Steve McConnell, FAIA

Steve McConnell, FAIA

Managing Partner, NBBJ
Steve McConnell is the Managing Partner of NBBJ and serves on the Board of Directors that governs the firm. He joined NBBJ in 1990 and was named a partner in 2003. Steve oversees NBBJ’s Design Practices Futures committee, ensuring that the firm’s design practices lead the industry in innovation. Through his leadership, he has fundamentally shaped the culture and process-driven design approach of NBBJ to create new value by integrating research, collaboration, interdependent client relationships and the cultivation of innovative ideas.

Influencing Action: The Power of Perspective

Clear Eyes for Climate Change Action

March 22, 2022

Managing Partner, NBBJ

On January 13, 2022, I stood on a remote saddle high in the Ellsworth Mountains; it was about –20°F, but I was geared up for the cold. The view was infinite and amazing to behold. Spectacular mountains as high as 16,000 feet and glaciers that average 6,000 feet deep below the surface spanned the horizon. I felt I stood at the very edge of the Earth—an extreme place to be, yet a place so remote that I could not deny the perspective on life and our planet it offered.

The vast Antarctica continent extending beyond the Sentinel Range of the Ellsworth Mountains.


To be here, a place solely of rock, ice, wind, silence and extreme cold was to know self-reliance, awe and how fragile life can be. Still, something inexplicable was happening—it had snowed several inches the night before and I would soon discover more snow was coming in a raging storm a few days off.

Antarctica is a desert—the driest continent, with an average precipitation of 1.5 inches per year. Yet more than a foot of snow fell over the two weeks I was in the Ellsworth Mountains. “Yes, our climate is changing,” I thought, “this snowstorm should not be happening.” A few days later at high camp, as a new storm raged on, I wondered if the intense 60 mph winds I was experiencing would accelerate and endanger my life, and whether climate change was the culprit. That day, in that moment, I feared climate change.

My adventure became a personal field study, clarifying what I’ve sensed, read and heard about climate change.

Storm clouds brewing over Mount Vinson’s high camp and Mount Shinn beyond.


Returning to Seattle, 9,000 miles from Mount Vinson and the Ellsworth Mountains, I reflected on the essence of leadership and organizational responsibilities. Leaders ensure their organization is guided by a compelling vision, relevant goals, coherent actions and on-course trajectories. Organizations that create the built environment must be concerned with the health of society.

The long journey home descending the Branscomb Glacier.


Advancing the health of society safeguards our ethical purpose. Ethical purpose is an authoritative force for relevancy. Being relevant guarantees success. Finally, addressing climate change guarantees relevancy.

NBBJ is a leadership intensive practice—a grand experiment where our role-based organization vests authority and responsibility with the role each of us fulfill. We express this cultural and values touchstone by highlighting that “we lead from every chair.”  This means that it is up to every NBBJer to ask, “How will I reduce carbon today?” If ever there was a wicked problem that requires leaning in, learning, looking around the corners and being proactive, it is the challenge to become a net-zero carbon society.

Perspective is powerful.

We must act now to create sustainable, resilient, zero-carbon experiences, buildings, and communities.


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How Can We Harness AI to Design a More Healthy, Sustainable and Equitable Future?

January 31, 2022

Managing Partner, NBBJ

This post was co-authored by Phillip Bernstein, Mark Greaves, Steve McConnell and Clifford Pearson

Editor’s Note: This whitepaper was originally published in the December 2021 issue of Architectural Record.


Architecture needs to do more than ever. It is no longer sufficient for buildings and places to meet Vitruvius’ rubric, firmitas, utilitas et venustas—strength, utility and beauty. Now architects must also respond to a broad range of environmental, social and community concerns.

Designing even a single-family home today requires attention to climate change, pollution, the carbon footprint of every material used in construction, fair labor practices throughout the building supply chain, affordability, racial equity, and the development of healthy communities—in addition to all the usual demands of the client and regulatory agencies.

An explosion of information and data on all these issues now influences every step in the design process, and simultaneously threatens to overwhelm the people running that process. How can architects meet the demands of this new class of design goals without losing sight of their less quantifiable aspiration to create inspiring and captivating buildings?

