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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Timber Construction Doesn’t Have to Be “All or Nothing”

How Hybrid Curtain Walls Can Drive Sustainable Innovation in Architecture

December 5, 2018

Principal, NBBJ

Editor’s Note: This post was adapted from the white paper “Hybrid Timber: Performative, biophilic and beautiful” [PDF].

The increased use of timber in construction is a growing and robust opportunity. Wood evokes deep passion and motivation, but why? For one, it’s exciting to have technological and structural advancement within an industry that has been fairly constant since wood balloon framing was invented.

In addition, the prospect of managing our forests sustainably is the future. It supports the use of wood while avoiding the use of old growth species, instead using young saplings or beetle kill forests. It creates sustained carbon capture by circumventing the carbon release that occurs at the end of a tree’s life through decomposition, thereby reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Other benefits include low embodied energy, low thermal conductivity compared to aluminum or steel, better indoor air quality (IAQ), biophilic connections supporting a sense of well-being and health, and the outperformance of other building materials “cradle-to-cradle.”

The use of wood in curtain wall construction, in particular, is an emerging trend. A typical approach to long-span exterior curtain wall design is an aluminum curtain wall framing with secondary steel support—but this convention is being challenged by the use of wood as the primary structural support of the glazing.

Given the industry’s unfamiliarity incorporating wood within typical curtain wall assemblies, this proves to be a challenge, for several reasons:

  • Interest in bidding: The curtain wall market has been busy, making it difficult to draw interest in bidding, especially for smaller scale work.
  • Atypicality: The use of wood is not familiar to most large-scale builders.
  • Cost: The prior two variables drive cost upwards, even though the cost of glue-laminated timber is more cost-effective than steel at similar spans.
  • Engineering: Wood does not possess the same properties as steel, and in fact its strength varies by species.

However, the appropriate application of wood is not a matter of “all or nothing.” Hybrid options using wood as the lateral supporting system or as a dead load support, combined with more conventional aluminum systems or a semi-unitized curtain wall system, can yield a more conventional and familiar system design, making wood a more viable option for cost and schedule.

In one example I worked on, the curtain wall subcontractor provided the engineering of the curtain wall and attachments to the glue-laminated timber, and the structural engineer of record provided the engineering of glue-laminated timber and its attachment to the primary structure of the building, similar to the use of a more conventional secondary steel system.

In another example, the curtain wall subcontractor provided the entire engineering of the composite system, including the wood dead load supports, which transfer the window system loads to the primary structure.

With both of these options, the curtain wall consultants worked closely with the full engineering team as the point of intersection and peer-review for the system as a whole. Wood suppliers provided design information on the wood and glue-laminated timbers available, and communicated their unique strength characteristics by species to the design team.

Essential to the success of these projects was our strategic and proactive planning toward connecting markets and suppliers and building consensus between them, defining engineering roles and responsibilities, and effectively addressing fire and combustibility concerns.

Photo © Lawrence Anderson

Building a proper team with supportive and knowledgeable industry partnerships is paramount in being able to meet these challenges with clarity. Therefore, it is critical to partner with both an experienced timber/curtain wall engineer and forestry partners that have an in-depth knowledge of the process and the fluency to ask the right questions at the right time to support success and mitigate risk. I also recommend partnering with local fire authorities early in the process, onboarding them to the use of timber prior to permit submission.

Our hope is to create a ripple effect for the imperative change needed at a larger, industry-wide scale. Similar to code related energy requirements, only larger-scale demand will propel cross-industry advancement and expertise. This will drive innovation towards higher performance, reductions in our carbon footprint, less harmful chemical dependency and beautiful biophilic outcomes. The ultimate outcome will enhance our human experience with respect for our planet.

For more on timber construction, please read my white paper “Hybrid Timber: Performative, biophilic and beautiful” [PDF].

Banner photo courtesy of NBBJ/Sean Airhart.

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When Nursing Meets Architecture

Building a Unique Nurse Consultant Role in Healthcare Design

September 5, 2018

Partner, NBBJ

Editor’s Note: This post was originally published on Medscape. It was coauthored by Kristina A. Krail, RN, BSN, MPH, and Teri Oelrich, RN, BSN, MBA.

Nurses as Design Consultants in Architecture

As a nurse, have you ever watched in wonder the marvel of a new hospital rising out of the ground? Are you curious about the history of your campus or building — how it came to be or who created the design? Have you enjoyed serving on a committee when your organization was planning a new building, unit, or renovation? Was there ever a time in your nursing practice when you were frustrated with the design of your work setting and asked yourself, “What were they thinking?”

If you answered “yes” to any of these questions, you may be interested to know about the small but growing group of nurses who work directly with architects, engineers, and construction managers to build or renovate healthcare facilities. Employed as clinical consultants, project managers, planners, data analysts, or group facilitators, these nurses play a vital role at the cornerstone where the design and healthcare industries meet. By representing the various constituents through a keen understanding of the perspectives of each (and the language they use), and by leveraging those effective interpersonal skills honed as healthcare providers, nurses employed in this serve a vital role in all stages of the design process.

This area of specialty is relatively new. In 1989, the architecture firm NBBJ became one of the first to employ full-time nurses after I completed my MBA and responded to a NBBJ job posting for healthcare consulting. Today, I’m a partner in the multimillion dollar company.

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Co-author Kris Krail (at right)

At NBBJ I am joined by, among others, Kris Krail, who came to the firm serendipitously after a long career in nursing administration serving as a chief nursing officer at a variety of hospitals. She was excited to join an architecture firm because her father was a draftsman, she was active in preserving historical buildings, and the most enjoyable times during her administrative practice were when her hospitals were in a building mode.

Although the American Nurses Association does not yet recognize this type of work as its own specialty, it does direct interested professionals to the Nursing Institute for Healthcare Design — a 150-person organization of like-minded professionals with a common goal of integrating clinical expertise into the planning and design of healthcare environments.

The Role of Design Consultant

Nurses in the architecture, engineering, and construction industries must possess leadership qualities, demonstrate emotional intelligence, and be nurse experts in their field of functional or clinical specialty. We work both internally within a project team and externally with healthcare clients, so the ability to collaborate and communicate is paramount, and well-honed writing and public speaking skills are essential. They must also be comfortable and self-assured enough to interact with all client levels of personnel, from entry-level service staff to physicians and board members. An advanced degree may be required, but more important is the ability to demonstrate astute organizational skills and manage projects in a self-directed way.

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Co-author Teri Oelrich (at left)

The work itself and the benefits derived from the role are also varied, which makes the job enjoyable for us. No two days are ever alike; joy comes from interacting with a variety of people both within our firm as well as on the client side. Our nursing and healthcare expertise is relied upon extensively, but our “people skills” are also counted on, because architects are classic introverts. We achieve great satisfaction through building coalitions, managing conflict, and facilitating teams in resolving problems. There are always numerous opportunities to teach and mentor — another favorite nursing skill that gets tapped into often.

It’s hardly an easy job. We are called upon to balance priorities, often at odds, between building requirements and patient care or staff needs. Resource allocation — staffing, dollars, space, and time — continues to be a challenge for all involved. We have to go where our clients are, and so some travel is entailed, a requirement that either fits into one’s work/life balance equation or it doesn’t. And there are always deadlines, tight schedules, and sometimes late nights.

Still, the satisfaction realized by being involved in creating a new setting for patient care is unmatched. The opportunity to translate the needs of staff, patients, and families to those who design and build those settings creates a legacy that makes an impact for years to come — a legacy of spaces that are not just newer but also better, more efficient, safer, and more healing.

Banner image courtesy of NBBJ.

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