Q and A with Stephen T. Ayers: July/August 2010
By Garry Boulard
In a unanimous vote in May, Stephen T. Ayers was confirmed by the U.S. Senate as the 11th Architect of the Capitol, overseeing a 2,600-person staff that is responsible for not only the Capitol itself but some 450 acres of Capitol grounds.
Serving as the acting architect since 2007, Ayers has spearheaded a move to improve energy efficiency throughout the sprawling Capitol complex, which includes the use of sustainable design practices.
A benchmark of his term as acting architect was the completion of the three-level Capitol Visitor Center at an estimated cost of more than $620 million. Groundbreaking on that center was in 2000, but construction didn’t begin until not until 2002.
The center has been praised as a necessary addition for a Capitol that daily hosts hundreds of staff, lobbyists, journalists and tourists. Others have criticized the cost of the project, which was ultimately more than double the original estimate.
Ayers has also overseen construction of the 415,000 square-foot National Audio Visual Conservation Center and has dedicated himself to making the AOC office more effective through the strengthening of a comprehensive 5-year Strategic Plan. He spoke with State Legislatures about the challenges of working on historic government buildings.
State Legislatures: What sort of issues, in terms of either new construction or renovation or maintenance, is your office currently involved with?
Stephen T. Ayers: We have a couple of big things in front of us. One, of course and most important, is working to effectively manage our backlog of deferred maintenance and capitol renewal. Our backlog is well over $1 billion at this point. While we all recognize that having some level of backlog is OK, I think the challenge before us is effectively managing that backlog and not letting it overcome us by having to close a building or a portion of a building—that would be unsustainable here.
We are just about a year and a half into the opening of our new Capitol Visitor Center, a 580,000 square-foot addition to the Capitol building. We are still working on it and continuing to break-in that facility. We also have some very significant statutory energy reduction goals that we need to meet in the next several years.
And last, we have a whole building renewal for the Cannon House Office Building, dating back from 1908, that we are in the early stages of planning for and will likely executive in the next 5 to 7 or 8 years.
SL: Would these projects fall under what your office calls the Strategic Plan?
Ayers: We have a couple of plans. Certainly we have a Strategic Plan that guides our day-to-day operation. And that Strategic Plan focuses on all of our day-to-day operations, our management issues, our financial issues. It is mission-driven and fairly high-level.
And then accompanying that five-year strategic plan is a performance plan that maps out exactly how we are going to implement, and who is going to implement, and when over the course of those five years, we are going to implement the objectives for the goals that are mapped out in the Strategic Plan. So the Strategic Plan is kind of a business management framework.
On top of that we have, from a physical infrastructure part, the Capitol Complex Master Plan that plans out the facility needs for the Congress over the next 20 years. We are nearly finished with that and are close to producing that document. But essentially we have the plan for the next 20 years of major capital investments laid out for the Congress.
SL: Legislators at the state level have discovered that it is expensive to do renovation projects to their capitols and that sometimes in a tough economy those projects are not popular. How does the funding for your ongoing projects work at the U.S. Capitol?
Ayers: It is vitally important that facility managers and those that are responsible for the infrastructure really develop partnerships with their legislature, or in my case with the Congress, and work from these issues to effectively do collaboration. That is something that I think is really important.
Secondly, it’s important for me or other facility managers to take the long view of things. Sometimes politicians don’t have the longer view, they may be in office for a fairly short period of time. But it is really my job to take a five-year look, and a 10-year look and a 20-year look down the road.
In terms of year-to-year funding, we have worked very hard to get the level of year-to-year maintenance money that we need to invest in our buildings to stave off and preserve total building renovations as long as possible. And I think we have been really successful in that.
And I think that is the key—developing that partnership and convincing the legislators, or the Congress in my case, that making the year-to-year investments is far less painful and far more cost-effective than something much larger down the road.
SL: In terms of those appropriations, what sort of a budget are you dealing with?
Ayers: I manage 16 ½ million square feet for the Congress. And our annual budget is about $600 million. We have a staff of 2,600 employees and grounds encompassing about 450 acres.
I recall recently reading a couple of documents from the Federal Facilities Council, which recommends reinvesting 2 to 4 percent of your plant value on an annual basis. We don’t quite invest that much. We may invest 1 percent of our plant value. But it is an interesting marker out there that the Federal Facilities Council does recommend.
SL: Some state legislators say that one of the best things that can happen in terms of trying to sell a renovation project is to have as many people visit the statehouse as possible because it is an inspiring experience. Does the extraordinary number of Americans who visit the U.S. Capitol help your cause?
Ayers: We certainly do see that sense of emotional connection with the people and emotional connection with the Congress. The Capitol building is our symbol of representative democracy. It is such an iconic building. If you turn on the news anywhere in the world for 5 minutes, you are likely to see a live picture of the Capitol building.
I think the Congress understands and the American people understand the need to reinvest in our infrastructure on an ongoing basis.
SL: Do you see any particular projects going on at the state level that you like or particularly impresses you?
Ayers: We’re here on Capitol Hill, and I plead the 5th.
SL: The reason I bring it up is that some renovation projects, such as in New York, have been going on for years, while others—such as in Idaho—were completed quickly. How do you make a renovation project work when you know you are looking at a big price tag and people aren’t in a good mood because of the economy?
Ayers: If you look at the Texas State House—my office looked at that renovation and that visitors center there very carefully, as we were modeling the visitor’s center here at the Capitol. I recently came back from a partnering meeting with the Canadians in Ottowa, and they are facing some really daunting challenges on Parliament Hill there, not unlike many other state capitols.
For me, specifically, there are a couple of keys to success on large-scale renovation projects. First and foremost, you have to do a great job upfront at defining the scope of a project so that you can effectively commit to a number to your people and to your legislators and stick to that number.
That also means rejecting changes along the way.
Second, the key to doing a renovation project swiftly and with the least expenditure is effective swing space. Nobody wants to move out of a building. Nobody wants to be inconvenienced. But when building managers try to work nights and weekends and work around the schedules of legislators it certainly increases costs. So if you can move people out into swing space and get in with your construction crews, work effectively and then get out and move people back in, clearly that is the most effective model to do so.
And the last point is back to my first point: You have to have partnerships with your legislators, on in my case, the Congress. Because if you wind up fighting each other in the end, it is not going to be a successful project.