Friday, May 2, 2014

The Infrastructure of Health

Life expectancy differential in urban areas - Washington, DC, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation

“We say, ‘You are what you eat.’ Well, we are what we build.”   Susan Piedmont-Palladino, Curator, National Building Museum

The built environment has a tremendous impact on health and wellness, and nowhere is this more evident than in our cities.  In a 2013 study released by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, it was found that being born (and living) just a few metro stops apart in Washington, DC can mean a difference in life expectancy of up to 7 years.  Where babies born to mothers in Northwest Washington DC, Arlington and Fairfax Counties in Virginia, and Montgomery County, Maryland can expect to live to be 83 or 84 on average, that average drops to just 77 or 78 years for residents of Southeast Washington DC, and parts of Prince Georges County Maryland.  For those familiar with the Washington, DC metropolitan area, these figures probably don’t come as much of a surprise - there is a very evident socio-economic gap between the communities of Northwest DC and those to the Southeast.  And Washington, DC is not unique in this sense.  All around the world, cities are divided by a complex and often entrenched set of factors relating to wealth, opportunity, and policy which, as the study above points out, can be a major detriment to the health of the cities inhabitants.  Increasingly, the built environment is being looked at as a key influence on community health, wellness, and prosperity.

In a recent panel discussion on ‘Creating Healthy Places’ sponsored by The Urban Land Institute, Scott Kratz, the Director of the 11th Street Bridge Park in Anacostia, addressed this succinctly:  “Your zip code should never determine your life expectancy.”  In his view, place is the largest determinant of health.  As an architect and designer, this concept reinforces my own belief that the environments we create are never benign.  The buildings and public spaces we help build are more than just projects to place in a portfolio – they are real places with a very real impact on the lives of people who live in them.  At the most basic level, the built environment should promote and ensure both individual and community health.

"Creating Healthy Places - The 11th Street Bridge park and Beyond" Panel Discussion 

An Evolving View of Cities and Wellness
Today, the concept of health is better expressed by the word ‘wellness’ which describes a much broader view of personal prosperity.  In the past, being healthy was considered mostly a personal choice.  Do you eat well?  Do you exercise and stay active?  Do you practice good hygiene?  To a certain extent, this is still true of course, but we now know that there are many more external factors that influence health which exist outside the realm of personal choice.   And this is where the role of the built environment – and ourselves as designers– becomes critical.  This changing view on health acknowledges that the physical environment of cities and the inherent services they provide can impact the wellness of entire communities.  Numerous studies are beginning to quantify the benefits of cities designed with health and wellness in mind.  Living near parks and open space promotes happiness and mental health which correlates to a decrease in unemployment and increase in insurance status and income.  Food Deserts – areas without access to a full range of fresh and healthy food options – are linked to higher rates of obesity, heart disease, diabetes, and other long-term health issues.  And many jobs cannot be reached without access to comprehensive public transit options.  These are just a few examples, but the message seems clear – for healthy communities, we need to design cities with robust and inclusive access to open space, food health, transportation, safety, and education.

Housing and Full Spectrum Communities
In the same panel discussion, Maureen McAvey, a Senior Resident Fellow at The Urban Land Institute also touched on upward mobility and the idea of maintaining community as a contributor to wellness.  She noted that many residents in low-income neighborhoods are faced with a difficult choice upon moving up the economic scale.  In order to attain property or a lifestyle with increased access and benefits, the residents are forced to either leave their current community or stay and continue to struggle with the issues that exist in many low-income neighborhoods. Instead, McAvey argues that we need to design “full-spectrum” communities where all levels of housing and access to services are represented to allow for upward mobility within the community.  

New Generation, New Thinking
McAvey also sees potential for change being initiated by the younger generation of city-dwellers.  “The new generation thinks differently, so we have an opportunity to design our cities differently.”  Where decades past have seen movement out of urban centers and a heavy reliance on vehicles, the new generation is trending towards moving back into the city and leaving cars behind.  Many young people today are willing to trade-off large living spaces for a better location.  The sharing-economy is also helping to reinvent the idea of urbanity.  Car and bike-share systems are re-shaping the way residents and tourists get around the city.  Airbnb-style accommodation networks are revolutionizing the way people find housing without long-term lease or purchase commitments.  And companies like Uber are allowing people to use their own goods and services to become micro-entrepreneurs.  This collaborative consumption stresses sharing over ownership and empowerment over reliance. 

As our society starts to adapt to this new model of citizenship, we’ll see the physical nature of our cities start to change as well.  As designers, we need to acknowledge this evolution and recognize it’s potential for improving the overall wellness of our communities.  We should involve not just clients, but the community in our design process.  We should promote and insist on equal access to open space, transportation, and nutritional health as part of every project program and not just those that call specifically for it.  We should think like the new generation and help shift the paradigm of empowerment and ownership as integral to the health of our cities communities.  As Albert Einstein famously said, “We cannot solve our problems with the same method of thinking we used to create them.”