Recently, I joined forces with Philip Bernstein, strategic advisor to NBBJ, and Associate Dean and Professor Adjunct at Yale; prominent architectural journalist Clifford Pearson; and renowned AI scientist Mark Greaves to outline the increasing potential of AI integration in the design process. Not only can the use of AI help make sense of these growing complexities, but it can also have a positive impact on the built environment—supporting health, education and communities. In addition, we recommend the federal government take three important steps to advance the practice of design to more reliably create places and buildings that respond to national priorities for healthy, sustainable, and equitable places.

You can click here to read our full thoughts in the whitepaper titled “Harnessing AI to Design Healthy, Sustainable, and Equitable Places,” and you can also enjoy a companion piece about this subject in this recent article in Architectural Record.

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Tackling a Biden Challenge with Artificial (and Human) Intelligence

February 10, 2021

Managing Partner, NBBJ

Editor’s Note: This post initially appeared on Architect’s Newspaper. It was co-authored by NBBJ Managing Partner Steve McConnell, Yale University Professor Phil Bernstein, journalist Cliff Pearson and senior AI researcher Dr. Mark Greaves, Ph. D.


Tucked within President Biden’s year-one legislative agenda on climate change is a call to build “zero net energy buildings at zero net cost.” This is a bold challenge that resonates powerfully in both the architectural profession and America as a whole. Like many great challenges, it will require a transformation in the way a broad range of disciplines work to shape the built environment.

The benefits of meeting Biden’s challenge are huge. According to the nonprofit organization Architecture 2030, “The urban built environment is responsible for 75% of annual GHG [greenhouse gas] global emissions: buildings alone account for 39%. Eliminating these emissions is the key to addressing climate change and meeting the Paris Climate Agreement targets.” So, the ability to cost-effectively produce zero net energy buildings would over time make a massive positive impact on our climate problems.

The root of the challenge’s difficulty is that designing and building great buildings is already a classic “wicked problem.” Wicked problems are defined by imprecise goals, incomplete knowledge, deeply interconnected subproblems, and the need to continuously make “best guess” tradeoffs. Instead of right or wrong answers, wicked problems require us to think in terms of better or worse solutions. Biden’s challenge adds substantially to the difficulty of these tradeoffs in architectural design, and further requires that we do this at zero net added cost.

Good architecture emerges from successfully balancing the interests of all stakeholders in a building project, while simultaneously optimizing innumerable decisions about structure, mechanics, economics, and aesthetics. Adding a zero net energy requirement will likely result in either increasing the cost of design and construction, or cutting back on space or amenities.

We think it is critical that the zero net energy buildings envisioned by President Biden also make positive contributions as works of architecture and valuable parts of the urban fabric. Otherwise, we could end up with super-insulated, faceless boxes that reduce our carbon footprint and are cheap to design, but undermine the vibrant character of our neighborhoods and towns. The Biden challenge sits at the intersection of some very big issues, from energy efficiency and environmental justice to advanced building materials and lively urban communities. It’s inspiring, but daunting, to confront.

Fortunately, the design profession is evolving, as society demands more from the people in charge of our buildings, neighborhoods, and cities. Architects now work in cross-disciplinary teams and handle an expanding spectrum of tradeoffs involving environmental factors, complex client needs, elaborate regulatory requirements, and constantly changing prices and availability of building materials. Architects also routinely balance less quantifiable factors such as the health of impacted communities, societal goals for the built environment, and justice in labor practices across the supply chain. To achieve this, they rely on a combination of deep design knowledge, extensive experience in how different designs will ultimately function, and powerful computational tools that can illustrate the impact of various tradeoffs. Meeting Biden’s challenge in a cost-neutral manner, though, is beyond the capability of current tools and practices.

We believe that new developments in artificial intelligence (AI) are the key to conquering Biden’s zero net energy challenge. Just as AI has revolutionized fields as disparate as drug discovery and self-driving cars, new AI-driven architectural tools can provide the support needed to cost-effectively design inspiring zero net energy buildings. Modern machine-learning algorithms don’t blindly follow a set of preprogrammed rules, but instead develop their capabilities by analyzing large sets of examples. With more and more data and feedback, they perform better and better. The latest AI language models such as GPT-3 are trained on billions of sentences from the web and can generate astonishingly fluent essays from a simple prompt.  AI software can produce well-rounded stories from just a few pieces of information, competent poems and pictures from a few prompt words, and even satisfying music from a few snippets of melody.

