Hoping for Some Change

by Robert Nieminen

As the political campaign season shifts into high gear, and with our attention focused on government interiors and civic projects in this issue, it’s hard not to wonder how the November elections will affect the economy at large and, more specifically, the interior design industry.

Will a re-energized Obama administration continue to push its Better Buildings Initiative to make commercial buildings more efficient? What impact will the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA) really have on the healthcare industry and the design of hospitals?

Would a newly-elected Romney help bolster job growth through fiscally conservative measures, opening up markets for expansion and new construction?

Or will the next several years bear a striking resemblance to the past four regardless of who’s elected, with economic growth crawling along and unemployment continuing at record numbers, while politicians trade blame and promise to solve our domestic problems if only we elect them for another term? (Anyone else tired of the status quo in Washington, or is it just me?)

It’s hard to say how things will look after the election, but there are a few government-related questions for which we have sought out answers and present to you this month. First up is the question of compliance with the Trade Agreement Act (TAA). For designers working on federal General Services Administration (GSA) projects, ensuring that the products they specify are TAA compliant is critical—and missteps can be costly. Contributing writer Kylie Wroblaski spoke with designers who are familiar with the act and its (often confusing) regulatory stipulations, and brings us some tips on avoiding the most common compliance pitfalls.

Speaking of the GSA, its goal of reducing its current average space utilization rate of 247 rentable square feet (RSF) per person to about 156 RSF per person means that many lease actions will be subject to new and intensive space planning and utilization studies, as reported in this month’s IIDA Forum article. “The demand for space reduction and the mandate to do more with less will drive and reinforce continuous innovation in workplace design,” writes IIDA President James Williamson.

Further, Williamson cites four key factors that will influence the design of government workplaces in the future, and goes so far as to suggest that “today’s austerity in public institutions means more opportunity for design, not less.”

Unfortunately, it seems that—at least for the foreseeable future—these opportunities are going to come in smaller projects and renovations, reports Managing Editor Adam Moore in this month’s Trends column. As agencies opt to renew existing leases instead of embarking on capital-intensive building projects, designers will need to adapt to the new scope and pace of government work.

“Modern governments are navigating many of the same changes that have been affecting their commercial brethren: increasing real estate costs and a tech-empowered workforce are pushing agencies toward flexible and remote work environments,” Moore writes. “And just like other clients, governments need help adjusting to these new workplace realities. Designers who are willing to spend extra time in the due diligence and planning phases—and can remain patient as plans are revised or changed once again—will find themselves in demand,” he says.

Find out how your firm can survive the ups and downs of a leaner public sector with fewer opportunities for billing, and position itself for growth when the economy does finally come back to life, by reading this informative article.

In the meantime, you can be sure of one thing: designing institutional projects isn’t what it used to be. As Mark Roddy, AIA, principal and design director for SmithGroupJJR, told me in an interview for our featured photo essay on Chandler City Hall, the needs of government agencies aren’t that different from the private sector, echoing the sentiments expressed by other practitioners interviewed for Moore’s Trends piece.

“When you look at trends, what I’ve been seeing for the last 10-plus years is that municipalities and governments are really looking for flexible spaces,” he says. “They recognize the fact that things—even in their business—are changing very quickly.”

Whatever your political persuasion, we can all be thankful that bureaucrats are not the ones behind the wheel of the design industry (not directly anyway), because change does not come quickly to Washington, no matter how hopeful we are that it will.

My name is Robert Nieminen, and I approve this message.