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Robert Peck: A Perspective on Courthouses Today and Tomorrow
As Commissioner of Public Buildings for the General Services Administration (GSA), Robert Peck leads one of the largest real estate organizations in the world and is responsible for managing the federal government’s building portfolio, which includes federal courthouses. He returns to GSA after previously serving as the Commissioner of Public Buildings during the Clinton administration. He received his JD from Yale Law School and was a visiting Loeb Fellow at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design.
Q: You served as Commissioner of GSA’s Public Buildings Service once before—from 1995 to 2001. Have your work experiences in the intervening years changed your views of how GSA provides services? If so, how?
A: GSA today is not all that different from the organization that I left in 2001. We have things that we do terrifically, like architecture, and there are things we don’t do so well, which is leasing real estate from the private sector.
In the last four years, I was a private sector broker and real estate advisor. So I think I tuned up my skills on outside real estate. I learned a little bit more about project management and financing. I was a broker for GSA and so I got down in the weeds on GSA’s processes in different parts of the country, which was enlightening in many ways. We are taking a national look at our leasing process. As happens so often in government, there are rules that have grown up for which, at one time, there were good reasons, but as to which it has been awhile since anybody looked to see if they still make sense. For example, we tend to measure our space and rents in private buildings a little differently than the private sector does—and it creates a cost and procedural barrier between us and owners competing to lease space to us. That’s a long way of saying it is sometimes expensive for people on the outside to do business with the government, and much of that is not necessary.
Q: You’re a long-time supporter of excellence in courthouse design. You’re an attorney. Did you ever think about becoming an architect?
A: Yes, but I don’t have any talent. If you’re a mediocre attorney, you can probably get by without doing much damage in the world. But if you’re a mediocre architect your mistakes are out there for the entire world to see. But I think I’m a decent critic of architecture.
When I came to GSA the last time, the Design Excellence Program was just starting. That program happened for a couple of reasons, but not the least of which was that then-Judge Stephen Breyer and Judge Douglas Woodlock in Massachusetts went to GSA about the Boston courthouse and said they were going to hire a world class architect and do a good building. I think it taught GSA some lessons about how you hire good architects and how you manage them. It was one of those early projects that also taught us and the federal government that, if you build good federal buildings, communities like them. One federal judge, after we built a new courthouse in a major city, said that the attorneys even behaved better in his courtroom because it was a really nice space. It engendered more respect for the process, as it should.
Q: What are your thoughts on the impact of budget on form and function?
A: Back in the ‘70s, I worked in a program at the National Endowment for the Arts to try to get the government to do better design. We used to say good design doesn’t cost any more. You know, that’s not really true and we ought to own up to it. You don’t necessarily pay more—or very much more—for the architects, because design is such a small percentage of a building’s cost. But good architects design better buildings and we’ve learned, with some encouragement from judges, that a courthouse that is all precast concrete is quite honestly not going to be as good a design as a courthouse that has some real stone on it. Of course, if we’re doing a 20-story courthouse, it’s probably not going to be 20 stories of limestone. But having the lower stories of limestone is a heck of a lot better than meeting the ground with precast.
To build a nice courtroom with nice finishes, a decent jury assembly room—which is one of my passions and one shared by many judges—costs a little more than just slapping up drywall, but not so much more, not if we amortize our costs over the 200 years of the structure.
If you take a look at the cost per square foot allowance, on nearly all courthouses we can build a truly excellent courthouse within the budget benchmarks.
Q: Congress and the Administration are strong advocates of “green buildings.” How expensive is it to go green in a courthouse?
A: At the moment, it costs a little bit more in up-front costs. I don’t think that’s going to be true for very many more years. Here’s why. Right now, when we hire architects to do a green design, a lot of them have to hire a consultant to tell them how to make their design green. I think that, in five years or so, you’ll be able to hire an architect who designs green as part of their practice. Same thing with “green” technology and supplies. Right now GSA has a “green aisle” from which people can order products. But 5-10 years from now, I think if you go online to get, for example, copy paper, it will all be recycled paper.
