As a peer-review architect for the U.S. General Services Administration’s Design Excellence Program, Karen Bausman of Karen Bausman + Associates is enthusiastic about public work. “From my perspective, the barrier between public architecture and all other architecture is closing,” she said. “Public architecture is now at the forefront of developing the design ideas that will fulfill our 21st-century needs.” The New York–based architect has herself plunged into the public realm, designing two projects at Ferry Point Park in the South Bronx for the Department of Parks and Recreation.
Her views may sound a little too optimistic to some. Over the past several decades, the legacy of public architecture has been such that municipally released Requests for Proposals have more likely caused design firms to hide their heads in despair than jump at the chance. Known primarily for modest budgets, Byzantine bureaucratic proceedings, and poor construction quality, the public realm has remained the domain of the ideologically dedicated—or of large firms looking to burnish their public image after profiting handsomely from private developer jobs.
But that trend, in New York City at least, is changing fast. The number of architects of all stripes competing for public contracts (involving nearly 100 projects per year) has more than doubled in the last five years. With private developer work about as plentiful as the saber tooth tiger, billions of dollars are set to flow into the public realm. Part of this tectonic shift can also be attributed to Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg’s Design and Construction Excellence Initiative (DCE), which has turned what was once the ugly stepchild of the profession into a hot date.
Bloomberg first announced DCE in 2004, along with the 22nd annual Art Commission Awards for Excellence in Design, which recognized eight city projects that exemplified the highest design standards, including Polshek Partnership’s entrance pavilion at the Brooklyn Museum of Art. The purpose of DCE, the mayor stated, was “to expand our city’s pre-eminence as the design capital of the world,” by encouraging city agencies “to strive for the same level of excellence in design for all public works—large and small—that is recognized annually by the Art Commission’s Awards.” While DCE is a citywide initiative, the Department of Design and Construction (DDC), headed by Commissioner David J. Burney, was placed in charge of spearheading it. The Parks Department, which manages its own design and construction projects, also took an active role. The first step was to revamp the city’s method of procuring design services.
Since time out of mind, public architecture projects have been awarded based on one driving factor: the lowest bid. This has proven an effective method for politicians wishing to exhibit their thrifty application of taxpayer dollars, but for obvious reasons, hasn’t always attracted the best architects or resulted in the finest work. DDC turned the tables on this method by removing price competition as the prime motivator in procurement, instituting a quality-based selection process. “I think that the perception, for better or worse, was that the city had a tendency to focus on schedule and budget. One measures those and defends the taxpayer’s dollar, and quality takes a back seat,” Burney told AN. “The idea was to reinstate quality in the minds of every project manager. We now have a series of initiatives to make that happen.”
DDC developed two new methods of procurement, streamlining the RFP process to attract the right architect to the right project and to allow a greater range of firms the opportunity of winning public commissions. (Not all designers have marketing departments at the ready to fill out 90-page competition forms.) The first method is for large projects of $25 million or more, such as the Brooklyn House of Detention or the new Police Academy to be built in Queens. In this method, two-stage RFPs are issued for each project. During the first stage, a committee that includes at least one outside professional peer evaluates respondents and ranks them based on their sub-consultants, the education and experience of their project team, and their design record. The top firms are then invited to submit detailed proposals during stage two. At the conclusion of the second stage, the city begins fee negotiations with the highest technically ranked firm. “The DDC’s new selection process guarantees a level of attention to architecture,” explained Todd Schliemann, a partner at Polshek Partnership Architects, which has completed countless projects for New York City. “It wasn’t so long ago that they insisted on practicality over design.”
COURTESY Kiss + Cathcart
The second method, for projects of less than $25 million, involves the selection of a panel of consultants who become the city’s go-to architects for projects in this budget range. As with the first stage of the RFP process in method one, architects are invited to apply to be on the panel and are evaluated based on their relevant experience and the quality of their portfolio. Firms that are selected are awarded 24-month on-call contracts with the city and are given the option of submitting proposals to projects as they become available. To keep the submission process fair and distribute the work evenly to large and small firms, this category is further subdivided into projects of less than $10 million and projects of $10 to $25 million. In the less-than-$10 million range, which thus far has accounted for approximately 50 projects every year, the city selects a panel of 24 small firms (defined as having ten or fewer employees) for each contract period. These have included firms like Andrew Berman Architect, Lyn Rice Architects, and Toshiko Mori. The remainder of the work, in the $10 to $25 million range, is offered to a panel of eight larger firms, such as Polshek Partnership, Smith-Miller + Hawkinson Architects, and Grimshaw.