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Design Disrupted - The LDN LAB Experiment

This post was written as part of an ongoing research grant sponsored by RTKL Associates. The research is an attempt to understand and redefine how architecture and design firms operate traditionally and how they can evolve to function dynamically in a changing industry.

The LDN LAB Experiment - Redesign the London BikeShare Totem

I was more than a little nervous. I was nervous because I was about to present in front of some of the best and brightest colleagues I have at RTKL. I was nervous because the presentation included a handful of ideas that were critical of the way we operate as a design firm. I was nervous because I just drank too much coffee and I stayed up too late the night before. Oops. But I was most nervous because I didn’t have any answers. I had ideas, sure – but no real answers. I started my Kagan research because I wanted to challenge RTKL and prove that innovative design was not just the product of lone creative geniuses, but instead, how we collectively work, how we’re organized, and what our actions say as a firm. RTKL had just flown me halfway around the world to present my findings at the 2013 RTKL Design Conference in London; and now, I had the opportunity to wow everyone with my super-amazing, world-changing solutions. This was my chance. Only, that’s not the way it works and it was never really that simple to begin with.

Performance Driven Design is a great idea. A lot of people get hung up on the fact that it’s difficult to define, but that’s actually a major part of its strength and potential. I personally don’t believe that PDD is one definable method and we risk alienating people if we try to present it as such. To me, PDD is more of an ethos – more performance-based than prescriptive. Every studio within the firm works a little differently, and every project is unique. Performance Driven Design is simply the notion that every project, regardless of size, type, location or program should be treated as a unique design opportunity. The best possible solutions should be researched, tested, and implemented to produce the highest performing result possible. Sounds like that’s just good design, right?

It is. But again, it’s not that simple. Before any project even hits the desk, so many things happen that can hamper those efforts. Projects are preemptively categorized and funneled into singularly focused practice group buckets. Project teams are assembled and administered based on redundant, generalized expertise to achieve maximum efficiency. Most major project-defining decisions are made early on by a handful of senior-level employees and then handed down to production teams. All of these typical practices are great for efficiency, but they limit any chance at design innovation, which is the key to Performance Driven Design.

Much of the Kagan research I’ve done has led to three broad ideas meant to combat this conservative design process and allow for innovation to be an integral part of RTKL’s design identity – “Kill the Studio”, “Give It Away”, and “Flatten the Pyramid.” “Kill The Studio” is an attempt to move away from an overarching practice group-based structure so that every project is approached as a unique design challenge by teams layered with multiple types of design expertise. “Give It Away” is an effort to impart a deeper meaning to our work by assimilating research and development into the everyday design process as well as at a firmwide level through dedicated R+D teams, academic partnerships, pro-bono work and internal research-pursuit programs. “Flatten the Pyramid” is a move to enable and promote junior-level employees to decision-making stakeholders within the firm. This will balance out traditionally conservative senior leadership decisions and provide critical experience to create future leaders at RTKL. These are not groundbreaking ideas by any stretch, but they are necessary if we want to truly operate as an innovative design firm.

LDN LAB Design Activity

At the 2013 RTKL Design Conference, I was fortunate enough to have a chance to test these ideas. In a very well-crafted and ingeniously-supplied design exercise drawn up by Paul Anstatt, Carlos Alba, Sally Hart and personally curated by members of the London office, the design conference attendees were asked to go to three distinct locations around the city of London, using design to reinterpret the ubiquitous bike-share totem. In the true spirit of using the design exercise as a field experiment, I was given the ability to organize the three teams based on a few theories that roughly correlated to the ideas above.

To test out the “Kill the Studio” hypothesis, we put together a team of seven members, each one from a different practice group and with different areas of professional expertise. The idea here was to see if combining multiple types of expertise and experience would have any impact on design. To test “Give It Away,” the team was formed by attendees who all provided strong emotional responses to design as it related to them personally in a pre-conference survey. Here, we were looking to see if a distinct design outcome would emerge from team members who viewed design as something deeper than a formal exercise. Finally, to test “Flatten the Pyramid” we put together a team of all junior employees – associate level and below – to see if the result might differ from a typical top-down hierarchy-based team.

I will admit that prior to the design exercise I was a little skeptical we would see any distinct results from a two-hour activity. However, the results were more clear than I could have ever asked for. During the activity, I was able to watch each team in action. Seeing that, in combination with the end results, clearly showed that we already have incredible talent and drive on our team and with just a few basic changes to the way we do things at RTKL, we can indeed be one of the best and most innovative design practices in the world.