Could an AI tool produce compelling zero net energy building designs at zero net cost all by itself? No. Architects wrestle every day with wicked problems that are essential to creating compelling building designs, and many of the important design tradeoffs they make cannot be defined tightly enough to train an AI algorithm. However, AI promises to free them to focus more on what they can uniquely do: bring that hard-to-explain flair and creative spark to solving difficult design problems.

AI will make it possible for architects to cost-effectively address the enormous complexity inherent in the Biden challenge, by analyzing huge amounts of data to rapidly present options for design teams to consider and refine. This is essentially what Spotify does when it recommends music we might like. In architecture, AI can accelerate the design process by identifying subtle patterns that are likely to satisfy a set of design requirements. It can rapidly generate plausible zero net energy configurations, accounting for a broad range of factors and constraints. Finally, AI can work with advanced simulation technology to help architects assess the effectiveness of various design solutions to satisfy the diverse constituencies for a building project.

AI promises to be a disruptive technology for architects, but it is not a total solution. In the end, design requires understanding and evaluating a series of tradeoffs and picking the best ones. Designing great buildings that inspire their stakeholders is a task that people do better than any algorithm. The art of architecture requires a creative spirit behind it, even as designers apply increasingly sophisticated digital tools to tackle the wicked, fantastically difficult problems of delivering compelling, zero net energy buildings at zero net added cost.

President Biden, we in the architecture and computation fields accept your challenge and look forward to working with your administration to transform buildings in America.


Steve McConnell is an architect and managing partner at the global design firm NBBJ.

Phillip Bernstein is associate dean and professor adjunct at the Yale School of Architecture.

Mark Greaves is a senior AI researcher.

Clifford Pearson is a journalist who covers architecture and urbanism.

The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the positions of their employers.

Image by Silvestri Matteo / Unsplash

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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

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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Letter to a Young Architect

What I Wish I Had Known When My Career Began

May 23, 2018

Managing Partner, NBBJ

A friend recently asked if I would write a letter to my younger self and embody advice and insights that I could offer the next generation of architects and design professionals – to capture what I wish I had known the day I graduated from design school. As we welcome summer interns to NBBJ, I thought sharing this letter could be valuable to them, and to everyone striving to impact our world through the limitless potential of design.

Enjoy this lesson from the future. Your comments are encouraged at the bottom of this post. I’d love to hear your thoughts on what you wish you had known or your own wisdom on fulfillment…


Dear friends,

My most sincere congratulations on your dedication to learning, exploring, growing. You have arrived at an extraordinary place in life, a trailhead in many ways, with many choices to confront. It is these choices — these turning points — that will have a profound influence on how your career unfolds. Some you will see coming from a distance; others will arise unexpectedly.

Start your career by cultivating your core values. It is these values that will become your compass for the great journey ahead. Commit yourself to these values underpinning every decision you make. Consciously navigate toward the destination of your dreams — and set that destination at unimaginable heights — knowing that fulfillment is not about arriving at the destination, it is how you live the journey itself.

Consciously think about what you stand for in professional practice and how you will impact the lives of others through design. Start this process now and return to these questions time and time again to hone your skills. Cultivate your confidence. Suspend your insecurities, not to be ignored, but to limit the ways in which they might impede your progress. Beware of acquiescence. Be proactive, taking one step at a time. Persevere — now and forever.

Seek and create speaking opportunities to discover your voice, and in so doing to become comfortable with that voice. Learn to be a skillful and passionate communicator. Learn to allow your mind to be open and free in service to your ideas. And never forget that listening is active, not passive. Clients will choose you because they trust you, and at the heart of that trust is their belief that they are understood. Learn how to build trust and be empathetic.

Step into your career every day. Be courageous, and know that being too comfortable or holding back is to play the game too safely. It is when we are uncomfortable that we stretch and grow the most. Learn to be comfortable with being uncomfortable. Take care of yourself in health and fitness, for this is the longest of journeys that you now embark upon — it is the journey of your life.

