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District Energy System

Board Member Spotlight

J. Alan Robertson, Metro DES Advisory Board Member

J. Alan Robertson

Pop quiz: How many state government buildings/structures are there in Tennessee?
Answer: There are more than 7,000 state government buildings and structures across the state.

From historical landmarks, such as the state Capitol, to lesser-known but equally important buildings, Tennessee's state-owned properties span the three grand divisions of our state, requiring significant oversight and upkeep.

Tasked with that oversight is the State Building Commission (SBC), which is responsible for all building construction and renovation, demolition, and land and lease transactions for Tennessee government properties. Within the SBC is the Office of the State Architect, who serves as its chief staff officer and is responsible for implementing the SBC's bylaws, policies and procedures.

J. Alan Robertson is the assistant state architect - a position he's held since 2003 - and has provided support to the SBC in many ways throughout his tenure.

To say that Robertson is an integral part of the State Building Commission would be an understatement. He works with the three State Procurement Agencies (SPAs), including STREAM, TBR and UT, to review their SBC project agenda items each month. He has also drafted new SBC and Office of the State Architect policy language and has met with industry leaders in design and construction to review state industry processes and procurements for improvements. He reviews approximately 60 SBC contracts per month.

Robertson also managed the design and construction efforts for the restoration of the Governor's Residence and the building of Conservation Hall on the grounds of the Residence, and held a seat on the State's Prevailing Wage Commission.

In 2013, Robertson was appointed to the Metro DES Advisory Board, bringing with him more than 20 years of experience as a licensed architect and more than 10 years' experience as a state employee who knows the ins and outs of government buildings in Nashville - most of which rely on Metro DES for heating and cooling.

We recently caught up with Robertson to learn more about Tennessee's government buildings and what it takes to be a good architect.

Q: How did you decide that architecture would be your career? Were you the kid who drew up schematics for a clubhouse at a young age?

A: Of course, like most kids that age, I did not know what I wanted to be when I grew up. My first year of college was at Tennessee Tech in Cookeville. Being someone who loved to be outside and very interested in nature, I decided to start my first year in biology. My second year I transferred to UT Knoxville where I began majoring in architecture. Very early on, I had a talent of drawing and being artistic. My father worked with a number of architects in his career and one day introduced me to one of his contacts, and from there I worked at an internship during the summer. My first client, before graduating, was my father, who wanted to convert his garage to a living space. I believe he wanted to test me - which I passed!

Q: What are a few properties that would make people say “Oh, yeah, I never even considered that as a state-owned property."

A: A few properties that may be of surprise to some are the following, which are all state-owned:

  • University of Tennessee's Neyland Stadium
  • Middle Tennessee State University buildings
  • Cloverbottom Mansion
  • The original Lorraine Motel, where Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, and the National Civil Rights Museum
  • The home of Alex Hailey and its museum
  • Radnor Lake

Q: What building are you most proud of being involved with - either a construction or renovation project - during your tenure as assistant state architect? What is it about that project that stands out the most to you?

A: I would have to say the restoration of the Governor's Residence and the design and construction of Conservation Hall.

The Residence restoration was carried out following the Secretary of the Interior's Standards for Historic Preservation. I became deeply entrenched in the history that surrounds this structure. When you deal with a structure such as this, you also have to be an investigator. Investigations included paint analysis to determine the original interior paint colors, the discovery of antiquated small glass globes - similar to an old Christmas ornament - that were filled with a red fire-suppressant liquid found in the attic spaces, finding newspapers from 1930 within an existing wall cavity, and finding hand-cast ceramic tile artisans who could match historic tiles for replacements.

This project required us to search nationwide for artisans and manufacturers who could fill the needs for this restoration.

Conservation Hall began directly after the Residence project was finished. With vibration-control engineers under contract, the state and the Tennessee Residence Foundation commenced to blasting and digging a very large hole in the earth in which Conservation Hall would be housed.

The concept for this project was for it to be located underground in order to preserve the view shed of the historic residence and preserve the green space on the grounds. During these operations, not a single crack was created in the adjacent structure of the Residence.

Both the Residence and Conservation Hall projects attained LEED ratings.

Q: How much thought goes into heating and cooling infrastructure when designing a building? Would you recommend that new downtown buildings use the district energy system for heating and cooling, or is it more complicated than a simple yes or no?

A: With soaring energy prices, a lot more goes into the architectural design of structures, and building owners are demanding it. The simple siting of a proposed building on a lot, along with façade exposures and building massing, are the biggest factors for energy demand for a structure.

If it is not properly sited and designed, a good percentage of the building's energy system can easily be fighting just to account for the deficit at the start! The State of Tennessee's Office of the State Architect will soon adopt its own High Performance Building requirements, which will aim to achieve certain threshold levels of energy performance in all state projects.

Architects also develop life-cycle cost analyses for structures, and energy efficiency plays a large role in those analyses.

Metro DES supplies energy at a very competitive rate for cooling and heating. There is usually more efficiency and economies of scale when dealing with a central powerhouse such as DES. From an owner's perspective, it is our goal to accurately depict the required energy-usage level of our facilities in order to predict the packaged amount we need to purchase.

Q: What advice would you offer aspiring architects?

A: Somewhere along the way, individuals started believing that architects make good money. I don't know where that got started!

There are architects to be found in various sectors of many industries. Young aspiring architects usually start out with the need to express themselves through designing, as that is the foundational attribute of an architect. My advice to those with aspirations of working in the industry is to go into the profession based on your need for expression through architectural design, and not for the notoriety or belief that a large salary is waiting for you.

The one thing I wish I had known when I entered the profession is that job security is not only based on how good you are, but, in large part, also driven by the construction market.

J. Alan Robertson was born and raised in Tennessee. He is married to his beautiful wife, Suzanne, and has two beautiful daughters. He graduated from the University of Tennessee in Knoxville in 1985 with a bachelors in architecture, and has been a licensed architect since 1991. Alan worked first worked at a private practice, and has been employed with state of Tennessee since 2000. He is a member of the U.S. Green Building Council, the First Baptist Church of Nashville and the American Stock Horse Association.