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An Interview With: J.L. (Rusty) Meadows II

Washington, D.C.

By Christina Breda Antoniades for Bisnow on Business

Ask Rusty Meadows how he got into architecture and you’ll likely hear him laugh. “You know the phrase, ‘I’d rather be lucky than smart.’ I think that applies ten-fold for me,” says a characteristically self-deprecating Meadows. “I feel like I’m the luckiest guy in the whole world to have ended up doing exactly what I love doing with absolutely no planning whatsoever to get here.”

Meadows isn’t referring to the 20-plus years he worked to develop his company, architecture firm Ai, which no doubt took plenty of planning and hard work. No, Meadows is recalling his first foray into engineering, which happened almost by chance. “When all of my high school friends were planning their careers and deciding where to go to college, I was just having fun,” he says, conceding he might not have even attended college were it not for a friend who filled out his application. Thanks to that favor, Meadows did attend, graduating from the West Virginia Institute of Technology with a degree in civil engineering.

Although he toyed with the idea of earning a Master’s degree, chance intervened again when another friend had to bow out of a job interview. “He had already accepted another job so he said, ‘Why don’t you take this interview?’” says Meadows, who was offered the job and couldn’t resist the salary, a whopping $9,600 per year. The job, in AT&T’s real estate department, lasted 10 years and led Meadows to an 18-month stint with a Washington, DC, design firm. By then, Meadows was no stranger to planning. He founded Ai, a successful architecture firm that tackled major projects like the AOL campus, the MITRE campus, and the Capital One headquarters building, before being bought in March 2005 by international architecture firm Perkins + Will.

Bisnow on Business: What are your most exciting current local projects?
One is actually a very small project for RSI Investors north of New York Avenue. We call it the razor site because it’s a sliver of land between Metro and 4th and 5th Streets. It’s very challenging because it’s the old CSX railway line, so it’s very long and narrow, sandwiched between Metro and a residential neighborhood. It’s more challenging than if we were doing a million square feet on K Street. On a different scale, we’re doing the Coast Guard headquarters, which is 1.5 million square feet at the St. Elizabeth’s campus. That’s challenging because of controversy over the use of that property and the design criteria.

What are some other memorable projects you’ve handled over the years?
Our relationship with Freddie Mac is unique. It’s risen as high as it possibly can, where the client really provides an opportunity for the consultant to do their best work. And the AOL campus is another example. We did eight buildings for AOL from 1986 through 2002. And now we’re doing a 3.5 million-square-foot mixed-use project in Dubai.

What led to Ai being purchased by Perkins + Will?
We had a great ride. But the industry clearly was consolidating and we had gotten to the point that we were competing with firms that had 1,000 people and firms that had 15 people. We were too big to be small and too small to be big. So we decided that we were going to go for being bigger and that meant being acquired. We had three firms trying to acquire us so we compared cultures and financial deals, among other factors. When we closed the deal people asked me if I was happy or sad. I told them that for all the incredibly stupid things I’ve done in my life, doing this deal was probably the smartest thing I’ve ever done.

Perkins + Will puts a lot of emphasis on sustainability. Why?
I’m an engineer by training and frankly we were doing cutting edge sustainable design long before it became fashionable. A lot of what we call sustainable issues today were considered just good common sense engineering practice 25 years ago. The biggest paradigm shift that impacted the design industry was the oil embargo of 1973. But good engineers and designers were always practicing sustainable design because it made good business sense. A lot of technology like high efficiency motors or high efficiency air conditioning systems were always around. They were just so much more expensive.

Are clients interested in sustainable design?
It depends. There’s a phrase I use: ‘cash or compliance.’ Clients want to comply with the code. The other thing that motivates them is cash. If I can demonstrate that they will save money with a new lighting system, they will do it. But if I go to them and say ‘Hey, we can put in this composting toilet system,’ they’ll say ‘Will it save me money?’ and if I’ll say ‘No,’ they say ‘No.’ That’s just the reality of the American psyche. Today we can’t get a client to save water because it’s so cheap. If water goes to $4 a gallon, we’ll be able to convince everyone to do it.

Looking into the future, do you think sustainable design will be more common?
I don’t think there is any question that 15 years down the road our cost of power is going to continue to increase and therefore the focus on sustainability will continue. Zoning ordinances as well as building permit requirements are going to emphasize sustainability more.

Where do you see opportunity in the DC area for other types of change?
My hope is that we can somehow densify our urban areas and even mid-cities like Tysons Corner so that they support our existing infrastructure and stop this ridiculous sprawl. What we’re doing its just nuts. Building these houses two hours away from where people work, it makes no sense.

And are there models we should be following?
I think California probably has the leading edge. Think about how long it took us to realize that when we build Metro stops we’ve got all these parking lots we can actually build over. California cracked that code 15 years ago. And if you go to Europe, you’ll see more dense design and you don’t see the kind of sprawl that you do here.

Business is good now. Do you see that changing?
I’m very nervous about the economy. With the price of oil and all these wars, I’m nervous as hell that there’s a recession looming ahead. But once you’ve been around for a while you realize that when it’s good, enjoy it. The first time you go through an up cycle you think it’s never going to end, but having gone through two and a half recessions I realize that what goes up must come down.

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