Embracing New Technologies

This must surely be the most interesting time to be designing and developing buildings. The new technologies that are zooming forward are truly changing the world of the built environment – and very much for the better.

Take, for instance, power sources, distribution and consumption. Some of the technologies we’re exploring today, I hadn’t even imagined 5 to 10 years ago. Solar generation of electricity is with us today in a big way – not only solar panels (the cost of which continues to go down) on the top of office buildings, but in large arrays being built by utilities and incorporated into our power grids.

Along with solar power (only available during sunlight hours), storage for non-sunlit times is advancing. When I first incorporated solar panels on the roof of a house I built in San Francisco in 2001, I wanted to have a battery back-up. This consisted of a rack of 12-volt car batteries – expensive and high-maintenance. There were no Tesla Power Walls in 2001, nor other more efficient and less expensive storage systems. Today there are several, with others being designed and coming to market every day, reducing cost, increasing efficiency and improving maintenance. The only good thing 17 years ago was that photovoltaic panels generated 12-volt DC current and that’s what batteries liked. Back then, I still needed an inverter to power the lighting in my home to inefficient incandescent lamps and, although a little more efficient, fluorescent lamps.

Today, the world is being lighted increasingly by LED (light-emitting diode) lamps, with much longer lamp-lives and much reduced power consumption. And color technologies with LEDs have improved greatly, with many of them being manufactured today to allow tuning to exactly the color temperature that you desire or continuously tunable to follow the circadian cycle of daylight. This is very effective for healing in hospitals and for higher productivity and health in office spaces. Take a look at recent writings on biophilia to understand why that is important.

By the way, I should also mention that LEDs operate best on 12-volt DC current. It just so happens that 12-volt DC is what flows through your computer cables to recharge your computer and your cellphone. And, guess what, no conduit or electrical inspections are required. I’m working with one company that offers complete lighting and control solutions based on 12-volt DC power, which we’re evaluating incorporating into our project here in Reno. This same company has done street lightning between two towns in South America that are 21 kilometers apart. The system is off-grid. All the power comes from solar panels mounted every so often along the route. Powers is stored in a battery system by day to be used to illuminate the route at night. And Wi-Fi is flowing through these lines as well.

New technologies are available to deliver 12-volt DC power from a clear glass window. We’re building several structures that have due east, south and west exposures in a bright sunlight city. We and the companies we’re talking to are also exploring electro-chromic and photo-chromic coating, which is used in eyeglasses that automatically turn into sunglasses when sunlight hits them. If we can put all the pieces together, we’ll have a glazing system that will generate 12-volt DC power to LED lights, requiring neither an inverter or a transformer at the lamp end. We’ll have window glass that will turn into sun shading either electrically or automatically. Tenants will be able to look at the views outside their windows without drawing curtains, blinds or shades.

New and emerging technologies are among the reasons why I’m so excited about being a designer/developer today.

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Living the Principles

This is the third installment of a three-part blog on the topic of job success, which started with “How to Find a Job.”  In Part Two, I addressed “After You’ve Landed the Job,” introducing the notion that job success goes beyond great design and producing the best work product.

Cultural fit, resonating with a firm’s vision, mission and values and understanding and executing on your firm’s guiding principles are keys to a fulfilling and successful career. In the last blog, I introduced the five guiding principles that defined my 34-year career at Gensler. Here are the five principles and examples to demonstrate how they worked in practice.

  1. We’re in the business of using design as a business tool, not to win awards.

Western States Bankcard Association:  Gensler was hired to do a new operations/computer center. I was assigned the call center. This may seem menial, but it led to many other call centers after its successful completion.

The existing facility featured long lines of 30” x 48” single-pedestal desks, lined up so each person was looking at the backs of the people in front. Employees worked a half-hour on and a half-hour off, punching a time clock at each rotation. At breaks, they went to the lunch room that featured a bank of refrigerators, each smelling of week-old sandwiches. Average longevity in the call center was a dismal 7 ½ months.