The “Kill the Studio” team greeted me with a resounding “Which option?!” when I asked to see their design progress. As it turned out, rather than focusing on just one design solution, the team was cranking through multiple options. I asked them how they were undertaking the design and they described the design process as more of an improvisational jam session than a linear march to a singular solution. One person would suggest an idea, they would mock it up, and then someone would add onto it with a complimentary idea. They would eventually reach a point where the design felt “complete” or a brand new idea would emerge. The process would then start all over again, with each new iteration taking on an identity of it’s own. As I continued to question them on how they were making decisions and who was leading the design, it quickly became evident that a flat organization had emerged. Everyone had different skill sets, ranges of expertise and approached the design challenge through a different lens. If everyone on the team had the same background, then a general hierarchy based on experience would have most likely emerged and the potential for divergent ideas would have narrowed. Instead, the fact that everyone had unique perspectives based on varied backgrounds allowed a much more open and wide-ranging discussion on ideas and generated a hyperactive process that produced a diverse set of design options.

The site for the “Give It Away” team was situated in Shoreditch, a transitional neighborhood located just north of the downtown business district. It’s proximity to the business district and traditionally low rent make it an area ripe for development. The signs of that transition were evident. The team immediately took note of the diversity of people they met and the colorful street art that permeated the frenetic collision of old buildings, new buildings and construction sites. When asked about the neighborhood, one local citizen remarked that they ‘really liked the area, but we’re nervous about what it could become in a year.’ As the team continued to interview and interact with the local community, it became apparent that their design solution would have to be more about place and community engagement than just a new bike kiosk. Claire Bedat, from the Washington DC office, noted that “Talking with the people really got us started.” And Camilla Simas from Sao Paolo followed with “Whatever we do, the project has to be about interaction. It has to be open and allowed to mutate.” The major question they decided to answer: How will people engage with it and use it to make a statement about their place? Now, even though this might not be thought of as traditional research and development, the depth of their inquiry seemed to approach the true spirit of it. All of their observations – especially their interaction with the local population – led them to instill a deeper meaning to their design process and ideas. In other words, the ‘research’ they conducted allowed them to look beyond the activity as a straightforward task to redesign a bike kiosk, identify an underlying opportunity and approach it as a way to affect change.

At the very outset of the Design Activity, I walked with the “Flatten the Pyramid” team to their chosen site in Brick Lane – an eclectic neighborhood known for it’s delicious curry houses and an ever changing population of different ethnic groups. The excitement to be out designing in the streets was palpable. As we wandered through the crowded streets bursting with activity, bright colors, strange sounds and smells (both good and bad), and a sense of riotous adventure, it was difficult to keep the team together. There was just too much to see and too much excitement to avoid. In fact, by the time we reached the site, one team member had already wandered off to on their own to see more. The team quickly decided that in order to really immerse themselves in the design process they needed to separate into smaller teams and explore the area further before meeting back at the site to start designing. The group darted off in every conceivable direction to investigate, talk with the locals and drink in the new atmosphere. It was obvious that they were excited to have complete design freedom. All too often, young employees are only seen as tools for production, due to their limited experience. Ironically though, that limited experience is one of their greatest assets. Without their frame of reference narrowed by years of working on similar projects, young designers are often better suited to approach design from new and exciting points of view. Combine that with their inherent passion, energy and understanding of new social and technological trends, it seems more than plausible that giving young designers a voice at RTKL would be a critical step towards generating new ideas and promoting innovation. Freed from the typical hierarchy of the design process, this became all the more obvious to me when the team showed up with their solution after the design activity. It was by far the most whimsical, using big ideas and very ‘out of the box’ thinking to achieve their final design result.

LDN LAB - Design Activity Models

So now I was no longer nervous. Not because my presentation and the design activity were over. Not because the caffeine had worked it’s way out of my system. And not because I felt like I had any answers. I wasn’t nervous any more because I realized that we don’t need to start with answers and we probably shouldn’t ever start something thinking we have them. In the end, the design conference activity showed me that all we need to do is start the conversation, get our ideas out into the open and try them. Sometimes the results will amaze you. That’s Performance Driven Design.

Friday, September 13, 2013

Design Disrupted

This post was written as part of an ongoing research grant sponsored by RTKL Associates. The research is an attempt to understand and redefine how architecture and design firms operate traditionally and how they can evolve to function dynamically in a changing industry.

"Good companies fail because they do everything right." 
Clayton M. Christensen, The Innovators Dilemma

In a recent article for Metropolis Magazine, Susan S. Szenasy wrote about the sense of "malaise" that many "mature" architecture firms are experiencing today. She notes that these firms tend to write-off their lack of creativity and perceived passion for design to the likes of the economy, unwilling clients, a shift to fast-track design, and any number of other excuses we're all too familiar with. She implies that these explanations are really just excuses, and firms use them to point the finger at everyone but themselves. She's right. 

