How Social and Technological Changes Are Reshaping the Practice of Architecture

“What We Care About”: A Roundtable Conversation with A+U

March 14, 2019

Managing Partner, NBBJ

@SteveNBBJ

Editor’s Note: This interview was originally conducted for the December 2018 issue of A+U. It has been condensed and is reprinted here with the permission of the publisher.

NBBJ roundtable participants:

  • Steve McConnell, Managing Partner
  • Jonathan Ward, Design Partner
  • Alyson Erwin, Interior Designer
  • Nate Holland, Design Innovation Director
  • Vivian Ngo, Architect

 

A+U: How do you create “community” in design?

Jonathan: I’ve often talked about the idea of exploding or deconstructing typologies. The most obvious example is the high-rise tower, which is the most anti-community building, certainly in its symbolism but, more importantly, in its space and organization. That typology literally has to change in order to make a place that’s appropriate for people to interact naturally. The more we can think about peeling it apart and putting it back together in a different way, still having in mind the resources that go into building and maintaining high-rises, the better.

Tencent’s Seafront Tower is a great example. Tencent’s business connects people through the digital world, whether it’s WeChat, QQ or the Tencent Cloud. You quickly realize that the traditional building doesn’t match what they do in their business, it doesn’t align with where social connectivity is going, so we had to rewire the building to get closer to matching what they do in the world with their business, their product and the people who make the product. Our thinking was first to take the campus concept, with its spread-out, low-rise, multi-building approach, and apply it to a high-rise. Then we determined we needed to deconstruct the high-rise into two towers and bring social elements into connecting bridges. We also reprogrammed the elevator system to get more active participation and cross-collaboration.

Vivian: At the end of the day, we’re striving to find meaning. We want to help our clients find meaning in why they go to work every day, how they do the best work. You can imagine that meaning can be very diverse, so, in a building, you cannot have one solution. That’s one reason we always try for what’s next. Imagine the next generation of clients who started their careers working in buildings such as Tencent and Amazon. They’re changing too, so it’s cyclical: in the not-too-distant future, we and our clients can reciprocally drive each other’s creativity.

A+U: What role can new technology — like Rhino or augmented reality — play in defining community?

Steve: We have an obligation to our clients to mitigate risk while we push boundaries to unlock potential. We talk a lot about the realization of beauty and performance: we live in an era where computing is transforming our ability to demystify performance and quantify value, so we have the opportunity to leverage data analytics and computing to measure and anticipate performance in ways that go way beyond the intuition of the designer. Especially interesting is our ability to point our digital tools at elevating human performance and community-making at all scales.

Jonathan: We’re at a point right now where we have both traditional methods of design thinking and technology-driven methods of design thinking, which are working hand-in-hand, though sometimes one supersedes the other. I’m curious, if you looked out 5, 10, even 20 years, what do we see as the future of technology, and how will it affect the design process or design thinking?

Nate: I see the digital and physical blending a lot more. The distinction between the building and the building system is going to go away. When we design, the question of what is the “tool” versus what is the “model” and where is the “information” — all that is becoming obsolete. We’re heading to a place of rapidly going from a sketch on a piece of paper to a BIM model, and that will only continue to speed up. We have VR labs, but this is a temporary solution while the hardware catches up to where we’re practicing. We’re going to be seeing these things, if not fully embedded in our minds, at least on some sort of a screen that’s always with us, always mapped to the world. We’re going to be completely augmented in our design abilities.

And architecture will either have to become much longer-lasting or much shorter-lasting. Our needs are changing so rapidly that buildings will be either infinitely repositionable or  rapidly torn down and recycled — a new method of deconstructing that’s not wasteful. There’ll be 100-year projects or five-year projects, and fewer projects in between.

