Friday, November 8, 2013

Sea Change – Part 1: Architecture on the Crest

Interior of the Vancouver Convention Center (all photos by me)
This is the first of two posts about the 2013 American Institute of Architects Northwest & Pacific Region Conference, which took place this past October 23-26 in Vancouver, British Columbia.

It’d been a few years since I attended an American Institute of Architects region conference; in fact, the last one I did take in was the 2010 edition hosted by AIA-Southwestern Oregon here in Eugene. The fact this year’s conference took place in Vancouver, B.C.—the city in which I was born, raised, and spent the formative years of my professional career—made my decision to attend an easy one. 

Dubbed “Sea Change: Architecture on the Crest,” the conference reflected a unique, cross-border connection. It was the result of a joint effort between the Architectural Institute of British Columbia (AIBC) and the AIA Northwest & Pacific Region, the first time the two organizations have collaborated in this way. With a geographic proximity that brings shared influences, familiar cultures, and common ground on so many levels, one has to wonder why this obvious partnership hadn’t previously been forged. 

“Sea Change” presented an opportunity for those on hand to reconsider the role of the architect as a wave of environmental change reshapes our planet and our profession. This change is taking place irrespective of borders such as the one that separates Canada and the United States. A joint conference for architects from both sides of this boundary was a logical outcome and a welcome occasion to come together and discuss issues of common concern. 

The conference featured a wide variety of continuing education offerings. Here are some of plenary sessions and programs I attended: 

The Personality of Architects
Dr. Brian Little – Distinguished Scholar, Department of Psychology, Cambridge University 

Our first plenary speaker, Dr. Brian Little, described how personality differences play a pivotal role in the profession of architecture. Some architects are highly creative architects, while others of us are less so. Why is this? What are the personality traits that are markers for creativity? Dr. Little expounded on the myth of the creative hero and the diverse personalities of real-world architects. 

He asked everyone in the audience ten questions. We assigned a score between one and ten to represent the extent to which the personality trait expressed in each question matched our perception of ourselves (the scores I gave myself are in parentheses): 
  1. Are you outgoing or reserved? (5) 
  2. Are you easily bored? (5) 
  3. Are you optimistic? (7) 
  4. Are you thick-skinned? (3) 
  5. Are you blunt and straightforward? (4) 
  6. Do have a high need for excitement? (3) 
  7. Are you fast-paced? (10) 
  8. Do you have a high need for social contact? (5) 
  9. Are you spontaneous? (3) 
  10. Are you extraverted?  (5)
My total score was 50, which according to Dr. Little means I’m an “ambivert,” someone who is essentially an introvert but can cross lines and become extraverted when I need to be (I have an “ambidextrous” personality). The scores for others revealed they were either more decidedly extraverts or introverts, or ambiverts like me. 

According to Dr. Little, being open to new experiences is the biggest differentiator of the creative class. You’d think creativity would favor extraverts, but the key is actually personality and the state of arousal required to perform creatively. Extraverts require a high degree of arousal (through new and exciting challenges), more than is necessary for introverts (who can find inspiration in reflection and quieter moments). The bottom line is that we shouldn’t act out of character, delight in our differences, and design in ways that are true to our first natures. 

Rising Tides
Moderator: Jean-Pierre Mahe, AIBC, AAA, MRAIC, LEED AP BD+C – Architect, Morrison Hershfield Ltd.
Gene Duvernoy, JD, MBA – President & CEO, Forterra
Nicole Faghin, JD, LEED AP
Sadhu Johnston, LEED AP 

As a coastal region, the Pacific Northwest is directly impacted by the threat of rising sea levels and related environmental impacts. This in turn has a significant impact on the way architects design buildings, including the need for future innovation that addresses issues of energy, sustainability, livability, and population growth. It touches upon how we build our communities, interact with our environment, and live in harmony with proper care and consideration for our natural resources. The Rising Tides panelists discussed the lead role architects can and should play in matters that are reshaping our communities and threatening our quality of life. 

The facts associated with the coming crisis are sobering: 50% of the world’s population lives near a coastline. Scientists predict a 0.5 meter sea level rise by 2050, and a 1.0 meter rise by 2100. Accompanying this will be increasingly chaotic weather, and with it violent storms, flooding, and coastline erosion. Associated storm surges and high tides magnify the risk. The impact upon people around the world is almost unimaginable. 