But it is time to point that finger at ourselves. The industry is changing and any architecture firm that doesn't adapt to those changes won't survive. We all know about the difference between design and the business of design. It's ok to admit it - RTKL is set up to be a business. It has to be. RTKL is a publicly-traded company that employs over 900 people across the globe in a complex field right smack in the midst of an historically crappy economy. That's business, and it's time we stop using it as an excuse. The core of our business is design. It's what we get paid to do and design is, at its most basic, about innovation. Architectural design that is not innovative is not design - it's just documentation. To be “the best design firm in the world" - as CEO Lance Josal challenged us - innovation must be completely integral to who we are and what we do.

So, how do we do it?  The "malaise" that Szenasy spoke of is real and it’s affecting all parts of the firm - from our product to our public perception to our employee satisfaction. RTKL already has in place an existing process, structure, and culture that have evolved over the course of the firm’s 67 year history. If we want to disrupt that "malaise" that has developed, it's time to reevaluate how we're organized, the way we work, and the message we promote. Opposing the inertia of a large, diverse company is never easy, but it's absolutely necessary in order to evolve and compete. Some of today's most innovative design firms are doing unprecedented things, and RTKL can too if we're willing to disrupt the status quo and make some changes to how we operate.


The success of our firm is a direct result of the process we implement to design.

Practice Groups are a Compromise
Practice Group studios are set up for efficiency - not innovation. If the same team does the same project over and over again, they get really good at it. It's efficient, but it gets repetitive. This tends to stifle innovation. Add to that the fact that projects are not as simple as “one-building-one-use” anymore. Design today is about systems, not objects. A hospital is not just a hospital - it’s a mixture of healthcare, commercial, hospitality, education, technology, and probably also part of a larger campus. Healthcare expertise, albeit the most critical in this example, is really only one part of that design equation. What if RTKL restructured its Practice Group-based hierarchy (Health, Workplace, Commercial, etc.) to be less rigid, and thus imposing, by de-emphasizing the idea of a singular overarching expertise driving design? Traditional Practice Group expertise could still be a part of the organizational structure, but RTKL could identify and strengthen other critical areas of innovation to integrate into the design process.

For example, UNStudio – a critical darling in the design world (and for good reason) - recently reorganized and "relaunched" their firm as an "open-source, web-based knowledge hub" to promote a more "fluid, flexible, and agile knowledge-based approach to work and engaging the world." Sound like a lot of buzz-words? Yeah, probably - but there is substance to the syntax. In order to disrupt the traditional approach to design, UNStudio reorganized their structure and staff expertise into four "knowledge platforms" - Sustainability, Materials, Organization, and Parametrics. In other words, every project is approached and executed not through the lens of traditional project typology – i.e. hospital, school, bank, etc., but through a new set of parameters promoting "co-creation" and “happy accidents” reflecting the design and technological trends of today rather than of the past. 

Self-organizing groups, or 'knowledge platforms' as identified by UNStudio

Could RTKL instigate new ways of design by implementing a different or broader range of integral expertise outside of traditional practice groups?

The "Cooperative Advantage"
Transcendent ideas come from a collision of diverse experience and viewpoints. The architect is no longer the "master builder" building cathedrals in medieval Europe. Everyone has an opinion and there are specialists for everything - use them. Input from consultants, outside expertise, and even the general public can allow for more detailed, responsive, and intelligent projects. In the book Where Good Ideas Come From - The Natural History of Innovation, Steven Johnson defines open-source or, the “cooperative advantage”, as a way to reduce the cost of creation:
"The burden of coming up with good ideas is no longer shouldered exclusively by the company itself. Good ideas can come from anywhere."
He goes on to cite an experimental competition hosted by the District of Columbia in 2008 called Hack the District (later renamed Apps for Democracy in very typical DC fashion…) in which residents were asked to submit software applications that utilized open-source data provided by the DC Government to make the city better and more accessible. In less than two weeks, over 47 apps were submitted. The ideas were so insightful and designed from the ground up that the Obama administration eventually appropriated the idea and created Apps for America which is currently hosting similar competitions in dozens of states. Johnson calculates that the original competition flushed out 47 novel ideas in two weeks for approximately $50,000 worth of prize money compared to the traditional method of in-house or sourced development that would have taken over a year to produce and cost more than $2,000,000 for a single idea.

In short, design is ultimately about the user-experience, but all too often, we take a myopic view of “the user”. Today, the user is more than just the paying client. We are the user, the public is the user, and there is something to learn and teach with every project. Good design engages the entire world as the user and the more diverse expertise we bring to the table as designers, the more complex and critical we are able to make our projects.

The power of the crowd.

Could RTKL implement a collaborative mechanism to incorporate more diverse and specialized expertise and foster public engagement in the design process? 


The character of the firm is based on the culture of it's employees and the message they promote.

