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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A Balanced Mix: The Story of Four Learners

How Colleges and Universities Can Provide Environments to Meet Diverse Learning Needs

December 7, 2017

Architect, NBBJ

As pedagogies evolve from traditional lectures to a more active, team-based learning approach, higher education institutions are beginning to allocate space to emphasize active learning interactions both inside and outside the classroom, with the belief that this will help students learn and retain more. Colleges and universities are beginning to recognize the need for learning environments outside the classroom, but many times these manifest themselves as “in-between” spaces in corridors and student lounges, without specific attention to the kinds of environments that better foster learning.

As curriculum expands beyond the scheduled classroom, the demand for these spaces increases. Therefore, it is necessary to narrow in on the students who use these spaces, who they are and how they learn, in order to increase retention rates and produce successful graduates. Then institutions, in partnership with architects and designers, can begin to tailor learning environments outside of the scheduled classroom to a more targeted user scope.

 

Who Are the Learners?

The first step in defining these spaces is to understand who these learners are and how they learn. There are many types of learners and hybrids of sorts. Pedagogy experts Peter Honey and Alan Mumford of the University of Leicester identity four types of learners: Explorers, Thinkers, Observers and Testers.

Explorers try anything once. They like to tackle problems by brainstorming and fully immersing themselves in the moment. They are open-minded and not skeptical.

Thinkers assimilate disparate facts into coherent theories. They have a linear thought process that follows a step-by-step procedure. They are logical, detached, and analytical.

Observers collect data through their own experiences and observations of others. They consider all possible outcomes and angles before making a decision. Their philosophy is to be cautious.

Testers experiment with application. They seek links between training and current needs in the search for immediate applicable benefits. They are practical.

 

How to Design for the Learners?

Classroom learning environments will continue to be a mix of traditional and team-based space types. However, as the four types of learners digest knowledge in very different ways, they need different types of spaces outside the classroom.

An Explorer seeks variety as they act on impulse. They may be perfectly adaptable in any environment they happen to be in; however, they may be drawn to an environment that allows for open thought and brainstorming with a team, such as an active, open student area with writing surfaces. They are not habitual and may try different environments each day.

A Thinker seeks a logical rationale and may be drawn to an internal reflective space that secludes them from the outside world. This provides a focused environment that is consistent and reliable. They may be content in a small enclosed room or nook that provides a sense of privacy with acoustic isolation and visual separation.

An Observer seeks all information possible and may position themselves in a space that allows for conducting research through observation of others and reflection on their own experiences. They may be drawn to a more active team-based room where they can work with others and exchange information based on past experiences. They may also require access to research information, either analog or digital. These environments may be best positioned within a library or learning center.

A Tester seeks learning through action and will be more drawn to environments that allow for hands-on application, whether in a laboratory, studio or maker space. They may require more space and tools to allow for simulation or making.

How-to-enable-learners_171031

Institutions may struggle with the idea of providing such individualized space within the constraints of money and space allocations. A key to finding this balance and allowing for such user-centric spaces outside the classroom is to provide a level of flexibility and user-adaptability within the range of the learner-defined environments, in order to encompass the larger variety of learners.

For instance, a student lounge may appeal to a larger range of learners with the addition of mobile furniture, writing surfaces and movable walls. Spaces can also be made more flexible by allowing the room use to shift throughout the day: scheduled breakout rooms become team project rooms; faculty huddle rooms become enclosed study rooms. Small shifts in the programming and details of these spaces can provide flexibility and user-adaptability to address the range of learners.

Colleges and universities will help the broad range of learners to be more successful and encourage retention by understanding the inherent qualities of how students learn and by implementing, in partnership with architects and designers, a balanced mix of learning environments in and outside of the classroom that speak to these learning traits.

All images courtesy of NBBJ (photo by Benjamin Benschneider).

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A Call for Urban Intensification

Five Priorities for Creating Mixed, Happy, Intensified Cities

November 13, 2017

Urban Design Director, NBBJ

As cities around the world grow, questions are rising: How many people can one city sustain? Will cities be affordable places for all — and for all activities — or enclaves for only the wealthy? What impact will they have on the environment?

Often these questions revolve around metrics that measure density — ratios or other units of measurement such as population/acre, dwellings/acre, or floor area ratio — and the denser a proposal, the more likely a community will resist change. However, these figures express only the quantitative aspects of city life, leaving aside the qualitative: the what and the how people are doing, and when. Interrogating this also helps us answer the why. Why are people often still car-dependent? Why do some places feel unsafe at certain times of the day? Why are people not getting enough exercise?