Alyson: We design to a finite program now, but in the future we’ll design buildings that are program-less, that will allow occupants to impose their own structure for what they need out of spaces. I see the beginnings of that in the Columbus Metropolitan Library. They had a set program for organizing their daily activities, and our job, of course, was to craft a space to facilitate those activities, but there’s a freedom within the building for users to occupy it in the ways that they see fit. There’s an overarching program in all the library’s branches, but the user determines what’s needed on a daily basis.

Jonathan: The best buildings, still, from 100-plus years ago are the ones that are program-less. They are these beautiful shells that can be fairly quickly transformed from one thing to the other.

Left to right: Alyson Erwin, Jonathan Ward, Steve McConnell, Vivian Ngo, Nate Holland

A+U: What is the role demanded of architects today?

Jonathan: It’s complicated, because on one end of the spectrum are people who say form and space is a decoration at the end of a functional process. At the other end of the spectrum are others who say form and space is a spatial experience — that it’s everything. Those are the two poles, and they have been fairly strong for centuries. Our challenge is to be in this interesting intersection, so that the functionality and the experiential thinking crosses over with the bold formalistic thinking, and they’re pushing each other.

Steve: The profession has to dramatically expand its definition of the possibilities that are inherent in architecture and urbanism, relative to the health of our planet and to the potential of society. What drives our practice is a central belief in the role that design has in solving really difficult problems and in protecting what is human. For us, it is about opening up possibilities and an exchange of ideas that resolve in a synthesis that’s beautiful, that’s provocative, and that advances the art and science of the built environment.

All images courtesy NBBJ.

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Five Questions About How Sustainability Improves Human Well-being Here and Now, Not Just the Distant Future

An Interview with NBBJ’s Sustainability Leader Margaret Montgomery

March 4, 2019

Sustainable Design Leader, NBBJ

@MargaretMontgo1

Editor’s Note: This post is adapted from an interview originally published in the Q4 2018 issue of DesignIntelligence Quarterly.

What sustainability priorities should we focus on?

High-performance, sustainable projects are the only future that is viable for our profession and our clients. Zero carbon is viable for many projects, and we’re able to steer clients toward an achievement that’s possible for them. Material selections for reduced environmental and health impact are easier every month. Planning and site development for resilience and for a healthier urban ecosystem are equally critical.

 

You mentioned materials transparency. What are you doing about that?

We’re tweaking our specifications in areas where we can knowledgeably improve our standard options. For example, if we want to include a product, and we have enough manufacturers that are willing to disclose what’s in their product, we can require that disclosure.

We’re getting a bit more sophisticated about reducing the carbon footprint of our projects, as well. For example, what are all the concrete mixes? What’s the lowest-carbon concrete mix we can use for that particular structural purpose? How can we make sure that we are fine-tuning those mixes for the lowest carbon while maintaining performance?

The largest carbon and environmental footprint tends to be in the structure and exterior materials. The health footprint, the complicated chemistry, and the disclosures tend to congregate around the finish materials and that end of the spectrum.

 

Where do the ideas of being practical and being effective intersect best for sustainability?

If we’re doing things in the right way, we shouldn’t need to add money. We should be able to reallocate resources in a smarter way to do almost everything we want to do. So, for instance, if we create a better conceptual design — with the right window/wall ratio, better orientation and massing for passive energy flows, and we put the effort into better architecture — we should be able to spend less money on mechanical heating and cooling. To me, that’s pragmatic and effective because we’re conserving first-cost resources and getting more from our client’s money. The goal is to do that while also creating a more comfortable, more livable place for everyone who experiences it.

 

In the years that you’ve been practicing sustainable design, what changes have you observed in clients’ viewpoints?

Many of our clients recognize the value of creating space that helps them and their people be more comfortable and perform better. This was an idea that probably didn’t resonate well a few years ago because there weren’t enough studies to show the connection between what we thought intuitively were good things for people and our quantitative goals.

 

What makes you hopeful? What challenges you?