Be Your Own Client
The excuse that client's don't want or aren't willing to pay for cutting edge ideas isn't really a valid one. "Bread-and-butter" projects exist for all firms, but internal exploration of out-of-market projects and knowledge-based research let the firm and it's employees test ideas, form new relationships, and promote their brand through action and experience. If an idea is uncovered at RTKL that furthers our mission to better the world through design, the ability to research and develop it should be present and encouraged. The firm should be a platform for action by actively providing support in the form of time, resources, and professional network to enable the exploration of ideas.

The firm KieranTimberlake is known throughout the industry as a leader in innovative sustainable design and it's position as such is backed up by the list of clients who consistently seek them out for it. However, a lot of firms advertise themselves as sustainable design experts - what makes KieranTimberlake different? A recent project highlights why. Through their client-driven work, the firm realized that the measurement and analysis of existing buildings both new and old would be critical in evaluating performance and making future projects more efficient. The problem was, existing real data was difficult to come by and there were too many technological limitations with little ability to re-integrate that information back into the design process. So, KieranTimberlake tapped themselves to fix that.

KieranTimberlake Wireless Sensor Network, Architect Magazine 2013 R+D Awards Winner

To do so, they used their "internal research group" - a committed team of twelve people from diverse technical, design, engineering, and programming backgrounds - to study and develop a "flexible kit of inexpensive thermal and moisture sensors plus the ability to monitor them and improve experiments remotely, and finally the capacity to export the data into a BIM program." Although this project cost them time and money, it did several critical things for them. For starters, it allowed them to collect and analyze the data they found missing from the field and integrate it into their design process. This put them at the forefront of the design-led data collection movement and positioned them as industry leaders. In addition, not only were they able to use the sensors and collected data for themselves, but they were also able to market the technology to other firms and clients. They essentially created a market through in-house research and development. Finally, the project has won numerous awards and garnered much industry buzz which served as marketable proof to their commitment to innovative sustainable design and backed up the conceptual message the firm promotes as it's mission.  

Could RTKL introduce a dedicated platform for research and development to explore innovation in design outside of the boundaries of client-driven work?

A Firm is Known for It's Ideas
Projects are the most public of self-commentary on a design firm’s aspirations. The projects that RTKL does should carry a message and back up the firms design mission. If RTKL is a firm that wants to change the world through design, then we have to do projects that change the world through design. In reality, we know that not every mall, hospital, or desert masterplan we design is going to change the world - but, some of them should and every effort should be made to do so whenever possible. A system of evaluation should be put in place to not only measure the physical impact of our buildings, but also the social impact and message we send.   

Personally, I realized that I fell in love with design when I figured out that I could change the world with it. Part of it was the megalomaniac in me – wait, you mean I can have control over the way things work through design? Yes, please. But, part of it was also the understanding that what we do can make other people's lives better. RTKL is a big company, and it has many resources on hand – specialized skills, financial backing, a global network, an international marketing platform, and most importantly, people that care. Everything RTKL needs to make a difference through design is present. We need to make every effort to support and promote that.

A Place To Go is a volunteer-led effort at RTKL to raise money to design and build a sustainable toilet for a school in Machakos, Kenya. At its core, A Place to Go is an attempt to make the world a better place through design. It’s also an experiment to prove the power of design. Can design build a toilet and improve the sanitary conditions of 150 students? Can design test new ideas about sustainability and resilience by using waste to create energy? Can it cross-pollinate employees, ideas, and skillsets across the office to generate new ways of doing and funding projects? Does it make a statement about what RTKL stands for? I think it does. And although this post is part of a research project, I won’t miss an opportunity to make a shameless plug – go to the website, get involved, and help RTKL prove that it can make the world better through design.

A Place To Go is an employee-funded effort to build a biogas toilet in Machakos, Kenya.

Could RTKL increase its social impact and innovative design by actively pursuing out-of-market projects?       


Employees drive a firm's production mechanism - let them make some of the decisions on what the firms does.

Infiltrate Junior Stakeholders Up
Organizational charts tell us who we are - and who we aren't. The typical organizational chart is shaped like a pyramid. At the top, and smallest cross-section of the pyramid, are the 'decision-makers.' They are usually senior-level employees with more project and leadership experience and have a share of interest in the company – call them 'stakeholders.' Below the decision-makers are various levels of ‘do-ers’. In terms of running a company, this makes sense. Important decisions are relegated to a small group of stakeholders who have a better understanding of managing a business. However, when it comes to fostering innovation, consolidating decisions to senior-level employees may actually hinder the process. While most senior-level employees would never oppose innovative design, the reality is, and rightly so, most are too busy running a company, attempting to secure a profit, or simply have too much to lose to really push for disruptive innovative design.