What are our options? We can protect, accommodate, or retreat. We will have to adapt to climate change by changing our cultures and creating climate-resilient regions. The Pacific Northwest will inevitably experience significant in-migration as people abandon areas more severely impacted by rising temperatures and sea levels. Preserving our great landscapes, agricultural land, and communities will be the pressing challenges as we confront the rising tides. What would Robert Moses, Jane Jacobs, or Fredrick Law Olmstead do to if they were here with us today? 

Toward a Culture of Wood Architecture
Jim Taggart, FRAIC 

With its availability throughout the Pacific Northwest, its adaptability to local circumstances, and the development of new applications, wood offers unique possibilities for dispersing social, economic, and environmental benefits. 

Today, the use of wood in architecture is fostering a revival of regional architecture in our region. Jim Taggart imagines a revitalized wood culture based on enterprise, innovation, and stewardship. The ethos of sustainability has invigorated regionalism, and architects are exploiting the aesthetic potential of a “constructive environmentalism.”  Additionally, the wood products industry is learning how to use wood fiber more efficiently. He believes wood can contribute significantly to mitigating climate change (greenhouse gas emissions associated with wood buildings are 6 to 8 times less than those involved with the production of non-wood buildings). Jim is optimistic about how the wood products industry can provide widespread decentralized economic and social benefits, and help reaffirm our regional and cultural identity. 

Return to Commonsense – A Cure for Confusion
Florian Maurer, Architect AIBC, MRAIC, LEED AP 

The architect’s role has always been to understand enough about a lot of things to bring them together in a product everybody can comprehend; to have the “big picture.” Unfortunately, fragmentation and the complexity of humanity’s body of knowledge have distracted us. We silo information and favor linear solutions. A system based on greed causes some to panic, concentrated power corrupts, and we tend to forget our strengths and duties. 

Florian Maurer believes architects need to redirect their perspective to find remedies. We tend to find comfort in detail and breaking down our problems into small fragments, but by doing so we silo information and settle for simplistic, linear solutions. He says the key lies in the commonsense, in an integrative view of the world. The whole may be inexplicable and intimidating, but it is the whole that we must seek and embrace. 

Interestingly, Florian does not like the manner in which sustainability is commonly practiced, believing it to be further evidence of our reflexive need to categorize, itemize, and compartmentalize architecture and our views of the world. Sustainable architecture misses the point if it fails to bring us joy. Ultimately, Florian wants us to design with comfort and love in mind. If we’re not doing this, are we really fulfilling our duty as architects? Are we truly seeing the big picture? 

Recently built condominium towers crowd downtown Vancouver's Coal Harbor neighborhood.

Non-Identical Twins: Seattle & Vancouver
Trevor Boddy, Hon. AIA, MRAIC 

I’ve always found Trevor Boddy’s architectural musings and criticisms spot on. His writing is flamboyant, opinionated, and provocative. Seattle and Vancouver are his most frequent haunts, and it’s clear he has a deep affection for both cities. Though the two Northwest metropolises are about the same age, share a similar climate and bio-region, and boast comparable social features, Trevor nonetheless can delineate their surprisingly different approaches to city building and architecture. 

In a nutshell, Trevor asserts that Vancouver is primarily a maker of memes whereas Seattle is a maker of corporations. 

Most people are likely unaware that such global ideas and movements as “Generation X,” Greenpeace, “cyberspace,” and the Occupy Movement originated in Vancouver. The city is a meme itself—“Vancouverism”—an urban planning and architectural technique characterized by mixed-use developments featuring a medium-height, commercial podium coupled with narrow, high-density residential towers designed to preserve view corridors. The residential population downtown has become so great that it may soon overtake the number of daytime employees who work there (with a net outflow of workers rather than an influx each morning). 

Seattle, on the other hand, is an economic powerhouse, a nexus for some of biggest names in the new economy: Costco, Starbucks, Microsoft, Amazon, and Expedia among them. The presence of these corporations, and the wealth they’ve generated, stand in stark contrast to the virtual absence of comparable counterparts headquartered in Vancouver. Seattle is a city open for business whereas unaffordable Vancouver has (unwittingly) become an urban-scaled resort for the wealthy. 

I love Vancouver but also fear its current trajectory is economically unsustainable. 

