Building for Permanence

Stephen T. Ayers

An Interview with Stephen T. Ayers, FAIA, LEED AP, Architect of the Capitol

The Architect of the Capitol discusses the work of this U.S. federal agency, which operates, maintains and preserves the U.S. Capitol, the Capitol Visitor Center, congressional and other buildings, and Capitol grounds, gardens and art.

How has the Architect of the Capitol worked to make the Capitol complex more sustainable while preserving the architectural richness of the buildings? What role do standards play in this work?

The Architect of the Capitol has embraced the principles of sustainable design in the ongoing planning, building, operations and maintenance of the facilities and grounds entrusted to our care. In our planning and preservation efforts, we consider alternate sources of energy production, improve energy and water efficiency, and use alternative and renewable forms of energy. These goals also help reduce operating costs.

We believe sustainability begins with preservation, that building for permanence is sustainability. Rather than create new buildings using valuable resources, we maintain, rehabilitate, renovate and modernize our existing structures. Actions to leverage the retention of embodied energy in buildings and grounds through careful preservation-oriented maintenance, as opposed to disposable architecture, ensure that iconic buildings survive in perpetuity. The result is that future generations can continue to be inspired by, learn from and work in the same environment that inspired our forefathers.

We consider ASTM International standards to be important guidance for some of our project specifications. In guidance for green roof performance, we referenced or evaluated ASTM's recommendations for the following: loads associated with roofing materials; proper waterproofing; testing for permeability, water capture and retention standards of drainage media; and the selection, installation and maintenance of plants.

A recent example is the installation of a green roof on the Dirksen Senate Office Building in 2011.

While the work on the Dirksen Building was primarily a roof replacement project, when the 7,200 square-foot roof reached the end of its useful life, we decided to replace it with a new roof and a layer of vegetation. Not only is the new green roof projected to last two to three times longer than traditional roofing, the addition of the vegetative layer helps to save money by increasing energy efficiency and reducing stormwater runoff. The plantings are mostly succulents and other low maintenance plants chosen because they are hardy, do well in urban conditions and are drought tolerant.

How does the Architect of the Capitol go about choosing construction materials for its renovation and maintenance projects?

Because many of our projects involve an element of historic preservation and are designed to last for the ages, we often look for materials that match the original materials of the historic Capitol complex. For example, when making repairs to the historic exterior sandstone walls of the Capitol Building, we rely on materials salvaged from past renovations, such as the East Front extension.

Begun in 1958, the project involved constructing a new East Front façade 32 feet, 6 inches east of the old front, faithfully reproducing the sandstone structure in marble. The project was completed in 1962. The old sandstone walls were not destroyed, rather, they were left in place to become a part of the interior wall, and the marble columns of the connecting corridors were also moved and reused.

In addition, the AOC has implemented design standards that go hand in hand with our historic preservation policy, which dictates that projects in our major monumental buildings last 100 years or more. Therefore, the selection of durable materials for our projects is paramount. We also refer to ASTM standards for product durability and strength characteristics during the selection process. For example, in the Capitol Building, we'd select long-lasting, historically appropriate materials to match the existing features. However, when we're building an off-site storage facility, we'll use materials that are practical for the application; we'll use concrete flooring that's easy to maintain and is indestructible versus installing marble floors.

When newly elected representatives begin their terms, what do they require and request for office space, and what involvement does the Architect of the Capitol have?

The Architect of the Capitol has a very significant and interesting role in the House of Representatives' office selection process every two years. The AOC's house superintendent holds a room selection lottery that is based on members' tenure in office. In order of seniority, each member interested in moving (some members choose to stay in their offices) studies the list of available office suites, conducts site visits of the spaces or visits our suite selection website, and then decides where to move. The house superintendent records all of the office changes and coordinates the moves.

Once a member selects his or her new office space, their staff works with AOC move coordinators and architects to configure their new suites, selecting carpet, drapery and paint colors from a small palette of colors, determining furniture placement and location of office equipment, telephone and computer wiring. (Carpet and draperies are replaced after six years but not during every move cycle as a cost-saving measure.) The AOC primarily handles the physical moves: moving materials, painting office suites, laying cable, hanging shelves, televisions and other items.

What priorities do you have for your tenure leading the Architect of the Capitol?