But we don't want to flatten these pyramids...
When you look at the 'Leadership Council' – essentially RTKL's in-house board of ideas and process – 50 of the 67 members are Principals or above. This means that approximately 75% of the stakeholders responsible for making firmwide design, technology, and process-related decisions are also responsible for managing studios, personnel, projects, and finances. These decisions are difficult, time-consuming, and far-reaching. Perversely, younger employees may have the strangely complimentary advantage of inexperience and lack of responsibility. In short, younger employees have no reason not to shoot for the moon. At the risk of generalizing, the new generation of designers are typically more socially-minded, technologically savvy, and willing to take risks. They have nothing to lose and are hungry to get involved and make a difference. If RTKL wants to foster innovation, it would make sense that employees who are willing to push the boundaries and disrupt the current trends of design are made into stakeholders.

Could RTKL balance the current structure of business-minded stakeholders and decision-makers with a more disruptive-minded and enabled crop of junior employees?

I’m glad Szenasy chose the word ‘malaise’ to describe the feeling in some ‘mature’ design firms. It’s an incredibly apt term. According to Wikipedia – the holder of all knowledge – malaise is defined as “a feeling of general discomfort or uneasiness, of being ‘out of sorts’, often the first indication of an infection or other disease…” In the end, RTKL will continue to design. It’s our job. But how we do that is up to us. Will we continue to accommodate that sense of uneasiness and risk letting it fully develop into a malady that further affects our product, mission, and culture? Or are we willing to take a chance and disrupt that trend by making innovative design the driving force of the firm? 

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Design Disrupted

This post was written as part of an ongoing research grant sponsored by RTKL Associates. The research is an attempt to understand and redefine how architecture and design firms operate traditionally and how they can evolve to function dynamically in a changing industry.

I spend a lot of time on the internet. It's a dirty little habit I picked up in college. Or, maybe it's something I picked up because I get bored at work. Regardless, I spend a lot of time there, and when I do, I inevitably end up on some design blog and I find myself looking at something "innovative". A giant robot that eats suburbs and poops out green space? Cool. A high-rise covered in synthetic hair that generates energy in the breeze? Sweet. A pro-bono community improvement project that turns a bus stop into an after-hours nightclub and cinema? Yep. I like that. So, I download as many images as I can in hopes of copying, emailing, blogging, or tweeting about it later.

But then, after the initial excitement dies down, I find myself questioning what I do at work. We can do that - why aren't we doing that? Are we doing that? If we're not, we should be, right? It’s always been a frustrating line of questioning for me. I can fill up my free time with ideas competitions and volunteer work to get some of that creative enthusiasm out, but what I really want is for that level of innovation and gusto to be a part of what I do sitting behind my desk every day.  And I know I’m not alone.

The Strawscraper by Belatchew Arkitekter

I get it. Maybe those ideas aren't “real” and would cost ridiculous amounts of money and take crazy special effects to pull off. Or there's not enough time in the schedule and money in the budget to research and develop a solution better than the status quo. And maybe frankly, there are way better things for us to improve upon before we start trying to grow hair on our buildings. But there's value in all of that. There’s value in brain exercises and pro-bono work and buildings made of meat just like there's value in efficiently designing and delivering a real project that brings a profit through the door. The real question is can we make a business out of it?

Sure. Why not? Some of my favorite design firms seem to be making quite a successful practice out of a steadfast commitment to innovation and pushing boundaries. BIG, UNStudio, OMA, and MVDRV – to name a few we’re all familiar with – continuously pop up on my innovation radar (think spidey-sense but with design rather than catching criminals). But it’s not just boutique firms either. Some of the big “corporate” firms are starting to invest serious time and money into fostering innovation and culture as a way to set themselves apart as industry thought-leaders. So what is it that allows for these practices to be considered the best design firms in the world and to succeed all while pushing “dangerous” and “edgy” ideas?

Well, in my opinion, they don’t act like architecture firms anymore. The traditional architecture firm is dead – it just doesn’t know it yet. In the past, architecture was about making objects, and as a result, the architecture firm was set up to reflect this model - hierarchal organizations structured around formal specialists. But the world we live and build in is way more complex now. The days of slow, methodical, and partitioned design firms is over. Architecture today needs to be a discipline of systems, not objects.

Let’s be honest, RTKL doesn’t lack creativity and there is no dearth of innovative thinkers. Not by a long-shot. They’re all around us. I sit next to some of the most passionate, bright, and talented people I’ve ever met, and I bet you do too. It’s not a lack of talent and creativity that holds us back from being the best design firm in the world – we’ve just been too hesitant as an organization to change and embrace a new way of thinking to truly become thought leaders. Innovation doesn’t happen through incremental changes to existing techniques. Instead, it happens when you step back from everything you know, and challenge yourself to look at the problem in another way.

I submitted this Kagan because I believe that RTKL can – as CEO Lance Josal challenged us – be one of the best design firms in the world. But if that’s what we really want and are truly committed to, we need to radically change the way we think, how we’re structured, and allow our culture to be a driving force in the design process.

