Institute Forum

Design Excellence Summary November 17, 2009

New York Urged to Promote Excellence in Public Building Design

New York State should implement an architectural design excellence program modeled after the federal government's.

For more:

Audio (Full)

Video of Brian Carter's presentation
Brian Carter's slide presentation

Video of John Egan's presentation

Video of Question-and-Answer session

Email a Friend

Bookmark and Share

Such was the contention of Brian Carter, professor and dean of the University at Buffalo School of Architecture and Planning, at the Rockefeller Institute's Nov. 17 public policy forum, “Design Excellence + New Civic Architecture in New York.”

Through its program, the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA) awards contracts for federal buildings to architects with “integrative designs” that consider factors such as operating costs, environmental and security concerns, and community development, said Carter. Such integrative architecture constitutes more than the “icing on the cake” when constructing buildings, he said, because it can help reduce expenses while promoting less tangible goals.

“If people live, work and play in a good environment, then they’ll perform to higher standards,” Carter said.

New York State Office of General Services Commissioner John C. Egan, who spoke primarily about the lessons learned from major projects he has overseen, said such a design excellence program in the state would be “doable,” but would require legislation.

Carter discussed three GSA projects built with different purposes in different regions of the country:

In New York, Egan said the state currently is concerned with sustainability and energy efficiency in new building projects. Current projects that Egan discussed included a laboratory for the state Department of Agriculture and Markets, a warehouse and pharmacy for state prisons, and a mental health unit for another state prison.

Egan also spoke about lessons from major projects including the Empire State Plaza, a vision of Gov. Nelson A. Rockefeller that was completed in 1978, and the Albany International Airport terminal, completed 20 years later.

The decision to build the 98.5-acre Empire State Plaza state office complex, including the acquisition of private property, happened “overnight,” Egan said, and a plan was in place 19 days later. “There’s no way we’d get away with this today,” Egan said of the project, explaining that it would likely meet opposition from neighborhood residents and other activists.

The largest challenge of the airport project, Egan said, was in building a new terminal while allowing air traffic to continue flowing. Project overseers took a risk in building a wing for Southwest Airlines before the Texas-based carrier agreed to operate in Albany, a move that worked and resulted in reduced travel fares.

Egan said he envied the work of architects.

“Architects are agents of change,” he said.

New York State Assembly member John J. McEneny, who sits on the board of a group working to build a convention center in Albany and was in attendance, said public buildings must reflect a concern for compatibility with nearby structures.

“The building should say something if it's a public building,” McEneny added. “It should be different from just another office building. There should be some kind of a statement there that says, 'This is America, this is California, this is San Francisco.'”


The Nelson A. Rockefeller Institute of Government, the public policy research arm of the State University of New York, conducts fiscal and programmatic research on American state and local governments. It works closely with federal, state, and local government agencies nationally and in New York, and draws on the State University’s rich intellectual resources and on networks of public policy academic experts throughout the country.