Alexandra Lange | Interviews

Casey Jones

Casey Jones. Photo: Noah Kalina from Architect magazine

Casey Jones was appointed director of design excellence and the arts for the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA) in July 2009. He oversees three interrelated programs: Art in Architecture, Fine Art and Design Excellence. The first two programs focus on individual works of art commissioned for and installed in federal buildings; the last in ensuring that new and renovated federal buildings are works of art in themselves. Jones’s job entails overseeing the peer review program and special initiatives that relate to the design quality of GSA projects.

Jones, who is trained as an architect, worked for the GSA for a number of years under former lead architect Ed Feiner, who founded the Design Excellence program in 1994. From 2005 to 2009 he was partner in Jones/Kroloff, an architect selection advisory firm, with Reed Kroloff, director of Cranbrook Academy of Art and Art Museum. Clients included the Broad Art Foundation and the Whitney Museum of Art, FIT and Yale University, as well as Friends of the High Line and Brad Pitt’s Global Green USA.

Current projects undergoing peer review at the GSA include federal courthouses in Bakersfield, California, and Billings, Montana, the new headquarters for the Department of Homeland Security in Washington, D.C., and a new FBI campus in San Juan, Puerto Rico, as well as modernizations of federal office buildings in Cleveland, Honolulu and Roanoke, Virginia.

Casey Jones spoke with Alexandra Lange on December 12, 2009.

Alexandra Lange
What have you been working on since you started your job as director of design excellence and the arts at the GSA in July?

Casey Jones
There are a tremendous number of projects in play at the moment because of the Recovery Act. GSA is tasked with spending $5.5 billion of the Recovery funds on improvements to existing federal properties and construction of federal properties that were already designed but on the shelf. We have been putting together peer reviews for that and also concept approval meetings.

The other thing we have been doing is trying to figure out, given the mandate from the White House to produce buildings that are high-performance green buildings, how to get more representation from the sustainability community into our peer process.

GSA has been doing sustainable projects for quite a while. Are there specific goals for sustainability the new projects have to reach?

The GSA was one of the first institutional clients to mandate that our buildings were at a minimum LEED Bronze, and then that was upgraded to Silver. We still have Silver as a minimum standard, but we are doing lots of things to try and exceed that. We are migrating to more of an integrated design method for the development of our projects, rather than putting all of the emphasis on the strength of the lead designer. In order to get a truly sustainable building you need to think about how all the systems are going to integrate and reinforce each other right from the beginning.

It is not only the design of the building but also stressing, in accordance with what the White House is calling for, that we locate them in downtown neighborhoods, close to transit centers. That buildings are integrated into their cities in a way that allows us to maximize benefit for everybody.

Is there an idea that everything needs to be close to public transport, or are there other ways to address that call from the White House?

A lot of what we are looking at today are renovations to existing buildings that were built in what I would describe as a less enlightened time relative to these issues. To try and create more welcoming plazas. To try and make them better neighbors to the fabric that exists around them. For new construction, perhaps locating on sites that cities are having a difficult time getting local development to move on or that fit within larger goals of how they want to develop.

One of the poster children, if you will, is a courthouse we are doing in Toledo where we have worked closely with a lot of other government entities, state and local, to try and position the new courthouse so that it ends up creating a civic center mall. That mall will be something that future development can be organized around, so that the city can maximize its downtown tenants and build a stronger core. The lead designer for that project is a guy named Mehrdad Yazdani who is at Cannon Design.

Is there an emblematic project in terms of renovations?

Edith Green–Wendell Wyatt Federal Building, Portland, OR. Design: SERA Architects and Howard S. Wright Co.

In Portland, Oregon, there is a project for the Edith Green–Wendell Wyatt Federal Building. That is one of those buildings you will know is sustainable when you walk by it. Often sustainable features are kind of tucked away, mechanical systems and so forth, but we are actually recladding the whole building to be a green façade. I think it will be a really provocative design. You couldn’t find a better location for it than Portland, which has been very aggressive in trying to create a more sustainable city.

Landscape architecture has been taking on a new role in the wider design profession, so it makes sense to me that that landscape architects would be incorporated into any sustainability initiative.

I completely agree. I am excited about that there is currently money set aside for us to do some demonstration landscapes that would be sustainable. We are in the process of deciding which buildings we can have the most effect on. There is the opportunity to show how landscape can take a leading role in integrating properties that, for one reason or another, aren’t working in context of their communities. That really is the direction in which urban design has been heading and it is a nice way of mediating between the architectural scale and the urban scale.

