Ensuring Quality in Buildings Despite Fewer Resources

George Hartman, Jr.

Hartman-Cox Architects

The dawn of the modern era, going back to the 17th century, was signaled by the unprecedented ability to see things independently of their context: easel painting, noncommissioned art, and the dilemma of styles are symptomatic of this. On architecture, Ada Louise Huxtable has written, ''It has become acceptable for a building to exist as an art object in itself rather than to be integrated, through its art, into the rich and complex life and use that makes architecture the strongest and most far-reaching art of all."

Attention to context is in fact vital in a major facility project: attention to physical context, design context, and the context given by the purpose and utility of the building. With an eye to these contextual elements, clear priorities can be drawn, so that the inevitable trade-offs yield an optimal solution, accommodating the needs of the builder, the owner, the user, and the public.

The observation that the capital cost of facilities is only 5 or 10 percent of their true fall cost is a case in point. The implications of that fact are striking: for example, if a 1 percent improvement in performance can be obtained by investing 10 percent more in construction, the return on that investment is an astonishing 100 percent. Yet we cannot measure that return. If we devised measures for this return, we would change the course of funding forever. It is a simple matter of context, which a narrow focus on first costs obscures.

I have pondered this question over the years in my service on design review boards, including those on landmarks and foreign buildings, and for the Commission of Fine Arts. Although these design review boards



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--> Ensuring Quality in Buildings Despite Fewer Resources George Hartman, Jr. Hartman-Cox Architects The dawn of the modern era, going back to the 17th century, was signaled by the unprecedented ability to see things independently of their context: easel painting, noncommissioned art, and the dilemma of styles are symptomatic of this. On architecture, Ada Louise Huxtable has written, ''It has become acceptable for a building to exist as an art object in itself rather than to be integrated, through its art, into the rich and complex life and use that makes architecture the strongest and most far-reaching art of all." Attention to context is in fact vital in a major facility project: attention to physical context, design context, and the context given by the purpose and utility of the building. With an eye to these contextual elements, clear priorities can be drawn, so that the inevitable trade-offs yield an optimal solution, accommodating the needs of the builder, the owner, the user, and the public. The observation that the capital cost of facilities is only 5 or 10 percent of their true fall cost is a case in point. The implications of that fact are striking: for example, if a 1 percent improvement in performance can be obtained by investing 10 percent more in construction, the return on that investment is an astonishing 100 percent. Yet we cannot measure that return. If we devised measures for this return, we would change the course of funding forever. It is a simple matter of context, which a narrow focus on first costs obscures. I have pondered this question over the years in my service on design review boards, including those on landmarks and foreign buildings, and for the Commission of Fine Arts. Although these design review boards

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--> are advisory, they are very effective and very good buys for government and other organizations that assemble them. Over the past 90 years, only two projects, to my knowledge, have been built in Washington, D.C., without approval by the Commission of Fine Arts. One—John Russell Pope's Jefferson Memorial—was built by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. The other, Washington Harbor in Georgetown, was the responsibility of a mayor of Washington. I love the optimism behind this conference: ''Ensuring Quality in an Era of Limited Resources. " Maintaining quality in any era is a great achievement, given the pressures on government projects, with the number of agencies involved in every decision, the proliferation of single-issue constituencies, and the growing complexity and specialization of programs. The courts and hospitals, backed up by the arrogance of their major representatives, have, at least in the case of hospitals, brought about the end of their construction. They became so expensive that no one could pay for them. Security standards at the State Department's Foreign Buildings Operations (FBO) approached the same impasse. Buildings were costing up to $1,000 a square foot because of this single-issue focus on security. The government, as a result, housed most of its representatives in buildings that were inadequately secure, because it could not afford buildings that were overly secure. Those standards have been reformed to some extent, but security concerns have prompted FBO to use standard designs and even prefabrication. The General Services Administration, for similar pragmatic reasons, tends to use design-build. The needs of the occupant and the representational functions of the building are thus sacrificed to secondary considerations. Review boards help bring projects into balance, especially in managing single-issue interests, by taking a comprehensive view, and insisting on context. Projects can be bedeviled by the failure of government and other builders and developers to set priorities. Clearly, some things are more important than others. Churches or capitols are more important than warehouses, blocks are more important than buildings, neighborhoods are more important than blocks, and cities are more important than neighborhoods. Projects that reflect an awareness of larger issues are simply more successful. Serving on the Commission of Fine Arts was easy, because every issue, every project, could be tested by the criterion of whether it

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--> reinforced the L'Enfant-McMillan master plans for the City of Washington, D.C. If it did not, one did not have to look at it. If it did, one could delve into it. Review boards are not easy to establish and use. They are unpopular with architects, who see them as impediments to artistic self-expression. For this reason, review boards are very hard to staff. Staffing these boards with academics is not the solution—however good they are at what do, they do not have the experience of designing buildings. These problems do not mean that we should not have review boards. They simply suggest that care is needed. Modern architecture was not a popular movement because it tended to ignore the urban context. Its big names—Frank Lloyd Wright, Mies van der Rohe, and Le Corbusier—were all anti-urban, and their work does not stress the relationships of buildings to the buildings surroundings. They gave the public 75 years of modern architecture, and the public responded with the greatest wave of architectural preservation in history. Modern architecture is still being taught in the schools, and it is still rather strongly oriented to the building as object. Not all architects have been oblivious to context. Paul Cret designed the Folger Theater, a very contextual building, which resolved an Elizabethan interior with an Art Deco exterior appropriate to the Capitol and Supreme Court. The National Academy of Sciences building is a very sympathetic one. But its architect, Bertram Goodhue, originally proposed a design in a much more personal style. Members of the Commission of Fine Arts took Goodhue aside and pointed out how it was supposed to fit in, and he responded with this quite wonderful building. (We hope to put an addition on it some day.) The Federal Triangle, being completed right now, is the work of at least a half dozen architects over 50 years; it is now being completed in the spirit of the original design. I am looking forward to a Federal Design Commission whose main responsibility would be to encourage good design in all federal buildings, much as the Commission of Fine Arts does for buildings in Washington, D.C. The obligation would be to help owners and architects produce good design. Like the Commission of Fine Arts, one of its important roles would be the obstruction of poor design. The real problem is the definition of "good design." It can't be legislated. You need good people who can

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--> respond to changing situations, to broaden the issues to community and urban concerns. As we do at the FBO, it is useful to analyze the projects, to recommend architects, and then to review the designs. The secret is to hold everybody—owners, architects, and special interests—to a higher standard. Senator James McMillan, author of the McMillan Plan for Washington, D.C., 100 years ago, said, "Nothing is too good for the United States. When a problem is to be solved, see that the most competent individuals in the country solve it. And then see that their advice is realized." I often paraphrase his words as, "Nothing is too good for government work."