What makes me hopeful is the human spirit and the desire to make things better. You see it a lot lately in various movements outside of the building industry as well as all of the groundswell around addressing climate change. At the core, I believe we all want to make the world a better place. The challenge is how hard it is sometimes to find a common understanding or a way to communicate that gets us all headed in the same direction.

Banner image courtesy Stuart Isett/NBBJ. 

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Three Ways of Reimagining the Emergency Department

Ideas for Shaping the Emergency Department of the Future

February 12, 2019

Principal, NBBJ

Editor’s Note: This post is adapted from a white paper co-authored by Bryan Langlands and Durell Coleman, Founder/CEO of DC Design, and originally published by the Facility Guidelines Institute (FGI). The white paper is based on the “Reimaging the ED” workshop sponsored by FGI and the American College of Emergency Physicians (ACEP) and held at the 2017 Healthcare Facilities Symposium & Expo in Austin, TX, where more than 100 ED clinicians, design professionals and students gathered.

Today in the United States, nearly 50 percent of all hospital care begins in the emergency department (ED) and, over the last 20 years, ED patient volume has increased by 23 percent as many Americans use the ED to access primary care services. Many factors have contributed to these trends, including:

  • The aging of the baby boomer generation
  • Increased longevity of people with chronic diseases
  • Gaps in provision of care for behavioral health patients
  • Limited operating hours of primary care providers
  • Lack of affordable insurance and other issues affecting individual access to medical care
  • Requirement of the Emergency Medical Treatment and Labor Act (EMTALA) for EDs to treat everyone, whether they have insurance or not

While the U.S. health care system struggles to determine how to address these difficult and complex issues, there are changes that can be implemented now to improve the function and flow of emergency department services and facilitate quality patient care: by (1) improving arrival and front-end operations, (2) reducing patient length of stay, and (3) improving the experience of behavioral health patients.

 

(1) Improve arrival and front-end operations with technology.

Technology could be deployed to make patient arrival, sorting, and waiting processes more efficient. One idea: providing a registration kiosk for low-acuity patients. Another idea is a vitals-monitoring bracelet that could be used to assess and monitor patients in the waiting area. Such approaches could result in reduced stress and better flow for triage and front-end operations.

 

(2) Reduce low-acuity patients’ length of stay.

A significant problem is the treatment of low-acuity, non-emergency patients in spaces designed for patients who require a bed. Some solutions: smaller treatment spaces for these “vertical” patients, or treatment rooms that could easily and quickly be converted to hold multiple low-acuity patients during peak hours. Such spaces would speed up delivery of care for low-acuity patients and reduce the amount of time they — and consequently all patients — spend in the ED.

As one way to identify these low-acuity patients, the ED could be zoned by Emergency Severity Index (ESI) level. Creating ESI zones would support more flexible and efficient use of space and could decrease patient waiting times. Each area in the ED would be designed with patient care stations sized appropriately for the type of patient seen there.

 

(3) Create spaces for behavioral health patients.

There are many concerns surrounding behavioral health services provided in the ED setting, including the tendency to hold these patients in the ED for two to three days before placement in an inpatient unit or transfer to a psychiatric hospital. Spaces are needed that better suit this patient population. Because the ED is not specifically designed to provide care for the behavioral health population and the typical patient stays longer and requires different attention than typical ED patients, the flow and throughput of the entire emergency department is negatively affected when suitable behavioral health facilities are not provided.

 

It is important to remember the ED is not a “place” but a “process,” a point that underscores that many problems seen in EDs are the result of operational processes rather than design issues. Further, the primary factors of many problems are neither design nor operational, but issues that result from demographic changes, behavioral health and insurance deficiencies, and EMTALA requirements. For this reason, quite a few problems might not require specialty operational or design solutions if the overall health care system were doing a better job of addressing the larger issues that bring many patients to the ED.

Nonetheless, it is an important first step when health care organizations and designers work together to address operational and design problems through careful project planning.

Banner image courtesy of Frank Oudeman/NBBJ.

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