News
03.19.2012
Peer Pressure
General Services Administration may limit peer review in Design Excellence program.
The U. S. Port of Entry in Warroad, Minnesota by Julie Snow Architects won a GSA Design Award in 2010.
Paul Crosby

Since the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA), which oversees the federal government’s multibillion dollar building program, launched its Design Excellence program in 1994, the quality of new federal buildings has improved significantly.

Of course Design Excellence is not perfect, but it stresses creative proposals and talented architects and streamlines architect and engineer hiring. Perhaps the most vital part of the initiative, peer review—in which a list of top architects from across the country help advise on and even help select architects—has been put into doubt by new federal guidelines.

Currently private sector architects, or “peers,” make up one of five voting members on technical evaluation panels that help select architects for Design Excellence projects. During design and construction review, three-person architecture peer panels provide design critiques.

Last October the Office of Federal Procurement Policy issued Policy Letter 11-01, addressing the issue of ending guidance of “the performance of inherently governmental and critical functions.” The letter stresses a determination on “when governmental outsourcing of services is, and is not, appropriate.” Such outsourcing could include consultants, private contractors, or, in the case of Design Excellence, private sector professionals.

So GSA is examining whether peer voting for architecture projects selection is “in keeping with the regulations and the policy,” said Frank Giblin, who works in the office of GSA’s chief architect. The decision would not affect design/build projects, nor would it impact the peer panels that provide design critiques during projects (these architects only play an advisory role).

The agency’s goal, said Giblin in mid-March, “would be to have things clarified before it becomes an issue on the next selection of an architectural firm—about six weeks from now. The result, he said, could mean that “current architecture/engineering procurement processes are unaffected.” Of course the decision could also mean the end of a vital component of peer review, which the AIA, for one, sees as a huge mistake.

In an email to AN, Andrew Goldberg, AIA’s managing director of government relations, wrote, “Peer review is a central component of GSA’s Design Excellence program. It ensures that federal facilities are designed and built to the highest standards, safeguarding the taxpayers’ investment in government facilities. At a time when federal policymakers are striving to lower energy costs, make federal buildings safer and more accessible, and represent the best in American design, it would make no sense to eliminate or scale back the [peer review] program.”

Giblin himself doesn’t disagree. “The peers,” he said, “have helped to raise the bar on the quality of federal design.” But that doesn’t guarantee they’ll remain part of the process. Now it’s a waiting game to see what verdict the bureaucracy delivers.

Sam Lubell