Next Episode:

How do we disrupt the status quo at RTKL and become the innovative design force we want to be? Five ideas:

1. Kill the studio
2. Give it away for free
3. Embrace friction
4. Let technology do the talking
5. Flatten the pyramid

Friday, January 4, 2013

Designed Impermanence

Crunch. Crunch. Boom.

Holy shit, that’s cool.

And by “cool”, I mean mesmerizing. I’m standing on the corner of 16th and L Street in Washington, DC, watching what is essentially a mechanical dinosaur eating its way through an empty building. The building being demolished is now nothing more than a crumbling ruin of concrete chunks and rebar curly-cues – a heavy, slow, animal that real-estate evolution has chosen to leave behind. The new building that grows up in its place will be lighter, smarter, and better adapted to its surroundings. It will hopefully carry forth lessons learned in all its previous iterations. The mechanical carnivore I’m watching sate it’s appetite on the doomed structure is doing so not out of malice, but in the name of progress – the way nature intended. Sort of.

In his Futurist Manifesto, AntonioSant’Elia commented that “every generation should build their own city”, and I believe he was right. Our buildings should reflect our contemporary ideals and stand as indicators of the progress we’ve made and the future we intend to create.  However, as I stand watching the machine crunch through concrete and steel producing tangled piles of rubble, I can’t help but wonder if our buildings are too permanent and if this permanence is holding us back from true innovation and progress. Culture, technology, and fashion are constantly shifting trends that change with the daily push and pull of society, but our buildings often stand idle for 60 years or more with little more than periodic facelifts along the way. Why aren't our buildings designed to more fluidly adapt to the changing needs of society?

Demolishing buildings in the traditional manner is both expensive and wasteful. As efficient as that badass mechanized dinosaur was at its job, it wasn’t actually “eating” any of its meal – it was merely destroying it. Somewhere in the distance, I hear Mother Nature weeping at the waste. At its feet lay a massive pile of concrete, rebar, sheet metal, and other detritus that is now nothing more than landfill and scrap recyclables. It was looking like a major effort to demolish this building, and the only benefit is the empty space it will leave behind. It seemed to me that the cost and associated hassle of demolition and disposal were often deterrents to a healthy turnover of buildings and infrastructure. How many buildings are left in place and given only minor adjustments over time because the cost of demolition and redesign and construction is prohibitive? 

Buildings, and the cities they make up, are indeed complex machines that involve countless hours of investment, planning, design, and construction, so it’s no wonder that permanence is seen as a virtue. But designed impermanence could also be a virtue worth implementing. After tearing myself away from the scene of the building being methodically destroyed in such awesome hungry-mechanized-dinosaur fashion, I attended a photography exhibit on the city of Detroit (Detroit Is No Dry Bones at the NationalBuilding Museum) and its vast area of now derelict real estate. Huge swaths of development that previously housed one of America’s most successful and innovative cites now stand empty and crumbling. The photographs of vacant skyscrapers, abandoned theatres, and neighborhoods of uninhabited homes were proof that cities can easily grow, but cannot necessarily shrink to adapt. What if the city were built to be dismantled?

Del Ray Building - Photo from Detroit Is No Dry Bones by Camilo Jose Vagara

Imagine a dense urban core where skyscrapers still grace the horizon but with an ever-adjustable skirt of development surrounding it. Houses and small commercial buildings sit lightly on the land and are all built to be erected and dismantled as needed – their parts and pieces easily reassembled somewhere else or even combined with others to make new buildings. Voltron would be proud. There is no waste to be landfilled, and the cost of dismantling – not demolition – is more than made up for by the new stock of building components left in its wake. As Detroit grows, so can its boundaries. As Detroit shrinks, buildings can be easily removed to reveal open plots of land for agriculture or public spaces. Density can quickly and easily be managed to adapt to a city’s needs. Constantly shifting buildings will allow for and encourage continuous innovation and improved functionality as we reinvent the city.

Suburb Eating Robot by Andrew Maynard

Monday, June 18, 2012

A Love Letter toWindmills

Don Quixote and the Windmills, Salvador Dali, 1969
...As he was saying this, they caught sight of thirty or forty windmills standing on the plain, and as soon as Don Quixote saw them he said to his squire:

"Fortune is directing our affairs even better than we could have wished: for you can see over there, good friend Sancho Panza, a place where stand thirty or more monstrous giants with whom I intend to fight a battle and whose lives I intend to take; and with the booty we shall begin to prosper.  For this is a just war, and it is of great service to God to wipe such a wicked breed from the face of the earth."

An excerpt from The Ingenious Hidalgo Don Quixote De La Mancha by Miguel Cervantes

People hate windmills. Not since the valiant Don Quixote first couched his lance, set spurs to his trusty steed Rocinante, and charged with the bravado only he could muster, have windmills been more feared and loathed. There is, as our hero noted, a war being waged against this ingenious machine.