Looking back some 40 years after my career began by running blueprints for a local architect, I recognize I was blessed with untold opportunities to design dozens of momentous works — corporate headquarters, courthouses, stadiums, towers, global institutions and so much more. Yet beyond any talent or favor nothing was more important than my drive and belief in myself against the tide of the commonplace. And it is this belief more than any other thing that opened the doors to a magical career journey.

Believe in yourself.



Editor’s Note: This essay by Steve McConnell was recently published in Lessons from the Future, a book given to M.Arch. students upon their graduation. Sixty-five leading architects around the world participated in creating the book, answering the question, “if you were to start out in architecture all over again, what would you do differently?” In essence: advice to a younger self. It is edited by James P. Cramer and Scott Simpson.

Image © NBBJ.

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Virtual Reality: The Architect’s Next Great Productivity Tool

NBBJ Is Incubating a New Virtual Reality Start-up Named Visual Vocal. Here's Why.

January 9, 2017

Managing Partner, NBBJ

Editor’s Note: This post was coauthored by Steve McConnell and John SanGiovanni and originally published by DesignIntelligence.

Virtual reality (VR) is transforming businesses and dominating media headlines as the technology becomes increasingly popular and surpasses $6.5 billion in annual revenues. Yet that number pales in comparison to what is predicted for the future: research shows that by 2025, the industry could be worth $110 billion, a 1500% increase.

Today, VR is synonymous with companies like PlayStation, Oculus, Vive, and Samsung, who have used the technology to develop devices and experiences which are focused primarily on entertainment. Meanwhile, the use of augmented reality, VR’s “sister technology,” is also on the rise as demonstrated by Nintendo’s Pokémon GO, which became an international sensation and boosted the Japanese company’s stock price to its highest level in six years.

Another area where the potential of VR is just now being realized is the construction industry, which accounts for $8.5 trillion globally in annual revenues. While development and building construction represent a small proportion of VR’s overall use today, we surmise that its market share will grow at a rapid pace as architects, developers, general contractors and clients become more familiar with its use. In fact, we predict the next generation of VR tools in development now will make the overall real estate industry more productive, efficient and engaged in the design process.

The Creation of Visual Vocal
That is why, earlier this year, NBBJ began incubating a new virtual reality startup, making it the first architecture firm in the world to do so. Called Visual Vocal, the namesake of which represents the core features of the project — visual and audible communication — the company is one of the first to actively pursue a new productivity platform through virtual reality.

The need for the tool is simple. Architects deal with complex visual datasets such as renderings and drawings. But getting those files into the hands of clients is difficult not only because of their size, but also because they are not often legible to people outside the profession. As it stands now, there is not a tool that can sufficiently communicate design intent in an immersive three dimensional format and easily collect feedback.

Here’s how the tool works. Let’s say a major healthcare system hires an architect to design a new hospital. Under the current methodology, hospital stakeholders — which could include executives, facilities managers, doctors and nurses — would meet with the design team at regular intervals, reviewing drawings and renderings to determine if the project is headed in the right direction. When changes are made, it would then take architects time to redo the design and present new options.

With Visual Vocal, a new process emerges. Using the tool, stakeholders would download an app on their Apple or Android smartphones, attach an inexpensive pocket-sized folding viewer to the screen, and immediately immerse themselves in a fully-rendered 3D environment that shows different versions of the hospital.

Users would be able to visualize major spaces throughout the new healthcare facility and, while doing so, select preferred design options and outcomes. At the same time, users will also be able to listen to embedded audio of architects narrating the design so users have a greater understanding of its concepts and intended outcomes.

During these processes, stakeholders can also use their own voice within the VR system to annotate more detailed feedback to the design team. The system also offers a patented “Immersive Survey” feature, to quickly capture feedback from very large groups of stakeholders. Best of all, clients can experience what the project will feel like, and provide their feedback, anytime, anywhere.

Project leaders using the tool are no longer required to be in the same place or even the same time zone in order to experience a project’s design and provide feedback. This feature alone could be a major time saver for busy executives. On the back end, the Visual Vocal tool allows user feedback to be quickly tabulated, calculated and organized in an easy-to-understand system that can be accessed in real time by the design team.

