Trends in municipal architecture
An interview with American Institute of Architects President and CEO Randall Scott
Smaller public budgets, sustainable energy concerns and changing tastes in design all affect the look public buildings in the U.S. To find out how they’re changing the buildings going up in your city, The Municipal’s Phoebe Muthart asked several questions of Randall Scott of the AIA. Scott also owns Randall Scott Architects Inc., Dallas, Texas, putting up some of those new spaces.
What are the trends in the construction of public buildings?
- Municipal clients are having to make difficult short-term decisions about reducing the scope and cost of their projects due to reduced advalorem tax bases and sales tax income. Though some municipalities are experiencing a resurgence in tax income, they have not returned to pre-recession levels. As a result, they’re using lower quality building materials and constructing smaller facilities.
- One of the design elements we always try to provide in our projects is the ability of a building to expand in the future. Flexibility of use within the spaces inside the building is important as well. The inclusion of multipurpose or multi-use space is beneficial. For example, in the city halls we design, we often include a joint-use council chambers/municipal court space.
They have similar programmatic needs but very different schedules. Since the council chambers sits empty most of the day and is used primarily at night in most municipalities, the space is ideal for use by the municipal court during the day. The staff seating area to the side of the dais can double as the jury box and the press tables in front of the dais can serve as the attorney tables. The judge generally sits in the mayor’s chair.
General seating needs for the public are about the same for both functions. The space, if designed properly, can also be leased out for public gatherings and provide income. On the public safety facilities we have designed, clients are looking for opportunities for shared space (for) similar departmental needs.
One of our recent joint use police/fire designs employed shared space for their dispatch, lobby, public restrooms, training/community/EOC, locker rooms, showers and a fitness room between the police and fire departments. This is definitely a new trend caused by cost concerns since these two departments often do not play well together.
- Many municipalities are providing skate board parks and aquatics centers. These are risk management areas they would not have dreamed of 10 years ago or less.
- Open office systems furniture seems to continue to be of interest for space–conscious clients. Younger individuals can tolerate open plans more than baby boomers.
- Technology is extremely important in every facility we build. We always include additional conduits from the street and throughout the building for future technology that has not been developed yet. It’s cheap insurance. We believe the use of virtual avatars will be something that will come about in the future for council meetings.
- More and more municipal clients are concerned about tornado/ hurricane resistant structures and security within their facilities. Cameras are playing a bigger role in security and access control systems are virtually a requirement these days, too. And Kevlar bullet-resistant fabric in the dais and judge’s benches is the standard in today’s council chambers and courtrooms.
- ADA will force municipalities to provide additional accessibility improvements to existing buildings as well as new ones. The legislation now requires accessible routes to marinas and every type of sports venue available to the public. No exceptions!
Are there any shifts happening in the materials used, the sizes of the buildings or the aesthetic appearances of municipal buildings?
- Less expensive materials, such as stucco and more preengineered metal buildings with masonry veneers, are being incorporated especially for smaller cities than can’t afford traditional building construction.
Living within one’s means is absolute, but you get what you pay for. These less expensive building types are shorter-term solutions and don’t embue the pride and public confidence that older more substantive buildings do. They are pedestrian in nature and don’t give that sense of permanence that civic buildings need to provide.
One thing I have noticed over 25 years as a municipal and public architect that seems to ring true without exception is council, aldermen, board members or whatever the leadership entity is called have to be visionaries and they have to lead or the building design will suffer. It takes guts and sometimes there is a price to pay with voters, but without vision and enlightenment civic buildings like the landmark buildings in days past that still empower and breed confidence amongst us today are becoming pedestrian, uninspired structures. Civic buildings play an extremely important role in our lives whether the citizens who use them realize it or not. Great civic architecture plays a pivotal role in how visitors, developers and investors look at your city.
- One of the new materials we recently started using on our buildings, particularly for emergency operations centers and tornado/hurricane shelters, is insulated concrete forms or ICF. Made of modular Styrofoam with plastic connectors, this product is stacked as a form for poured-in-place concrete. When completed, ICF provides an R value of 54, meets FEMA requirements for projectile resistance and is well liked by contractors. It’s also a good sound-deadening material. Traditional drywall can be attached to the plastic connectors with drywall screws. Midrise-height buildings can be fabricated with it and the material has become very popular with hotel chains.
Is being “green” given heavy consideration in today’s
Larger municipalities are all generally requiring some level of Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design certification, usually LEED Silver at a minimum. We have not run into a municipal client yet that doesn’t “want to do the right thing.” However, given the current financial conditions of the economy, most are interested in doing what they can without spending any extra money. Many requirements are being changed in the building codes as we speak or have recently been implemented in the codes requiring more energy efficient buildings. Their first question, when we ask them about LEED or sustainable design being one the criteria is “How much more does it cost?” It does cost more — don’t let anyone tell you differently. But many of the items that are part of sustainable design have a decent return on investment and result in better indoor air quality, which makes employees happier.
Depending on the part of the country, smaller municipalities are not generally interested in LEED or in sustainable design — with the exception of Millennials and Gen-X staff. However, if you live on the west coast, particularly the northwestern United States, serious sustainable design is almost a given.
By Phoebe Muthart
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