Vertical Axis Windmill in Nishtafun, Iran. Photo by Caroline Mawer.

In use since antiquity, all windmills function under one simple principle - they are a device used to translate the raw power of the wind into rotational energy. The earliest windmills in widespread use were first observed in Persia in the 9th century, and were actually oriented horizontally. These machines had sails that rotated around a vertical axis and were used to either grind grain or pump water. Only later did they take on the iconic tower form that so tormented our poor heroic hidalgo from La Mancha.

In the midst of the Industrial Revolution, steam power replaced the brute force of wind and water as the primary source of generating energy.  Then, to add insult to injury, the rise of the petrochemical age - namely our old friends coal and oil - effectively pushed the traditional windmill to the fringe of the energy-generating landscape, rendering them little more than nostalgic contraptions and refurbished tourist attractions.  It was in this transition however, that the key benefit of the windmill was lost.  Like it's also-besieged cousin, solar energy, the main attraction of using wind to derive energy, was that the input was free, provided at no additional charge by mother nature. Expensive, non-renewable, extracted resources hate windmills.

Wind Farm at Altamont Pass, via World Watch Institute

But the windmill evolved.  The modern iteration of the windmill is the wind turbine, and like it's predecessor, it harnesses the naturally occurring force of the wind to generate power.  Only now, the wind turbine transcends traditional mechanical advantage of yore, and produces electricity.  Whereas the monstrous giants of Senior Quixote's vexation could only leverage their output locally, the electricity generated by the leviathans of today can be used immediately on site, stored in batteries, or fed back into a larger power grid system. A valuable step forward. Such gracious monsters.

Unfortunately, a wind turbine is still just a glorified windmill. And people hate windmills. Even Donald Trump hates windmills.  In early 2012, Trump was the main attraction in a 500 person protest against a planned wind farm in the North Sea off the coast of Scotland.  Said Trump in his rousing statement: "Tragically the Scottish taxpayer no longer has a voice in this destructive process because the First Minister and his government are ramming these proposals through the planning system at lightning speed, even though the rest of the world already knows that they produce a totally unreliable and very expensive form of power."  It should also be noted that the wind farm, once complete, would be visible from his newly constructed coastal golf course.

But these protests are not just confined to the elite. It is a common occurrence now for citizen groups to band together to stop wind farms from being constructed in their communities.  They do so under the auspices of wind turbines being a visual and auditory nuisance.  Jane Jacobs and her NIMBY followers would be proud. But it is here where we must disagree with a very disagreeable Mrs. Jacobs - if not in my backyard, then where? 

Protesters in West Cork County Ireland.

To be fair, wind turbines are not a magic bullet. They will not single-handedly solve the energy crisis.  They will not ween a state off of foreign energy dependence.  In fact, there is ample evidence on either side to both prove and disprove the ejaculations of Mr. Trump and his band of merry protesters. Some people may find them ugly.  They may make noise.  They may even kill a few birds (although nowhere near as many as large expanses of glass on tall buildings do…).  But all of these studies are missing the point.  Windmills (and wind turbines and wind pumps and wind chargers) are a proven link to our past technological triumphs and directly tied to our continued success in the future.  The benefits of generating energy from naturally-occurring, renewable sources cannot be understated if we have any desire to sustain our rapidly growing population and simultaneously protect the planet we live on.  If we halt the evolution of windmills because they are ugly, because they are loud, because they are imperfect, then they will fall as monsters, ugly, loud, and imperfect.

"…For God's sake!" said Sancho Panza. "Didn't I tell you to be careful what you were doing, didn't I tell you they were only windmills?  And only someone with windmills on the brain could have failed to see that!"


Monday, February 6, 2012

The Colorful and Interactive World of Energy Consumption

New York City Building Energy Map

Let's face it, we are a graphic-loving species. If a picture is worth a thousand words, how many words is an interactive graphic map of annual building energy consumption for New York City worth? Visualization is an important asset when trying to explain complex ideas or figures. It becomes even more important when attempting to identify and quantify comparative data as critical as energy usage in urban areas.

The Energy, Infrastructure, and Development Lab at Columbia University has released a graphically interactive map of New York City that displays estimated building energy consumption per block. According to the report:
The map represents the total annual building energy consumption at the block level (zoom levels 11-15) and at the taxlot level (zoom levels 16-18) for New York City, and is expressed in kilowatt hours (k Wh) per square meter of land area. The data comes from a mathematical model based on statistics, not private information from utilities, to estimate the annual energy consumption values of buildings throughout the five boroughs.
The overall map is keyed to provide a color-coded comparison of energy consumption at the macro-city level, however, as you hover over each block, more exact data is displayed for each block including lot land area, average floor area, and fuel and electricity use. The map provides a playful and graphically interesting tool to compare and contrast energy statistics in New York City.

Seen first on Gizmodo.
Images via Columbia University