Driving Better Value for Clients
The benefits of this new way of doing business are numerous. First, the tool is a way to increase collaboration between members of the design teams themselves and, importantly, between the architecture firm and its clients, subcontractors and other consultants. Second, the tool saves time and money, by reducing the number of meetings required to come to a design consensus. Finally this approach makes the design process more inclusive and enjoyable for all participants.

Because everyone has a smartphone and downloading apps is easy, the Visual Vocal tool gives architects the power to solicit feedback from hundreds or even thousands of users. For example, while the tool might be used on a corporate headquarters project by only a select group of company leaders, a waterfront redevelopment project for a city could allow the tool to be accessed by hundreds of people. Citizen engagement has always been important, but it is especially so today, and the Visual Vocal tool gives governments and community organizations the power to solicit feedback from people everywhere.

Looking Toward the Future
Since its debut in May 2016, the Visual Vocal team has grown its staff from 2 people to 10 and has secured seven figures of venture-backed funding. As partner and investor, NBBJ has helped the company develop, test and refine the product and is in the process of integrating the mobile-based VR platform on projects in the US and Europe. These projects range from a large technology headquarters in the US to a research lab at a prestigious university in the UK. Beyond Visual Vocal’s architectural collaboration platform, the venture sees vast opportunities for its core VR communication technology as the landscape of Virtual and Augmented Reality continues to expand. Forthcoming innovations will only make VR communication patterns more commonplace, such as Google Daydream in late 2016 and AR systems like Magic Leap in the future.

Later this year Visual Vocal will be available to the industry at large. The architecture industry is ripe for innovation, and disruptive technologies that bring greater productivity to the process of design should be encouraged. By making this tool available to many, it has the potential to boost the output of all architecture firms, thereby increasing the industry’s relevance to clients around the world.

What’s next for Visual Vocal and VR in general? After expanding to the architecture industry at large, the team will develop similar platforms for other industries that could benefit from its application, including aerospace, manufacturing and even molecular biology. In the meantime, look out for VR on your next architecture project, and see how it can make collaboration more effective and engaging than ever!

Steve McConnell, FAIA, is managing partner at NBBJ, named one of the world’s most innovative companies by Fast Company, and the architecture firm of choice for tech companies by Wired. John SanGiovanni is CEO and co-founder of Visual Vocal and a serial entrepreneur, strategist and inventor, having founded three ventures and co-authored more than 20 patents in the areas of AR, VR, and mobile devices.

Image courtesy of Sean Airhart/NBBJ.

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Driverless Cars Will Transform Things You Never Expected

Nine Ways Life Will Change When Automated Vehicles Become a Reality

May 18, 2016

Managing Partner, NBBJ

Editor’s Note: This is the third post in a four-part series about the impact of driverless cars on design and planning. On Monday, Alan Mountjoy reported how BMW is planning for a disruptive future; on Tuesday, Donald Bellefeuille wrote about the health opportunities afforded by autonomous vehicles. On Thursday, Alex Krieger looked at the potential downside of increased congestion.


We are on the threshold of a once-in-a-century shift in the nature of cities, as driverless cars take off and car-sharing programs continue to expand. We asked several designers at NBBJ to predict how driverless cars will transform our cities, and here is what they had to say:



People think they are going to buy a driverless car. The reality is they will be buying a service and not an actual car. The service will be like Uber but without the driver. GM just invested $500 million into Lyft. The idea is GM builds cars and you pay GM for a car to come pick you up. No parking needed, and the car just keeps going. Think of a service where you fly to Denver, get out, and a car picks you up and you don’t rent a car. Worldwide service. Perhaps that’s why my daughter said she does not want to learn to drive. She is almost 10. In the six more years it will take to get this up and running, she might just get her wish. Pretty cool.

Dan Ayars, architect


Valet Pick-up

With drivers — Uber, taxis, food deliveries — the car arrives before we get away from our desks and down to the curb. So imagine queues of driverless cars all lining up at 5:00 to pick up employees at the end of the day. The cars would still need on-street parking spaces or off-street valet areas to queue. If they are shared vehicles, then maybe less space is necessary, because my colleague takes the first car and I get the next one — but if I own my driverless vehicle, then I will care which one I get! If that space isn’t curbside, it’s in the first level of a parking garage or in a well-designed alley. Either way I still anticipate queueing and congestion.