Rather than focus on urban “densification,” therefore, perhaps we should consider urban “intensification.” Intensification focuses on the complementary uses that occur around-the-clock, whether in a building, a block or a wider piece of city. Not only would intensification create better cities by reducing travel time between places of work, living and learning, promoting knowledge exchange and fostering a multi-generation environment, it would also have the potential to solve many of the most complex issues of our time.

 

Blur

The good news is our urban environments are already ripe for intensification as the lines between activities and land uses are blurred:

  • People want to, and do, work from where they live. Household configurations are changing as people live longer and urban living becomes less affordable.
  • Where, how and when we work is changing — productivity is mobile, happens 24/7 and is collaborative. Our live-work communities are often virtual, but the importance of face-to-face interaction is still central to success.
  • There is a desire to integrate leisure activities and play — sport, recreation, culture — into our daily lives as their benefits to health and well-being are understood. Similarly, academic and “commercial” research are intertwined with “learning through doing,” linked to social sustainability.
  • Ideally, the city should be envisioned as an educational laboratory for all ages — we learn outside the classroom.

We are seeking spaces for collaborative production in the city — spaces and places that integrate where we live, work, play and learn. It is happening already as retail, entertainment, workspace and residential uses are vertically arranged within a single building envelope, in places such as the Seaport in Boston. Co-working spaces have been established in cities everywhere, often hosting knowledge exchange events. Custom-built co-housing often incorporates spaces for collective work or recreation. Parking garages that are vacant on the weekend and malls that are empty at night are appropriated by skateboarders.

 

Intensification

However, living, working, playing and learning do not always co-exist happily under the same roof, or even within the same city block. The 24-hour city might sound exciting, but sleeping next to a dance club or a welder might prove irritating. On the other hand, one can imagine a lecture hall that turns into a dance club, a welder’s yard that is shared by a vocational school several hours a day, or a rooftop kitchen garden and greenhouse shared by the occupants of a building — that perhaps includes seniors’ residences or a secondary school — overlapping in their use of the amenity but each also having dedicated time in it.

It is critical that we devise visionary and innovative responses to current trends that allow for an increase in urban intensity while maintaining a high quality of life. Ultimately this is a call to revisit not only the types of buildings and urban blocks we are producing, but also the policies that currently restrict a maximized and productive mix of uses and, in turn, restrict growth through intensification. It is a call to ensure that:

  1. Building and block typologies are developed that are flexible and draw on lessons from the past while innovating for the future. Homes should provide a range of spaces that allow for living, working and sharing space and facilities between households. Some condominiums recognize this both through their covenants and the provision of shared indoor and outdoor space. The multi-generation home allows for this flexibility, providing an ancillary building for the extended family, privacy and/or a place to work.
  2. Strong and clear governance is provided across buildings and neighborhoods — a return to the civic through the identification of a shared common purpose that promotes behavioral change, normalizing sharing and resource efficiency. This is highly attainable — we did not recycle 30 years ago, yet in many cities it now feels wrong to throw away plastic with organic waste. Co-housing and co-working spaces can be a great success, intensifying the use range and knowledge exchange, but only with the right governance in place.
  3. Development incentives that promote innovation in sustainability and delivery methods are instigated. Regulations exist that set environmental and social sustainability performance targets; however, dedicated funds for this infrastructure must be introduced that ensure a use mix beyond retail and integrate natural systems and resilience.
  4. Local identity is recognized and promoted, especially in the public realm, where difference should be celebrated and reflective of the local culture. Intensification is not just about buildings. Food production need not be ground-related — for example, the rooftop urban agriculture of Brooklyn Grange provides food and plays a pedagogical role. Infill buildings can literally bridge diverse uses while intensifying the city.
  5. Innovative delivery models are implemented that subsidize social infrastructure, recognizing the importance of short-term wins for long-term gain. In order to deliver high-quality, low-carbon development in growing cities undergoing change, it is critical the right people work together and recognize the benefits of intensification. Development and project briefs produced by both public and private sector clients must encourage innovative thinking rather than opting for the status quo. This calls for collaboration across diverse disciplines combined with political will.

Through big data and a myriad of tracking technologies we are now beginning to have the tools to measure intensification; what we don’t always have are the policies that allow and encourage it, nor the type of buildings and urban blocks that best accommodate it. Understanding use patterns creates the opportunity to explore how intensification can accommodate growth in a socially, environmentally and economically sustainable way.

Banner image courtesy of Pexels.

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