Q: What does “going green” mean for federal courthouses?
A: That’s going to evolve too. Right now, it means that we might put photovoltaic cells on the roof, or use solar power to heat the hot water. We might put in different types of window glazing. There are all types of smart metering systems where you do very fancy things to make sure the energy loads in the building are carefully monitored.
But here’s where I think we’re going to go. We built a new federal building in San Francisco and it doesn’t have air conditioning, because in San Francisco it doesn’t get very cold, it doesn’t get very hot. The building didn’t need air conditioning, but it did need to have windows that opened to get air. I think we’ll start to see different shapes of buildings so that more natural light can get to interior spaces. I think we’ll start seeing some of that, which will change the kind of sites that we buy and the way we lay things out.
Q: Security is always a consideration in space occupied by courts. What are your views on security in federal buildings?
A: I’m the Commissioner of the Public Buildings Service, not the Fortress Building Service. Going back to the Middle Ages, the courthouse was a marketplace and a gathering place where magistrates met to decide cases. There’s this long tradition of all kinds of activity centering on the courthouse. That’s a tradition we don’t want to lose. It certainly means that, in the courthouse plaza, we could still have farmers’ markets. There are ways to make all of this work.
The other thing that we need to do on security is to recognize that there all kinds of threats, some bigger than others. I’m not sure that we’ve logically laid out what the real threats are to judges and U.S. Attorneys and jurors, and then defended against those threats, wherever they may be.
We can button up our public buildings as much as we want and find that there are still threats out there. It’s a judgment call that we need to make together about the extent to which we make our buildings secure, without making them inaccessible or foreboding.
Q: Many federal courthouse projects have been waiting for funding for several years. How does the current funding climate affect pending and future construction?
A: When I was here before, around 1996, we had an 8- to 10-year plan for the courthouse program with about 120 projects. We haven’t completed it. It’s probably a good idea to have an aggressive time schedule, but to recognize that it probably will get stretched out.
I have a concern, and I think that we all need to be alert to it: that because we’ve gotten Recovery Act funding, there will be people who, two years from now when we go for funding for our regular program, will ask, “What happened to all that Recovery money?” The answer is that Recovery funding was not, for the most part, meant for the courthouse construction program; those funds are for greening the inventory and creating jobs in the recession. I think we’re going to need to push hard to make that case.
Q: Budget cutbacks have affected all government agencies. The courts are concerned that there may not be sufficient GSA staff to adequately shepherd courthouse projects. What are your views on fees paid by courts to manage court projects?
A: I think we have sufficient staff. That doesn’t mean we always have the right person in the right place at the right time. I think the question alludes to cases in which people feel like the project managers either aren’t experienced enough to get the job done or that they’re really stretched. I think that our people work really hard, but the really good project managers—and we have some here who are as good as any I’ve seen on the outside—get the job done well. Some other people may need more training, some may need more seasoning, and we’re looking at ways we can make that work better.
Q: How would you characterize the current relationship between GSA and the federal courts?
A: I think we have a great relationship. I hope the courts have recognized that they no longer need to beat us over the head to do great buildings, because we’ve internalized the idea that building great courthouses is good for all of us. The people at GSA have embraced the courthouse construction program. It’s something we really love, and you’re a favored client. I think that from the top of the career staff at the AO, which includes Director Jim Duff and the Assistant Director for Facilities and Security, Ross Eisenman, I’ve never seen such a good relationship.
That’s important, because we have procedures we have to go by and we all have budget constraints. Here’s the thing: Judges are probably the toughest clients we have. I like that. Judges care about the buildings they’re in. They recognize how important the image of the building is and how much it contributes to how well they get their work done.
But, if I have a wish, it is for judges to recognize that many of our project managers and people at GSA have years and years of experience building large projects, and maybe, just maybe, they have a little more expertise in that area than the judges—which isn’t to say that judges shouldn’t weigh in with their opinions. But as my mentor, Senator Moynihan, used to say, “We’re all entitled to our opinions. We’re not entitled to our own set of facts.”