Letter to a Young Architect

What I Wish I Had Known When My Career Began

May 23, 2018

Managing Partner, NBBJ

@SteveNBBJ

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.

Steve

 

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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Learning from Tech Workplaces

How Research Labs Are Changing to Accommodate New Computational Paradigms

November 2, 2017

Principal / Architect, NBBJ

Editor’s Note: This post was originally published by Laboratory Design.

Workplaces around the world are evolving as organizations like Apple, Google and Amazon seek to design offices that increase collaboration, integrate new technologies and help employees work more efficiently. This ethos is now making its way to the buildings where scientists and researchers work. Here’s why:

 

Research is going digital…

The methods scientists use to conduct research are changing. Labs are traditionally divided into three segments: clinical work, “wet” lab spaces (lab experiments using liquids) and “dry” lab spaces (labs using computers). Analysis and discoveries are becoming increasingly computation-based, or dry, compared to traditional wet laboratories.

From 2013 to 2015, the National Institutes of Health’s dry research funding for networking and IT R&D increased 40%, growing from $521 million to $729 million. The past decade has seen an explosion in data-intensive life sciences, including genomic research and medicine centering on healthcare customization and treatments based on patient DNA sequences.

The focus on data and computing in science fields is creating a shift in roles. There are close to twice as many dry bench scientists — including computation, informatics/clinical outcomes and clinical scientists — than wet bench scientists working today. Dry labs also require about 20% less space, at a little under 100 square feet per person versus close to 125 square feet per person in a wet lab.

Data creation, metadata (data about data) management and data curation are increasingly becoming the domain of the scientist. Lab benches are drying out.

 

Innovations require collaboration.

Social network modeling and studies show that collaboration, not just within teams but between teams, is crucial to increased productivity, idea generation and effective communication. The denser and less siloed the social network, the more creative the lab. New or repurposed science workspaces have a responsibility to accommodate these findings.

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The Building for Translational Medicine, Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Boston, MA (photo courtesy Sean Airhart/NBBJ)

Translational research and medicine, a biomedical field that blends research, clinical work and community health efforts, is becoming the norm. Carrying research from theory to implementation is now happening all in the same space. Research is becoming increasingly cross-disciplinary and interdependent.

From a design perspective, distance matters. Visual transparency between wet and dry labs is critical to supporting interdisciplinary and serendipitous connections by helping increase social ties. Organizations like Brigham and Women’s Hospital are bringing benchside (medical research), bedside (clinics) and imaging facilities together under one roof.

The recently opened Allen Institute in Seattle intersperses collaborative meeting spaces, neuroscience and biomedical research zones and labs into one building to investigate how our brains and cells function.

 

How can research organizations design for data?

Tech companies focus on maximizing human performance in their offices. These businesses typically emphasize key factors to attract data scientists: company mission, amenities, brand expression, an activity-based workplace and mobility.

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The Salk Institute for Biological Studies, La Jolla, CA (photo courtesy NBBJ)

Here are a few design takeaways from the tech field that could be applied to science workspaces:

  • Provide creativity-boosting open collaborative and more sheltered huddle spaces for work, as well as in-between spaces like a café, lounge or even just an area to refresh and recharge. A balance between prospect and refuge areas is critical. A classic example, the Louis Kahn-designed Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, California, weaves in these principles through the open courtyard to the more enclosed offices.
  • Numerous studies have documented the stress-reduction effects of nature. So bring in some green — simulated or real — and orient work spaces toward views.
  • Building in ways to get exercise at work improves cognitive levels. Providing exercise-oriented amenities or access to outdoors and places to move — such as stairs and areas for stretching and other light activities — can help.
  • Bring in visual interest. A beautiful environment is proven to increase blood flow in parts of the brain that center on emotion and reward, which can help increase engagement and motivation.

 

Design for interdisciplinary work.

Designing better spaces is about understanding, optimizing and anticipating spatial needs. It’s about reallocating available space — learning how space is being used and which space is underused. For new projects, it’s about identifying core challenges and designing appropriate solutions. But more importantly, it’s about people.

Banner photo courtesy Lara Swimmer/NBBJ.

