AIA Critical of Architect Search Process

Posted May 14, 2007 at 6:41pm

As a Congressional commission continues its search for the next Architect of the Capitol, a group that considers itself “the voice of the architectural profession” is speaking up about what it sees as a “shortsighted” process.

The search panel is placing management experience as a top priority in the selection of potential candidates, according to Congressional sources, but officials at the American Institute of Architects are worried such a focus could lead to someone other than a licensed architect being chosen to serve as the next AOC.

“We’ve heard that their No. 1 criteria is someone with managerial experience, regardless of what their other professional expertise is,” said Paul Mendelsohn, AIA vice president of government and community relations.

In the AIA’s ongoing dialogue with the commission, the group has become “gravely concerned that they are making a … possibly disastrous decisions that could have far-reaching consequences and create unrealistic expectations about the candidate.”

He added that the AIA is concerned that “those who don’t have the same type of training that an architect does may be strong in the managerial perspective but may cause some grave problems when it comes to the other aspects of the job that we feel are quite frankly more important.”

The last time there was a vacancy in the AOC post, in the late 1990s, Congress consulted the AIA. The 150-year-old group, which represents more than 80,000 American architects, helped develop the final list of nominees who interviewed for the post. This time around, the AIA already has forwarded a list of four architects to the commission for its consideration.

The next Architect will be only the second to be selected under a 1989 statute that not only established a 10-year term for the post but also laid out a search-and-nomination procedure in which a bipartisan, bicameral commission of Congressional leaders forwards three names to the president, who then appoints one of the finalists, subject to Senate confirmation.

The Senate Rules and Administration Committee is tasked with heading up the pre-screening process and the panel has brought aboard national search firm Heidrick & Struggles to help narrow the field of candidates.

“A nationwide search is under way to find candidates to become the next Architect of the Capitol,” Rules Staff Director Howard Gantman said Monday. “It is no secret that the Architect’s office has had serious managerial problems over the years — just look at two high-profile issues: The cost of the Capitol Visitor Center has ballooned and completion has been repeatedly delayed, and serious health and safety issues in the Capitol Power Plant utility tunnels were ignored, leading the Office of Compliance to file an unprecedented Compliant against the Architect of the Capitol.”

Gantman noted that the Government Accountability Office has issued numerous reports over the past several years outlining serious problems in the management of the AOC.

“Clearly a major criterion in selecting candidates must be extensive managerial experience and the ability to come in and turn the organization around,” Gantman said.

One GAO report released in late February noted that too much turnover in high-level positions was hurting the AOC. That report also said the process of finding a permanent replacement for former Architect Alan Hantman is “in the early stages” and could take more than a year.

In the meantime, acting Architect Stephen Ayers is leading the agency. He has indicated that he is not seeking the 10-year appointment.

While leaders are looking for a manager, the AIA’s Mendelsohn said that the body of work the next Architect of the Capitol is going to undertake “will be significant and will have far-reaching implications that go well beyond their management abilities. So we think there are aspects of the job that should be given greater consideration.”

Mendelsohn pointed out that the next 10 years will include the possible restructuring and addition to the House office building plan and a new initiative to reduce the environmental impact of the Capitol complex.

“They are talking about very technical issues, so it’s important from our perspective and I believe from the public’s perspective to ensure that the individual who is going to be making the decisions that affect the sustainability, the design, the security aspects of all of those buildings has an understanding of how design works so we don’t fall back to what we had a few years ago in this city where we have people throwing up jersey barriers all over the place,” Mendelsohn said.

A spokeswoman for Sen. Bob Bennett (R-Utah), the ranking member of the Rules panel, said her boss recently met with AIA officials and “he shared with them that he’s committed to finding the right person that’s capable of meeting the responsibilities of the [AOC] position. … There’s lots of different responsibilities that this position holds and the Senator is committed to finding the right person that can perform all of those responsibilities.”

Mendelsohn said that Congress’ issues with Hantman — who was endorsed by the AIA in 1997 but not as the organization’s top candidate for the post — were more personality conflicts than performance.

“A lot of it had to do with his personal style of managing and not his experience,” Mendelsohn said. “I think that there are a number of architects out there who have the level of management experience as well as the ability to work with people that would more than fill the position and would address many of the concerns.”

He noted that all the architects who the AIA submitted to the commission in the ongoing search have strong management backgrounds.

Before Hantman stepped down from the AOC post in February, he told Roll Call that the job of the AOC “clearly is more than just blueprints.”

“We are facilities managers,” he said. “When I think about the individual who will come in, I think it has to be somebody who has a real sense of stewardship, a sense of history in the place and pride in the place, and a sense of what facilities management is all about. They would have to understand that we are here to serve the Congress and allow them to do their jobs the way they need to do them and each Member may have a different perspective on that. So flexibility needs to be there.”