Why is the GSA doing more retrofit projects now? Is it because of the economy?

I don’t think it is because of the economy. A great thing about the Recovery Act is that it is allowing us to address deficiencies in our buildings that have been hard to fund in the past. It is sometimes much easier to get funding for a new construction project than for more mundane, smaller-scale improvements to existing properties. There was quite a backlog here at GSA of properties that we really wanted to modernize.

How has the economy affected the Design Excellence Program?

The growth in the private sector over the past five years meant that a lot of architects were pursuing private-sector projects. Now that the economy has reversed itself, we are seeing far more firms pursuing our projects. Where we used to have 20 or 30 firms pursuing a new construction project, we now have 80 or more firms. We have a broader range of designers to choose from, but it makes it much harder on the firms because the competition is much stiffer.

What skills did you learn from your private design consultancy, Jones/Kroloff, that you are now bringing back to the GSA?

Whether in private practice or here, my role is helping people who have an interest in design try to connect to it. In the private sector I had a large number of clients who in essence were trying to create their own Design Excellence programs, but they didn’t have a road map. When you deal with so many clients and a range of institutions, you very quickly begin to see what the critical components in the process are. First and foremost, it is selecting good firms. It is also working very closely with those firms, once they are on board, to ensure that the development of the design stays on track and that you get a balanced product. Design doesn’t end up getting sacrificed to budget or schedule, but budget or schedule don’t end up being sacrificed because of design.

Are there other new directives coming from this White House?

No, not really. Sixteen years ago when Design Excellence was being set up, it is fair to say that GSA was not a leader in developing new buildings. The program has garnered enough attention from the private sector and from the press that the government sees it as one of the things that works quite well. The dollars that are available may vary, but the Clinton, Bush and now Obama administrations have all been very supportive. This administration is very focused on strengthening American cities. It is very focused on high performance green buildings and sustainability. I think we were already headed there with our program. For now we are very well positioned.

Posted in: Architecture, Politics

Comments [16]

Thanks for the good read.
HFB Advertising

God save us from government design excellence czars! All the efficiency of the sluggish post office, all the wasteful clownishness of the U.S. Senate and all the aesthetics of the local Social Security office building....just give us airport security from underwear bombers!
Mark Andresen

To Mark Andresen: Maybe if the government spent more time improving design and efficiency and the visual aesthetics and functionality of its brand in 2D, 3D, and 4D and less time and billions of the budget spent on killing people all over the world; then perhaps underwear bombers would not focus on us.

Many of the truly excellent new institutional buildings in Europe are developed through an open competition system. Why not ask why Design Excellence is not advocating for a series of competitions to discover what that means? Not all projects, but a select few each year would be an interesting gauge of where design is and a catalog of where it has been.
Mark Gerwing

It seems that the GSA programs deals almost exclusively with architecture and fine art on display.
I wish that the government would focus more resources on its complex brand and identities and graphic design. Most of which is a mess and poorly solved.
It would be nice to see more diversity when the words design and government are together.
I am not trying to pit the professions against each other. For me, it is all *Design*. Would love to see the incredible diversity of the design world be brought to all of what might make the government better designed.
It just might be amazing if, say, an industrial designer, were brought on to lead, anything.
Do you have any experienced graphic designers involved with all of the work your office does? That is: not designing in/for your office (although that is good too) but rather offering expertise, advocacy, strategic thinking, etc. in the complex and broad field graphic design has become?
Also, how can graphic designers, design educators, and students participate in some of these projects? The non architectural design professions can bring a lot to the table at much lower cost than larger firms where graphic design is less the focus and more a sideline. Signage, way finding (EGD), brand and identity systems, LED and interactive information screens, web site design, information architecture, all printed matter, to name a few.

Skidmark: That's absurd. I never advocated global war in my comment, I said that government is not the best place designers should turn to for design innovation. They have other pressing issues like airport security, not airport design. Building our "brand" aesthetics will stop terrorism? I'm sure you don't quite mean that. What a shallow idea. Arguing politics is counterproductive.
Yes, there are GSA programs and they do yield showcase results , but real change comes from entrepreneurs and visionaries. When has the government ever been about efficiency?
Mark Andresen

To this outsider Mark Andresen's comments seem typical of a North American in regards to the role of Government. In most other places a democratically elected government, as an instrument of it's citizenry, would be welcome/expected to tackle issues that effect its citizens - but in the USA, the inefficient state is reluctantly admitted to limited unsavoury realms and the rest is the responsibility of benevolent rich white men. (Yes I know they're not mutually exclusive).