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The Amen(c)ity Tower

A Design Concept for the Future of Amenities in Commercial Real Estate

July 5, 2017

Editor’s Note: This post was originally published by NAIOP.

As employees increasingly work from a variety of locations and companies lease co-working spaces — or even do away with offices altogether — real estate developers and owners seek the ever-elusive “edge” that will keep their companies and their buildings competitive. To do so, developers are expanding building amenities to entice top talent and facilitate staff engagement. According to Colliers International, traditionally only 3 percent of commercial real estate was devoted to amenity space; today, the recommendation has more than tripled to 10 percent, or up to 12 percent to attract high-value tenants [PDF]. The value of increasing amenity spaces can be significant: CBRE has reported that in one instance, amenities like gyms, lounges and restaurants boosted asking rates by 15 percent.

Amenities have typically ranged from providing daily conveniences (dry cleaning, food courts, etc.) to recreation or health (gyms, saunas, clinics, etc.). To appeal to a younger generation, building owners are in a race of amenity one-upmanship, with popular amenities like table tennis and free food becoming less of a differentiator than health complexes, basketball courts and hair salons.

Drawing on Daniel Pink’s treatise on human motivation, Drive, we can postulate that most, if not all, of these amenities draw upon ideas of extrinsic motivation — what he calls Motivation 2.0. They are based on the assumption that we would rather do anything than work. They empower us to distract ourselves by taking a break, getting our hair cut, or playing some shuffleboard.

Compare that to Pink’s research that suggests organizations should instead tap into intrinsic motivation — those internal motivators for creativity and accomplishment that fill the upper levels of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Architects are beginning to understand what these ideas could mean for physical spaces and the types of amenities inside.

tower_section_fin_smAssessing these trends, NBBJ wanted to test spatial ideas of how we could address the future of amenities in urban high-rise office buildings, in an urban concept we call the Amen(c)ity Tower. Created to generate new ideas about the future of high-rises, this proposed design comprises an office tower that would be cylindrical in organization, with traditional work environments stacked at the perimeter, amenities at the building core, and social/collaborative spaces serving as the glue between the two. New amenities, now organized at the building core, are enablers of creativity. Black box performance spaces, maker spaces, holistic wellness facilities, and artist studios provide freedom to undertake the mental and physical exercise of becoming more focused, inspired and purposeful at work.

This tower scheme is based upon a premise that workplace amenities should occupy a higher proportion of leasable area — understanding that “work” doesn’t just happen at a desk. The design also requires a shift from traditional leasing strategies in which tenants lease a finite amount of space with limited access to amenities. In this model, tenants instead have access to the full range of amenities afforded by the entire vertical campus under the assumption that providing expanded access will have a positive effect on the work environment.

vertical_garden_fin_smResearch tells us that the biggest drivers of productivity in the workplace are related to interior environmental quality and focus. The Amen(c)ity Tower employs ways to optimize both.

A central vertical greenspace reaps the benefits of nature, as well as using plants to clean the air. In this case, plant species which have been proven to purify and oxygenate air such as the areca palm are distributed into columns throughout the central greenspace, enhancing both the aesthetics and functionality of the space.

Distraction dampens creativity and productivity in the workplace. According to a study by the University of California Irvine, it takes more than 23 minutes to reorient to a task after an interruption [PDF]. A Basex study has reported that workplace interruptions resulting from emails, instant messages and even casual conversations cost the United States $588 billion annually [PDF]. The Amen(c)ity Tower aims to curtail this productivity loss and mental strain through an amenity that employs an array of individual pods that completely block wireless signals, enabling greater concentration. Outfitted with acoustic dampening and full spectrum lighting, these prefabricated pods provide a comfortable space of solitude — perhaps the most undervalued amenity in today’s world.

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While workplaces have made huge gains in employee comfort and convenience, we still operate under the premise that work in and of itself is not something we choose to do. If the aim of providing amenities is to make our work better, our Amen(c)ity Tower concept seeks to understand what aspects of the workplace keep us from being our best selves, and what features might fuel our internal predisposition to be inquisitive, productive and creative.

All images © NBBJ.

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