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Architects And Designers Contend With Changing Expectations, Evolving Tech

Tournesol Siteworks' Christopher Lyon, Blitz' Melissa Hanley, Related California's Phoebe Yee, Architype's Joe Fitzpatrick and DCI Engineers' Jeff Brink.

Sustainability has become a priority for many architects, but professionals in the field struggle with a lack of common ground for how goals should be achieved, panelists at Bisnow’s Bay Area Architecture and Design Summit in San Francisco said on Tuesday.

While architects agreed that the industry needs to be thinking about sustainability in terms of re-use, reducing their carbon footprint and building things to last, the “how” of this concept differs from project to project.

“There isn’t a singular rating or ranking or metric to guide commercial interior projects,” Blitz principal Melissa Hanley said.

Without that, “it’s going to be hard for us to align our efforts,” Hanley added.

Christopher Lyon, president of Tournesol Siteworks, noted there are dozens of certifications a contractor can get in the sustainability arena. Each of them is slightly different, and often, developers aren’t sure what they should request. 

These certifications are pricey, and Lyon noted his company had to hire someone to manage their ability to wrangle the 23 certifications that their materials can achieve. 

Beyond the industry needing a gold standard, there is little alignment between the policy that builders must adhere to and the sustainability goals that designers and developers are encouraged to follow in California.

“The state set goals for us. The problem is there’s no alignment between public policy and these goals,” Related California Executive Vice President of Design Phoebe Yee said.

Cooperation on a public-private level is something that would actually move the needle, she said, pointing to other cities like Copenhagen, Denmark, as an example.

Panelists emphasized the importance of using buildings and materials already on a site as a way to design in a more sustainable way.

That can come by looking at the “good bones” of a space, Hanley said, instead of bulldozing it all and starting over. 

“Don’t design your future tenant into a corner,” she said, noting that her firm is working on a new project in San Francisco that keeps future tenants in mind and prioritizes things like configurable lighting that can be reused for future tenants.

The innSteinberg Hart's David Hart, W.E. O'Neil's Marvin Wheat, Form4 Architecture's John Marx, founder of his namesake firm Mark Cavagnero, Gensler's Hao Ko and DLR Group's Susan Orlandi.

Urban areas offer good opportunities for reuse, panelists said. 

“The first question we should ask ourselves is, ‘Can we reuse what we’ve got before we start with a clean slate?’” Gensler Managing Director and principal Hao Ko said.

The post-pandemic work landscape has changed how designers and developers think about their work, especially for companies that are requiring or encouraging employees to return to work

In many ways, architects are being asked to re-create the office environment, Steinberg Hart Architecture President and CEO David Hart said.

Office spaces have come a long way from the clinical overhead lighting and cubicles, and architects described their process of designing spaces where people want to be, both at home and in the office.

They are looking at things like daylight, acoustics and the human elements of a workspace, Mark Cavagnero Associates Architects Founding Principal Mark Cavagnero said. 

The hybrid work environment has impacted both multifamily housing design as well as office design, with designers acknowledging that working from home is a norm that needs to be designed for in the future.

“We’ve had to really focus on what it means to be in a space, any space, whether it’s a home or a downtown office building for hours and hours and hours,” Cavagnero said.

Panelists largely dismissed questions about California’s problems and negative national headlines, citing their love for San Francisco, belief that the market will turn around and the hope of seeing the built urban environment succeed.

Some architects pointed out that the industry should do a better job of courting the venture capitalist funding that is right here in their backyard.

“We have to figure out how to get venture capital into our industry so that in the next 10 to 20 years we really can transform,” Hart said. 

He alluded to the financiers of the California Forever project in Solano County, noting that those are the people who need to be involved with the development and revitalization of the city’s urban core instead.

Artificial intelligence poses both a threat and a potential help to the design industry, and while panelists joked about its potential to take their jobs, they coalesced around the idea that AI could make the mundane parts of their jobs much easier.

AI tools can be useful in making design more collaborative, Form4 Architecture Chief Artistic Officer John Marx said, as well as harnessing language-based design concepts to generate more ideas. Additionally, AI can curate and thus improve a designer’s ideas if it is adjusted to curate from specific sources.

These developments could “come with a cost,” Marx warned, if not thoughtfully applied.

Panelists expressed a fear that AI could return the profession back to its focus on so-called objecthood, instead of allowing the human and personal touches with each project as well as the larger portrait of a neighborhood or city to contribute to the design. 

“The issue with AI for me is to not let each project come out speaking in its own voice,” Cavagnero said. “There has to be this overlay about how it comes together, block by block, neighborhood by neighborhood and district by district, and for better or worse that’s how we have cities with character.”