects is the largest organization of underrepresented people who are professional architects. They have 2,500 members. And so they’re a great connection point for us. The MOU is really a three-part MOU. One is about education and sharing, being a part of their programs, participating so that we can learn and be better employers. Another piece of it is an internship pathway, and how can GSA benefit from the relationship and ourselves hire young architects? And then the third is really education about federal government contracting? And how can architecture firms who are owned by people of color understand the selection process and get into the pipeline? So it’s a three-part MOU, and we just launched it in February of this year.

Tom Temin: We’re speaking with Nina Albert, she’s commissioner of the Public Buildings Service at the General Services Administration. And you touched on one thing I think, is really important. Maybe you can elaborate on the fact that it’s sometimes not so easy for the uninitiated, to do business with the federal government. In fact, it can seem like the most difficult thing in the whole process, let alone designing the building. So are there provisions to help ease that without removing any of the competitive qualities that you need in the actual architect?

Nina Albert: We are looking, GSA as you plays a major role in government procurement. And so we are looking across the board at how to streamline, simplify and make much more accessible federal contracting opportunities. The smaller businesses, the more complicated it becomes for them to compete in large part because of the time that it might take or the expertise that you must have to have developed to compete effectively. And so we’re looking writ large and holistically at how to make the experience and the procurement process easier to access. We’re also making significant efforts to reach out to the small business community. And so our Office of Small and Disadvantaged Business Utilization has a program, again for doing that proactive outreach, get folks into the pipeline early, educate them on what our process is so that ultimately when they do compete, they can be more successful. So this is again, part of our contribution. And frankly, we believe it’s our mandate to make sure that federal government contracts are more readily and easily available.

Tom Temin: And how does internships fit into this whole picture, because that’s a different relationship with the person?

Nina Albert: We have a pretty amazing internship program. It’s called GSA’s Pathway Program. It’s an entry point for students from high school to graduate level, to have paid internships at GSA. That’s pretty extraordinary. So there’s three separate programs within it. The first one is recent graduates program. Another one is the Presidential Management Fellows Program. And then third is the internship program, which is the largest of the three. So folks can go on to GSA’s website, look for the internship program, or any of the other ones and apply. And the great part about it is that it is paid, which so many students need right now. And it also equals the playing field for folks who may come from underrepresented communities, and where that paid internship really becomes even more significant. But that applies to everybody, as we know.

Tom Temin: Sure. And just getting back to the acquisition end of this, give us a sense of how much architecture GSA buys, because people tend to think of architects in terms of here’s a new building, but brand new greenfield buildings are relatively rare compared to all of the other work that goes on. So where does architecture fit in besides brand new buildings?

Nina Albert: Architecture fits into even our repair and alteration schedules. That’s what’s great about really getting in and having a contract with us is that if you’re a smaller firm, we do what we call tenant outfits. So you know, moving office buildings within an existing building. That you need an architect for, if you’re going to change where the walls are, if you’re going to change how many people are in a space, that requires an architect to go do calculations, figure out if there’s more air that needs to circulate through the space, etc, etc. So we have projects large and small, all of which require architects. GSA has a significant new construction as well as repair and alteration program annually. I believe that we expend anywhere from $2 billion to $4 billion a year. This is across the country. So there are opportunities really across the country. And then with the bipartisan infrastructure law, we have $3.4 billion to invest in modernized land ports of entry on both our northern and southern borders. We will need architects for all of that work. So there are ample opportunity and we really looking forward to working even more with our architecture community.

Tom Temin: Nina Albert is commissioner of the Public Buildings Service at the General Services Administration. Thanks so much for joining me.

Nina Albert: Thank you so much for having me.

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