Architect of Capitol Sets Sights on Renovations

Posted May 26, 2010 at 6:41pm

Ten years ago, the Architect of the Capitol was absorbed in the construction of the Capitol Visitor Center, the largest-ever expansion to the Capitol.

But as Stephen Ayers begins his 10-year term heading the agency, he faces a far less glamorous task: ensuring that Congress’ existing buildings don’t collapse upon themselves.

In a recent interview, Ayers outlined ambitious plans to renovate the Capitol complex, decrease Congress’ energy consumption and improve his employees’ benefits. But he’ll have to juggle those goals with the daily responsibility of maintaining a Congressional campus that has become steadily larger in the past few years.

In 2005, the AOC was responsible for 15 million square feet of facilities and 300 acres of grounds. But several new buildings — including the addition of the CVC — have increased the agency’s load to 16.5 million square feet of facilities and 450 acres of grounds.

Furthermore, as the AOC’s workload has expanded, Congress’ buildings have deteriorated. Some buildings suffer from serious leaks and cracks; the estimate for renovating just the Cannon House Office Building is close to $800 million. In the next few years, workers also will have to begin the time-consuming task of refurbishing the Capitol Dome.

But Ayers seemed undaunted by the task, despite a $1 billion maintenance backlog and a Congress that hates to spend money on its own facilities.

“When we speak of these things to our Appropriations committees and our oversight committees, they really listen to us,” he said. “So I really haven’t gotten a great deal of resistance on talking about longer-term, multiyear things. I really haven’t seen a whole lot of resistance in that regard.”

Ayers has been at the helm of the AOC for three years, serving as the acting Architect after then-Architect Alan Hantman retired. He started shortly before the CVC opened, amid criticism that the facility was hundreds of millions of dollars over budget and years behind schedule. But Ayers has been able to keep a relatively low profile throughout, slowly gaining the confidence of both Republican and Democratic Members.

After a much-delayed selection process, the White House nominated Ayers to be the permanent Architect this year, and the Senate confirmed his appointment earlier this month.

The decision practically assures him a 10-year term, ostensibly handing him more authority and more leverage. But Ayers said he has never tempered his behavior; his “style,” he said, is “to do the best possible job I can, keep my head down and work hard.”

“I made a conscious decision when I become the acting Architect that I’m going to go forth with this position as if that word ‘acting’ wasn’t there,” he said. “I didn’t let it hinder me in any way, and in fact, I never felt hindered by the Congress or anyone else.”

Indeed, Ayers has accomplished much since he became the acting Architect. He has begun plans for renovating Cannon, enlisted private companies to invest in energy efficiency projects and enacted several in-house employee benefit programs, such as telecommuting.

Still, Ayers has kept himself under the radar, granting few interviews and adopting a much more reserved tone than his predecessor. But he still has to make difficult requests, urging Members every year to invest hundreds of millions of dollars in maintaining Congressional buildings. He’s also partly responsible for meeting federal goals of energy efficiency, which require tens of millions of dollars in investments. Prioritizing which responsibility is more important — and which funding to request — can be difficult.

But in the past year, Ayers has found one way around that Catch-22. Under his direction, the AOC has signed three Energy Savings Performance Contracts, in which a private company pays the upfront cost of renovations. In return, the agency pays back the investment (plus interest) from the energy savings realized. So far, private companies have pledged to pay $93 million in energy upgrades to House and Senate buildings and the Capitol.

Ayers said he is also constantly looking for cheaper upgrades that will make Congressional buildings more sustainable. One example: a $30 upgrade to the air handlers that is saving 16.5 million gallons of water annually. Congress, he said, needs to make such updates to its historic buildings to be more energy efficient — and in the process, he said, the AOC can “lead the industry” in finding the best ways to do that.

“You hear much talk about sustainability with new buildings and new construction, but our existing building stock represents probably 50 or 60 percent of the energy consumption,” he said. “I think we can really pave the way on how to do that — how to implement cutting-edge sustainability practices in existing historic buildings.”