Workplace Matters

As Chief Architect of the GSA, Leslie Shepherd controls a $12 billion construction budget. And his focus is on sustainability within office environments

In late November, the General Services Administration (GSA) named Leslie Shepherd, AIA, its new chief architect. Shepherd had been acting in the position since Edward Feiner, FAIA, retired as chief architect in January 2005. Feiner launched the Design Excellence Program and is credited with recruiting leading Modernist architects to design federal buildings. Shepherd has worked at the GSA for 18 years, most recently as director of the National Federal Buildings and Modernizations Program and deputy chief architect. He earned his B.Arch at Texas Tech University in 1983, and ran his own firm in Albuquerque before joining the agency in 1989.

In September, The Wall Street Journal had reported that Thomas Gordon Smith, AIA, a practitioner of classical architecture, would be named chief architect, which led to speculation that the GSA was moving away from Modernist buildings. The report turned out not to be true; however, at the time of Shepherd’s promotion, Smith was awarded a federal architectural fellowship that will see him provide advice and guidance to the GSA. The chief architect is influential: The GSA’s current design and construction work is valued at $12 billion, and it is said to be the nation’s biggest landlord, owning more property than any other entity. RECORD caught up with Shepherd to talk about his appointment.

How has the Design Excellence Program performed?

It’s attracted the best architects to do our work. Actually, 18 years ago, when I went to work for the GSA, we would get maybe seven or eight submittals when we put out a solicitation. Now, it’s not uncommon for us to get 50 submittals on a major project. We get submittals from the full gamut of the industry, and we really select the who’s who of American architecture to do our work. It’s been terrific.

That’s a direct result of the Design Excellence Program?

It really is. The Design Excellence Program focuses on the lead designer. Eighteen years ago, when we’d advertise a project and select a firm, we would often get handed off to the B-team or the C-team. We focus on the lead designer, we select the lead designer, and we expect that lead designer to be involved from the start through the finish—and they generally are. We don’t get handed off to the B-team, and Design Excellence has made that possible.

Where do you see the program going in the future?

Everything’s going to evolve in some way. Over the last year, we...focused on high-performing buildings. We’ve got to do a better job with energy performance. We have to deliver the projects on schedule, on budget. The bulk of our new set of peers—we just [picked] 110 new peers [for review panels]—were selected as leaders in the industry, specifically for high-performing buildings; people with sustainability backgrounds. We think that’s going to inform new buildings in the future.

There were rumors that Thomas Gordon Smith, who’s considered an advocate of classical architecture, was going to be appointed chief architect, which led to speculation that the GSA is moving away from Modernist architecture. Is there truth to that?

We’re looking for the program to include a full spectrum of designers, both Modernists and traditionalists. There are appropriate buildings for every place we build. Some of our newest peers are traditionalists, and we’ll use those peers to select the appropriate architect for the appropriate project.

Mr. Smith was awarded a fellowship. How will he work with the agency?

He and I and Tom Grooms, the director of Design Excellence, are just working that out, but we’re in the early stages of planning a symposium in the next few months to talk through those issues in a public forum. Thomas is going to be a great resource for us. It’ll be great to have Thomas look over the body of work and make sure that we are doing a full spectrum, and that we have a balanced approach in the way we deliver the program.

Are there other priority areas you plan to focus on?

Workplace matters, workplace environments—and that sort of goes along with sustainability. A building has to function and operate. It’s not just what it looks like, but how it makes the building’s occupants able to do their jobs better.

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