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Beyond The Bio: 16 Questions With Solomon Cordwell Buenz's Chris Pemberton

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This series profiles men and women in commercial real estate who have profoundly transformed our neighborhoods and reshaped our cities, businesses and lifestyles.

For as long as he can remember, Chris Pemberton has been focused on design — as a kid growing up in Toronto, during his education at Carleton University, earlier in his architecture career in such places as Hong Kong, and now designing buildings around the world as president and CEO of Solomon Cordwell Buenz.

SCB's approach is to ask questions, listen and determine the best design response for each project, he said. Context is key.

Chris Pemberton
SCB CEO Chris Pemberton with his wife, Crista Sumanik, and daughter Gigi and son Michael in Italy

For instance, for a recent SCB project, Park Lane Ala Moana in Hawaii, the challenge was to create a 1.5M SF residential community atop a commercial parking garage, but also one that is distinctly Hawaiian, Pemberton said.

SCB drew inspiration from the terraced rice paddies in Asia. The project won an Award of Merit from the American Institute of Architects' Honolulu branch.

"The main goal was to take a high-rise, multi-unit development and create a series of residences that live more like single-family, estate-style homes in a low-rise setting," Pemberton told the AIA.

"We searched for a new definition of luxury living that is uniquely Hawaiian. This informed all aspects of the design," Pemberton said.

Before taking the helm at SCB, Pemberton helped establish and served as the managing director of the firm’s San Francisco office, growing the staff to over 90 employees, with a portfolio of over 100 commercial and residential commissions.

Bisnow: How do you describe your job to people who are not in the industry? 

Pemberton: I oversee about 300 design professionals between our two offices in Chicago and San Francisco. As a design firm, we work in cities across the country on a wide variety of projects, including high-rise residential towers, office buildings, hotels — and then projects that blend together all of those uses. We also do a lot of work for colleges and universities, such as student housing and classroom buildings.

Bisnow: If you weren’t in commercial real estate, what would you do? 

Pemberton: I am not sure what other job I would want, but I know that it would have to be something creative, where the work was always changing and there was an opportunity to solve problems and re-examine older traditions. Sounds like an architect, right? 

Bisnow: What is the worst job you ever had? 

Pemberton: There were several mundane summer jobs early on, like collecting tickets at an amusement park. But later as an architect, I worked on several overseas projects in which my firm was not involved through the completion of the project. I have always felt a great sense of satisfaction working on a project from concept through delivery. That is one of the things that I really like about SCB: We're a firm that gets projects built. 

AIA Honolulu award win
Pemberton and colleagues Ben Wrigley and Francesco Mozzati celebrate two AIA Honolulu Design Award wins.

Bisnow: What was your first big deal? 

Pemberton: During the recession I started helping a developer who was looking to find some sort of a creative deal to take on — we’d look at repositioning older buildings, perhaps convert a building from one use to another — and a project came along that needed to happen quickly, and it was far from straightforward. While perhaps not my first big deal, it was one of the most memorable, as it signaled a glimmer of optimism about the return of development, and it allowed us to start rebuilding our internal team of designers.

Bisnow: What deal do you consider to be your biggest failure? 

Pemberton: Failure is a strong word. I’d say one of the strongest lessons for me was on a project where I didn’t speak up soon enough, or forcefully enough, to try and get things re-aligned. 

Bisnow: If you could change one thing about the commercial real estate industry, what would it be? 

Pemberton: I’d like to accelerate the integration of development, design and construction/manufacturing. I see so many industries where the tools of manufacturing are the same ones used by the creative designer, which allows for a much more efficient and precise flow from idea to reality. 

Bisnow: What is your biggest pet peeve? 

Pemberton: Subjective design review. While I understand that politics will always be part of our work and the approvals process, purely subjective opinions given as direction can cause a lot of frustration for our clients and for our internal design teams.

Bisnow: Who is your greatest mentor? 

Pemberton: John Lahey at SCB. John and I have worked together for over a decade, first on the establishment of our San Francisco practice in 2007 and in recent years on the overall development and management of the firm. In that time I have learned countless lessons — both good ones and tough ones — and his advice, direction and mentorship have been invaluable to my development as an architect and a firm leader.

Bisnow: What is the best and worst professional advice you've ever gotten?

Pemberton: In 2004 Dan Lew said to me, "You should come and join SCB." Dan and I are old friends and had spent years working together in Asia, London and here in Chicago. Through our professional careers, sometimes I’d recruit him, and sometimes he’d recruit me. In the case of SCB, he recruited me, which worked out very well. I can’t remember the worst advice. I’m too much of an optimist.

Chris Pemberton
Chris Pemberton

Bisnow: What is your greatest extravagance? 

Pemberton: I’ve always enjoyed traveling, and have been fortunate that my career has taken me to so many different cities. For example, I lived and worked in Hong Kong for five years in the 1990s, and from there I would travel to all kinds of nearby destinations, sometimes just for a weekend. These days, I still have the good fortune to have a career that takes me to some pretty great places. But I also travel for fun — next up are Madeira and Lisbon.

Bisnow: What is your favorite restaurant in the world? 

Pemberton: Spruce in San Francisco is my current favorite. 

Bisnow: If you could sit down with President Donald Trump, what would you say? 

Pemberton: I think I’ll pass on that one!

Bisnow: What's the biggest risk you have ever taken? 

Pemberton: My biggest risk is tied to one of the firm’s biggest risks: opening our San Francisco office. Our decision to start the office coincided with the construction of our first project in the city, One Rincon Hill. The city had just revised its height restrictions and it seemed like the perfect time for a firm with so much experience in high-rise work to open an office there. So, two colleagues and I packed up our families and headed west to do construction administration on the project and plant the SCB flag. The year was 2007. We quickly grew to a staff of 10 and started winning work, but then came the crash. We once again became an office of three and then, as my colleagues tell it, we proceeded to have lunch for a few years.

What we really did was use that time to meet potential clients and partners and build relationships. It felt like we studied every site in the city, and we looked at lots of buildings that were ripe for renovation or reuse. We knew that the economy had to come back at some point. It was just a matter of when, and whether we could hold out. I am very proud of the fact that we were able to hold on. Those years of having lunch and building relationships really helped us to come out of the gate fast and get back to work in the city.

Bisnow: What is your favorite place to visit in your hometown? 

Pemberton: I grew up in Toronto, and I find it fascinating to see all the development that's happened since I left in the late 1980s. It's a remarkable city, truly cosmopolitan and constantly changing. When I go home for a visit now, I really enjoy checking out the Distillery District. It's like Chicago’s Fulton Market, an old industrial/warehouse part of the city that's now full of restaurants and nightlife. 

Bisnow: What keeps you up at night? 

Pemberton: I’m a fairly light sleeper, so a little caffeine is pretty devastating. And I can never turn off my focus on the business, so once I am awake, there’s no getting back to sleep. 

Bisnow: Outside of your work, what are you most passionate about? 

Pemberton: My family.