Mark's optimism regarding the efficiencies of free market 'entrepreneurs and visionaries' has survived where others have recently faltered.

Most Americans are probably unaware of how ideological their paranoid suspicions are. Anything not dealt with by the market is a slippery slope to Communism? (witness the health care debate).

Skidmark's comments about funding priorities aren't absurd at all. Do Americans sincerely believe the trillions spent on an aggressive conservative foreign policy agenda has made your country safer in the long term? If so, more visits to those airports would be instructive.

Mick has the last word.
Gong Szeto


No, Mike and his remarks DON'T have the last word, and probably neither will I. I have great respect for architects. This isn't about what can be accomplished. I don't have much respect for the CONCEPT of governmental "design excellence czars" or any other kinds of czars. So why all the blowhard?

Mr. Jones looks like a decent guy. (Now I'm certain my name is off any grant list) If something good comes of it, it'll be a surprise, since the idea of government efficiency seems to be an oxymoron. Prove it can produce something substantial and I'll gladly change my opinion.

But I do object to this simplistic (smug European) assumption that North Americans brainlessly advocate "aggressive conservative foreign policy" and fear some bogeyman of communism. Screw that.
Mark Andresen

The other thing we have been doing is trying to figure out, given the mandate from the White House to produce buildings that are high-performance green buildings, how to get more representation from the sustainability community into our peer process. Casey Jones

Transparency & the peer process
It would be helpful if Mr. Jones invited 305 LEED AP designers — chosen from 50 states to vote on the projects of the GSA. Each member would represent 1 million US citizens.

In the process, there would also be a blog to discuss new GSA projects and articles published by the architects and a website to show the results of each vote. The global community would be invited to review the process.

Thank you Alexandra for this post.
Carl W. Smith

To Mark Andresen and others: (nice coinage, not sure it fits with any government administrative levels in any country!!) design excellence within government agencies are mostly act as guardian angels of authority and stiff upper-lip guideline keepers to the nation! Follow the rules, kill the design attitude!

weather it is design for post office, public toilet or public trash box administrative design is far away from excellence in anywhere in the world and the authoritative hangover kills the design most of the time.

i have not heard about a 'pearl fisher' but have seen lots of 'pearl crushers' in government sectors!

but Casey Jones may be one of those 'pearl fishers' and goodluck to him.


Yes, UMD, perhaps it doesn't fit. My recollection of government architecture, last time I remember, was FEMA trailers in Louisiana. Pardon my bitterness. Maybe Mr. Casey can give me a job, I'm unemployed and ready for something new....

here's a quote to remember:

"Change will not come if we wait for some other person or some other time. We are the ones we've been waiting for. We are the change that we seek."
- Barack Obama, 2008
Mark Andresen

The man has a title. Director of Design Excellence. I think referring to Mr. Jones as a czar does him and his position a disservice.

As far as the public vs. private sector debate goes, there may indeed be awful public buildings, systems and organizations created, and managed by federal, state and local governments, but there are at least an equal number of awful buildings, products, and brands designed, built and run by private industry.

Even when the government funds, develops, and manages projects, the so-called free market profits because it is contracted to design and build all of those good for nothing roads, bridges, airport way finding systems and government buildings.
Mark Kaufman


Mr Jones , I have a Design Proposal for you.
A Park-Roof for the CRC Mega-Bridge on-going here in Portland. It pays for itself by eliminating storm water treatment facilities , goes a good ways towards the Carbon Footprint of the bridge and will be the world's finest Sculpture Park.
bill badrick

Can I add to the debate albeit a little late?

I don't think there is anything essentially wrong with a government that wishes to embrace better design, but I just don't buy it. There is a reason that government ventures are fraught with inefficiency, ugliness and waste. There is simply no motive to eliminate them. If USPS (DOT/SS/Medicaid etc etc) were private corporations, they would be bankrupt. But since they publicly funded, there is no need for them become profitable, reduce waste, IMPROVE DESIGN, etc. since their funds will keep coming regardless. Target bounced back from near bankruptcy by embracing beautiful and functional design. So did Apple. Why would the Post Office ever feel the need to do that? If we look back at the great innovations of the past century, most (all?) came from private innovators, thinkers, and businesses who were motivated for personal (as opposed to government-induced) reasons.
Heather Christine

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