Kim Selby, planner and urban designer


Affordable Housing

One UC Berkeley study found that every shared car, like a Car2Go, removes nine to 13 vehicles from the road. In an above-grade urban parking structure, imagine what could be done with 12 out of every 13 parking stalls! Millions of square feet of valuable space, already built within our cities, will become available as a platform for affordable housing.

The problem with affordable housing is that no one can afford to build it. But parking structures are already built, so the cost of constructing the primary structure is already accounted for. These are high-quality concrete structures, and we all know how popular it is to repurpose existing buildings into housing. Affordable housing is something most cities are struggling with, but if they suddenly had this massive, found resource? That’s when affordable housing becomes affordable.

Steve McConnell, architect


Adaptable Garages

We need to start designing buildings that can transform themselves when the evolution to driverless cars occurs. The parking structure itself requires new design solutions. If we begin to institute flat-plate floor layouts with higher floor-to-floor dimensions, garages can be transitioned to creative office space, loft residential units, unique retail destinations or even boutique hotel designs in the future, when the demand for parking decreases.

We should also look at mechanical parking solutions that separate the driver from the automobile upon entry. This would result in less built space for parking and ease the transition to other uses, but so far the cost of mechanical systems is difficult to rationalize and, more importantly, the time required for car retrieval is burdensome. Regardless, we need to address innovative planning and parking solutions today, with an eye on the future, to allow us to move quickly to accommodate coming trends in urban living.

Rick Poulos, architect


Public Transit

One concern about driverless cars is whether public transportation will benefit. Equitable access to jobs and services by means of public transit is one of the most important things the city does, yet many cities are seeing a drop in the use of public transportation with the advent of Uber, Car2Go and similar services.

Having said that, public transit agencies that implement driverless buses will save a lot of money on both labor and, potentially, bus storage costs. Services like van pools for seniors and others with mobility problems could become more cost-effective as well. These savings should be reinvested in research, infrastructure and design to improve public transit.

Cities could also charge a congestion fee for single-occupancy driverless cars entering the city center (London and some other cities charge similar fees now). The money generated from this would go towards funding public transit, and it would create a less congested inner city to make that public transit more efficient; this isn’t even contingent on driverless cars, but could incentivize people to take transit today. Regardless, cities need to join the conversation around driverless vehicles now, so this new service doesn’t just benefit the wealthy.

Amy Taylor, urban planner



The primary source of air pollution caused by automobiles is the particulate matter (very fine dust and debris, including particles of tires and brake pads) they throw into the atmosphere while traveling on both paved and unpaved roads. Cleaner air standards have helped mitigate the air pollution caused by exhaust fumes, but particulates still remain a primary source of air pollution, especially in urbanized areas like Tucson, where inversion layers are a major factor. So it’s safe to say that driverless cars, even if electrically powered, will still contribute to air quality problems to some degree.

Keith Walzak, urban designer and planner


The Power Grid

To be truly marketable on a mass scale, driverless EVs will require us to rethink our existing infrastructure to account for more frequent and accessible recharging stations. Our cities will experience greater demand by EVs not only at the home, but at the job and every location in between: airports, passenger ferry terminals, churches, stadiums, shopping outlets, national parks, vacation resorts and more. The grid system as we know it today will demand more transmission facilities and upgrades to existing substations at the district level, in order to account for more power-surge requirements at peak periods at the local level.

Couple this expanded demand with new renewable energy sources such as photovoltaics, solar thermal heating, wind power and geothermal, and the future energy model will likely require expanded energy fields, in addition to an increase in local and district-level distribution infrastructure. How we plan for this new grid system, as our cities grow taller and more dense, will be a question for city planners, utility providers and land owners alike.

Keith Walzak, urban designer and planner


Car Culture

American society is so automobile-oriented, with status, image, fashion, machismo, control, speed and independence wrapped up in car ownership. An automobile is a mechanical extension of oneself. The space within it is the driver’s personal space, and the manner in which it is driven is an outward expression of each driver’s personality and, often, of masculine power: revving engine, squealing tires, laying on the horn, hard stops.