“For each project that becomes available, the DDC issues an RFP to the 24 firms,” said Adam Marcus of Marble Fairbanks, which has been included in the DDC’s $10 million-and-under on-call list since 2005. “We usually submit proposals for each one, but it’s not required.” The firm’s diligence has paid off, and it currently has four projects under DCE: a cultural center and a fire station on Staten Island, an arts center in the Bronx, and a library in Queens. “DDC is very involved throughout the process. Their input usually is helpful and they’re right about a lot of things. There’s definitely additional work dealing with the bureaucracy, but in general it’s been pretty good and we’ve found their reviewers easy to work with.”
This method of procurement, along with the completion of a string of high-profile public projects including the Bronx Museum of the Arts by Arquitectonica, the Brooklyn Children’s Museum by Rafael Viñoly, and the Queens Botanical Garden by BKSK Architects, has had the effect that Bloomberg desired, and an increasing number of firms are showing interest in city work. In 2005, when the first round of contracts was issued, the DDC received applications from 178 firms. In 2007, the second round of contracts, DDC received 237 applications—a 33 percent increase. A similar increase in applications is expected when the next round of RFPs goes out late this summer, and the competition will be all the more fierce as the city expects to complete less work as a result of the faltering economy. “This round, we’re only going to issue on-call contracts to 20 firms,” said Burney. “We have less work now, due to budget cuts.”
The news is not all bleak, and there is still ample hope for high-design architects to find satisfying work in a city that values design. The Parks Department, the only other city agency that issues its own series of on-call contracts using the same methods as the DDC, has a $3 billion budget to spend on capital improvements over the next ten years. The first generation of Parks DCE projects is now going into construction, including the Bushwick Inlet Community Center by Kiss + Cathcart Architects, the McCarren Park Pool renovation by Rogers Marvel, and the Union Square Comfort Station by ARO. The agency is actually increasing the number of architects it will hire from six firms to eight. In addition, Parks also issues eight contracts to landscape architecture firms. RFPs for Parks’ latest round of contracts were due at the end of February, and while official numbers were not released as of press time, the number of applications has nearly doubled from the last count of 115 submissions.
The fact that New York City values design and has implemented strategies to increase its weight as a factor in public works is heartening, but the question that must be on the minds of many architects right now is whether pursuing these jobs can keep them afloat. While the city’s process of finding architects has changed, its fee structure has not. The city has a sliding fee curve—based on percentage of overall construction cost—that is derived from a combination of previous contracts for the same services, adjusted for inflation, and information from a New York State analysis of contract fees. The lower the construction cost, the higher the percentage the fee accounts for. For example, a $100,000 project offers a 15.13 percent design fee, or $15,129. A $25 million project, on the other hand, offers a 6.08 percent design fee, or $1,520,375.
Without doing a detailed economic analysis of architecture firms, their fees, and their profit margins, it seems that this pay structure is more beneficial to the smaller fish in the architecture pool. Speaking about his firm’s extensive public work for New York, Schliemann said, “I’m not going to tell you that we make a great deal of money, but it’s a great contribution to the city.” On the other hand, city commissions account for approximately one third of Marble Fairbanks’ work.
DCE is an admirable addition to the administration of New York City, but it is just one part of a greater initiative to make this town a better designed, more egalitarian, and more sustainable place. The city’s overall 2030 strategy also includes requirements for green design and a degree of diversity among those hired to complete public work. “What has been very satisfying to me,” said Bausman, “is that my voice is listened to and I have an opportunity to help re-imagine the city. The city is celebrating its 400th anniversary this year. It’s great to finally have a seat at the table.”