Stewardship of the Capitol complex is important to me, to Congress and to the nation, and it is equally a unique challenge. This challenge is amplified by the historic significance and iconic nature of our buildings and landscape, aging physical infrastructure and day-to-day operational requirements.

Chief among these challenges is the significant backlog of deferred maintenance and capital renewal projects - totaling in excess of $1.3 billion - as well as security, life safety, accessibility and environmental requirements.

Our staff specializes in repairing and restoring the historic assets entrusted to our care. In many instances, the craftsmanship of the dedicated men and women who work at the AOC has successfully disguised the serious conditions or fragile states that the facilities are in or has temporarily stemmed any further deterioration. However, these temporary patches are just that - temporary. We are working with Congress to ensure that necessary investments are made in our historic infrastructure, and that the safety and security of those who work in or visit the facilities on Capitol Hill is increased.

Winston Churchill once said, "We shape our buildings; thereafter, our buildings shape us." At the AOC, we have a unique role where we do shape our buildings, but in actuality our buildings really shape us: They are the depositories of our history. These buildings serve as our nation's stage for grand events such as presidential inaugurals or funerals, as well as provide a gathering place for our citizens to express their views. And, most important, they hold the promise of our nation's future.

By investing in the deferred maintenance projects we have identified and maintaining these historic buildings, we will continue to preserve our national treasures for future generations.

How does the Capitol Visitor Center, opened five years ago this December, accommodate visitors and Congress and serve as an introduction to the area?

The Capitol Visitor Center was conceived as an extension of the Capitol Building; designed to welcome visitors to the seat of the legislative branch of our government, and the millions of visitors who come to the U.S. Capitol now have a respectful and dignified way to enter the "People's House." Once inside, they are encouraged to enjoy the beauty and grandeur of the Capitol and learn more about Congress and the legislative process by visiting Exhibition Hall and viewing the orientation film.

The Capitol Visitor Center is not simply another improvement to the Capitol. Its construction was a project of historic dimension, being the largest addition to the building since the completion of the Capitol dome's exterior in 1863. The Capitol Visitor Center reflects the same permanence that President Washington had insisted on in 1793 during the original construction of the Capitol: a structure that is recognizable throughout the world as a symbol of our representative democracy.

We have built a modern, 21st century facility while at the same time preserving and enhancing the historic features of the Capitol and its grounds. We used materials in the Capitol Visitor Center's construction - such as the sandstone on the walls - that match the Capitol in quality and endurance. We installed large skylights above Emancipation Hall to maintain the breathtaking view of the Capitol dome and to preserve one's perspective of time, place and destination. Other amenities that the Capitol Visitor Center provides are a restaurant, two gift shops and family restrooms. Outside, the grand views of the Capitol as you approach the building are much the same as they were a century ago, but we've greatly increased accessibility in and around the Capitol.

What knowledge has the Architect of the Capitol gained from other countries' experiences with modernizing - while preserving - historic buildings that have regular use?

Given our unique role and responsibilities, other countries' governments have actually come to us asking for our advice and guidance in both caring for historic buildings and in providing extraordinary visitor services. We have met with representatives from Brazil, Canada, China, Denmark, England, France, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Japan and South Korea, to name a few.

Our Capitol Visitor Center is considered the leading model for visitor centers. A number of international delegations who have contacted our office want to know how we implement and provide an informative, uplifting visitor experience, and how we successfully work to accommodate the legislative work of the Congress in one of the most visited public buildings in the world - the U.S. Capitol. With regard to historic preservation, we're most often asked about how we implement our 100-year design standards and how we've been able to install and incorporate modern amenities and systems into our historic buildings.

Stephen T. Ayers, FAIA, LEED AP, 11th Architect of the Capitol, was nominated to the position in February 2010 by President Barack Obama, and he was confirmed by the U.S. Senate in May 2010. During his 10-year term, Ayers is responsible for operating and maintaining 17.6 million square feet (1.6 million square meters) of buildings, including the U.S. Capitol, the congressional office buildings, the Capitol Visitor Center, the Library of Congress Buildings, the U.S. Supreme Court Building, the Thurgood Marshall Federal Judiciary Building and other facilities. He also oversees the care and improvement of more than 460 acres of Capitol grounds and the maintenance and preservation of art works in the Capitol. He serves as acting director of the U.S. Botanic Garden and the National Garden under the Joint Committee on the Library, and he is a member of several area boards, commissions and organizations.

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