Driverless cars would largely take this “power” away, making our automobile culture less aggressive, more civil and more polite. They would create an orderly transportation network where every vehicle maintains its own space (no tailgating, no cutting another vehicle off), operates at mundane, optimal speed and efficiency (no revving, no jackrabbit starts, no wheel-squealing), and delivers its passengers benignly to their destination. Driverless cars, by turning power and control over to the machine, would “emasculate” the culture of driving. Probably for the better.

But what about those who continue to drive human-controlled vehicles? When they know that autonomous vehicles will respond safely and without resentment, will they drive more aggressively? What traffic laws, if any, will be necessary to keep aggressive drivers from taking advantage of a newly safe, efficient, emotionless transportation network?

Kim Way, urban designer and planner



As a parent, would I put my middle-school student in a driverless car and send her off to soccer practice by herself — one less chore for me to do after work? I’m not ready to allow her to go anywhere unattended in a driverless car, for many reasons. What would she do if an accident happened? (And they have, already.) What if it was possible for her to redirect the car and go somewhere else? Who chaperones her arrival, the soccer coach?

And that’s just with older kids. Until they are eight years old (in Washington State, anyway), how do you deal with car seats and booster seats, strollers and kid paraphernalia in shared, driverless cars? You would have to carry everything with you before the car drove away. Many of these devices can be quite bulky — they would have to be redesigned, or offices, shopping centers, restaurants, etc. that cater to families would need to provide storage areas on-site. Did we just replace the need for a parking stall with lockers?

Kim Selby, planner, urban designer, parent


Image courtesy of Pexels.

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Computers Will Design
Our Cities

How Architects Use Computational Design to Build a Better World

September 2, 2013

Managing Partner, NBBJ

We live in a time when computing power is redefining the ways companies make money, and people experience the environment around them. Big data and sophisticated computation allow business leaders to make more informed bets on the future. Likewise, architects, engineers, planners and designers use the latest computing methods to design smarter and more innovative environments.

Architects who embrace computational — or parametric — design tools are changing the science of design. Computational design allows architects to gain a much better understanding of how their ideas will work in reality, whether on the scale of a city, a single building or a single person walking into that building. It helps to quantify measurable factors, from cost to energy consumption to social impact and more, while also addressing aesthetic concerns such as artistry and meaning.

Consider three examples:

  1. Buildings are significant consumers of energy. By nearly every estimate, they account for more than 33% of total global energy use, and up to 67% when considering all the resource-consuming devices and systems within those buildings. Computational design can reduce that impact by scientifically predicting the outcome of “passive design solutions” — factors that cut energy consumption, such as materials which retain or give off heat, or devices which shade against the sun and reduce the need for air conditioning. Architects have no excuse for designing buildings that haven’t carefully considered energy management in a passive way. And the payback is enormous thanks to immediately lower energy costs, which can then be factored over the life of the building.
  2. Computation can also lead to efficient stewardship of construction materials. For instance, at NBBJ, the firm I work for, we used parametric design tools to calculate the most efficient structural system for a stadium in China, which resulted in a 65% reduction in steel used compared with similar facilities. In the face of high worldwide demand for steel, conserving resources in this way is not only ethical from a sustainability perspective, but it also makes good financial sense.
  3. Designers are in the early stages of using parametric tools to enhance local communities at the micro scale of an individual building and the macro scale of an entire city. Architects can build a hypothetical urban plan in a computer model and then change parameters (block size, zoning regulations) and the distribution of public spaces (parks) to run simulations that predict the likelihood and pattern of future investment. By altering the parameters, planners can fine-tune a plan to encourage economic development and innovation, while making it as easier for people to meet one another and form social bonds. Computational design determines not just how to allocate resources, but how to construct the social fabric of a city that is healthy, safe, meaningful and inspiring — that’s when this tool becomes truly transformative.

It’s often said that the architectural profession is slow to evolve, but right now a radical change is unfolding in how design firms can be relevant and valuable. There will always be a role for creative intuition when architects interpret the results of computational design. But the architecture firms that will be leaders in delivering a better tomorrow are those that can marry the art of design to the science of design.

This post originally appeared on the World Economic Forum blog.

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