The Future of the Profession
Moderator: David Zach – Futurist, member of the AIA Board
Scott Kemp, Architect, AIBC
Daniel Friedman, PhD, FAIA
Anne Schopf, FAIA – Mahlum 

The Friday plenary session tackled the future of the profession as its subject matter. The distinguished panelists gamely attempted to answer the looming questions. Can architecture be vital again? What does the future hold for the next generation of practitioners? Might global trends and regional issues that are undermining the traditional role of architecture in our communities actually be opportunities for an architectural resurgence? 

The tenor of the session overall was introspective, as each panelist spoke candidly about their hopes and fears for architecture in the years to come. As moderator, futurist David Zach set the tone by shining a spotlight on what he suspects the years immediately ahead of us augur. We know the cost of complexity is dropping rapidly. Because 80% of what we used to do as architects is now better done by machines, it’s incumbent upon us to improve the 20% human beings continue to excel at. We cannot succumb to our fear of risk or failure, only seeking succor in the slow tyranny of comfortable fear. Why can’t we print buildings? Grow buildings? Redistribute manufacturing? Bypass our objections? 

The common thread connecting the thoughts of Scott Kemp, Daniel Friedman, and Anne Schopf was the role of architects as leaders and why we must demand a great deal from ourselves. Our work is no longer necessarily top-down or linear. We’re as apt to find ourselves having to lead from the center as well as from the front, a function of the increasing complexity of our projects and the roles we assume as architects. As a profession we’re in an adaptive phase, and our world feels slippery and unstable. A corollary to this is that our careers are no longer ladders; instead they’re more like jungle gyms. We’re apt to take unexpected twists and turns while hanging on for dear life. 

How do we remain relevant in such an uncertain world? The panelists seemed to agree thinking outside of the box wasn’t enough—we’ll need to think into other boxes as well. We’ll need to understand and exploit our skills but also recognize where the gaps in those skills are. 

Making Chaos Work for You: Strategies for Post-Recession Success
Rena Klein, FAIA 

A frequent speaker at AIA events, Rena Klein is both an architect and a practice management consultant to architectural firms nationwide. She firmly believes small firms have to find their position in the “new normal” of 21st century architectural practice in order to survive.

Even as they have the potential to maximize creativity and enthusiasm, small firms are challenged by unpredictable workloads, uneven productivity, a lack of resources, and constant change. Quoting United States Secretary of Veteran Affairs Eric Shinseki, Rena stressed the need for us to “learn to like change because if we don’t, we’ll like irrelevancy even less.” We need to identify our core competencies, do what we do best, and set ourselves apart from our competition. 

Rena offered examples of several small firms who have found what they are best at and are exploiting niches in the architectural marketplace. Finding a niche (such as becoming known as the go-to local partner for out-of-town firms on large, prestigious projects) is a clear strategy for post-recession success. Another is for individual architects to become more project-related, rather than firm-related, by offering contract services to larger, more established offices. 

Whole Life Sustainability
Dr. Ian Ellingham, PhD, OAA, FRAIC – Cambridge Architectural Research Ltd.

Dr. Ellingham’s goal is help architects become more effective, independent decision-makers. Toward this objective, he introduced the notion of utilizing qualitative and quantitative tools based on the concept of whole-life sustainability. The key concept is that of making decisions to achieve balance, neither overinvesting nor under-investing capital and physical resources toward achieving an optimal outcome. A classic example is spending lavishly on cutting-edge energy-conserving technologies that offer no net return on that investment during the useful life of the building. More often than not, the real cost of exotic systems (including embodied energy) exceeds their benefits. Understanding this fact is a prerequisite to informed decision-making. 

Dr. Ellingham pointed out traditional techniques for whole-life costing fail to take into account future uncertainty; thus, another key take-away from his presentation is the need for considering a diversity of possible futures. Ideally, architects would not design buildings that obstruct options for future decision-makers. 

*    *    *    *    *    *
It would have been great to have taken in additional sessions but I could only be in one room at a time. Because our profession is constantly evolving, there is always so much to learn. It’s our professional duty to assure our professional competence and relevance, and continuing education is crucial in this regard. The need to cultivate our skill sets and knowledge is one reason I’ve found a career in architecture so rewarding. It is also why conferences and the wealth of education they typically provide are invaluable, convenient, and worthwhile for all of us. 

Next: Sea Change – Part 2: Transitions

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