Why the definition of infrastructure should include public buildings

What do Americans think about the state of investment in the nation’s public building stock? A majority believe it needs an upgrade. That’s according to a new survey from the American Institute of Architects released on Tuesday, which polled 2,108 U.S. adults in October to gauge their sentiment on the need for investment in libraries, schools, community centers and other public spaces.

While the 2016 presidential election touted infrastructure as the business of roads and bridges with big price tags, eight in 10 respondents said the category should more directly consider public buildings. At a two-day summit hosted by the AIA this week in New York City, industry leaders noted that most of those community projects trend small, local and low-profile.

"The holistic improvement of our communities must include [the whole built environment]," said AIA President Russell Davidson. The survey supports that notion, with respondents indicating that one-third of public funds for community projects should go to public buildings.

Below, we recap the biggest takeaways from the AIA’s report and event.

Expect more hybrid spaces

Schools and libraries are ubiquitous features of community life, yet many remain underinvested, Richard Jackson, a professor at the University of California Los Angeles Fielding School of Public Health, told attendees during a panel discussion at the AIA event. "Most states don’t know the location, scale and full scope of the problem with the state of schools [there]," he said. Schools (69% of respondents) followed only roads and streets (75%) as a top community feature requiring public funding, according to the AIA survey.

Libraries, like public schools, are often used for alternative functions including hosting community meetings, serving as poll locations for voting and holding other classes and workshops. Fewer than half of respondents use schools, but that group does so regularly. For libraries, use remains striated. Roughly two in five respondents use their local libraries at least once per month, the AIA survey found.

Drawing more people to libraries (and, off-hours, schools) requires project teams to recognize them as a community-oriented destination and educational space, said Julie Todaro, dean of library services at Austin Community College, in Texas, and president of the American Library Association. She cited a California library that hosted a community nurse weekly and noted that Washington, DC’s library system offers space for local entrepreneurs. "We are the most unique public building that there is," she said.

A 2013 report from the Pew Research Center found that libraries are already exploring community-based services such as offering classes in computer basics for older adults, allowing visitors to try out new technological devices, helping users prepare for naturalization interviews and citizenship exams and letting patrons rent musical instruments, telescopes and even Santa suits.

"It’s not a question about spending more money, it’s a question about rethinking the money that we spend," said Jonathan Rose (top image), president of developer the Jonathan Rose Companies. He noted hybrid projects that pair affordable housing with libraries (Chicago is one city doing just that), computer labs and sites for school-related activities.

Today’s new construction is tomorrow’s existing buildings

It’s no secret that the 5.6 million existing buildings in the U.S. offer potential for upgrades related to energy-efficiency and resilience — in many cases because they weren’t designed accordingly in the first place. Seven in 10 respondents said their community’s public buildings need an upgrade, and more than half said they require restoration. Respondents making less than $50,000 per year and households with children under the age of 18 were the biggest advocates for the importance of well-maintained public buildings, according to the survey.

Experts said that when working at a hyper-local level, large firms with a national or regional focus should seek to understand the local architectural vernacular, hold public meetings to inform planning and reach out to groups not represented at those meetings to ensure their needs and desires are addressed.

Brian Depew, executive director of the Center for Rural Affairs in Lyons, NE, used the Storefront Theater, in the 850-person town of Lyons, as an example of a local project built with the input of residents. The project, part of the four-part Byway of Art project in northeastern Nebraska, features a false front that folds down to create a small outdoor stage with bleacher seats for movies, plays, musical performances and more. Depew said the building team set up a "living room" on the site, which is located on the town’s main thoroughfare, to attract the attention of locals during the planning phase and get their input.

Illustrated notes at the AIA event
Hallie Busta

Giving existing projects new life is also a challenge that must be met as the nation’s expansive building stock continues to age.

Lindsey Scannapieco, managing partner for Philadelphia-based developer Scout Limited, discussed rehabbing a 1930s, purpose-built, 340,000-square-foot vocational high school in South Philadelphia into a space for small businesses and nonprofits. So far, 26,000 square feet of Bok have been rehabbed to meet the needs of tenants, including a hair salon, boxing gym, art installations, a day care, jewelers and architects.

Scannapieco said the building’s low cost — $5 per square foot — helped the team envision a diversity of uses and multiphase timeline. "That low-cost basis enabled us to think very differently about what you could do with the project," she said. To start, her team opened a bar on the building’s roof soon after purchasing it to attract attention and foot traffic to the site, as many locals hadn’t been inside the former vocational school. It drew 30,000 people over 22 nights, she said.

Confusion over investment structure

An often-uncertain funding hierarchy can make assigning responsibility for financing and executing local-scale building projects a challenge. "There is no voice for this argument," said AIA Executive Vice President and CEO Robert Ivy, who called the conversation around more investment in public buildings "fragmented."

Four in five survey respondents said the local government should be at least partly responsible for investing and reinvesting in public buildings. Potential impacts include improved education quality (62% of respondents), higher property values (60%), public safety (60%) and attracting new residents (60%) and businesses (59%).

Additionally, 61% of respondents said that some financial responsibility falls to the state government, compared to 44% who said private investment and 46% who said local businesses should have a stake in local projects. Slightly more than one-third (37%) of respondents indicated that the federal government should support local-level investment.

While public-private partnerships are an increasingly common solution for marrying the need for various funding sources to serve a project from conception through operations, Tyler Duvall, partner at consultancy McKinsey & Company, cautioned against relying too much on that project delivery format, at least initially. He noted that while Canada, Australia and parts of Europe have invested in centralized capabilities to run and manage large P3s, the U.S. lacks this structure.

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Filed Under: Commercial Building Residential Building Economy Infrastructure
Top image credit: Hallie Busta