I proposed to the manager that a business goal for a redesign would be to create a more pleasant working environment while increasing efficiency and reducing the turnover rate. The manager said, “You can’t take one square foot of space more than we’ve allocated or spend one dime over budget. Good luck.”

Our solution used the prescribed footprint and came in on budget.

  • We created three-sided surrounds for each desk using 4’x 8’burlap wrapped panels ($4.99 a piece), sliced in half horizontally.
  • We rotated every other desk 180 degrees so people had a place on each side to pin up pictures of family or pet.
  • After I asked the manager if she cared when the staff worked, I had data processing develop a computer algorithm, allowing employees to check in and check out on line at their desks. As long as the employees work four hours a day with four hours off, she didn’t care.
  • This gave supervisors flexibility to manage times on the computer according to call volume, which they had a reader board to monitor.
  • We moved the break area to the work room, separated with a cluster of trees and featuring lounge seating and refrigerators that were cleaned daily.

The results may not have won design awards, but it was published in a design magazine and the business ROI was significant for both the client and our firm.

  • Average longevity at the call center went from 7 ½ months to 13 ½ months.
  • Caller satisfaction improved, which allowed a reduction in staff.
  • The cost of recruiting and training was cut in half.
  • Gensler subsequently got a lot of call center work.
  1. We should make each design solution suit our client’s culture, both for the employees and their clients or customers.

The example here is the Delta Airlines terminal at Los Angeles International Airport. Delta chose Gensler to do the interior design.

At the first meeting, we asked the client how they would define success. Delta’s answer was simple: “We will be successful if Delta gains market share over United and American, with whom we compete for the same connecting routes from LAX to Honolulu and Mexico.”

We got Delta’s and the airport’s permission to interview passengers. Here’s what we learned:

  • No one remembered their outbound flight; it’s the return experience that mattered.
  • A typical response was: “I’ve been on the beach all week. I’m tan and happy. I enjoy a couple of umbrella drinks on the return flight. On arrival, I’m drowsy and confronted with a search for the connecting gate, a low-ceiling concourse and mercury vapor (blue) downlights that make us look like cadavers.”
  • Waiting for the connecting flight might entail a stop for a last umbrella drink at an airport bar with low lights and no ability to see the connecting gate, resulting in missed connecting flights and an overnight stay in Los Angeles and, perhaps, a missed day of work.

Our solution was higher ceilings with warm-colored, indirect lighting, allowing passengers to look and feel as good and healthy as they did when they left the beach. And we moved the bars close to a cluster of gates, making it easier for passengers to see and hear the call for connecting flights. We surrounded these areas with kentia palms, and Delta named them Delta’s Oases.

The results: Delta’s market share for those important routes increased by 15 – 20%.  Subsequently, Gensler got heavily into the airport business.

  1. We asked everyone to adopt a collaborative attitude, using the aggregated talent of the firm for each client.

We believed the “expert” in the firm on a subject, regardless of location, should be part of the project team. As a result, we had people traveling to other offices frequently.  Team camaraderie was seamless because we instilled the habit of working across office boundaries.

An example was General Motors which asked us to make a proposal on relocating the corporation’s Detroit headquarters to the Renaissance Center. Following the initial interview on a Friday, we were asked if we were to receive a call on Saturday, could we have a team in place Monday morning. We got the call on Saturday, and we mobilized 17 people (who had been forewarned from five different offices who were on the job Monday morning. Because they had the practice of collaboratively working together, they hit the ground running.

  1. We were all in this together with a common goal – the best business solution that met a client’s needs and goals.

Our focus on addressing our clients’ business needs did not stop us from delivering aesthetically-pleasing design solutions. We stayed very close to this by studying sociology.  We wanted to know how a physical space would affect behavior, and we encouraged anyone interested in this to become well acquainted with the subject. We brought in a number of experts in the field, and those lectures were either broadcast or made available to the entirety of our design staff. The results of this effort showed up repeatedly in design approaches and client/customer enjoyment of the spaces we created that were consistent with our client’s businesses.

  1. We carefully documented our client’s performance goals.

Up-front metrics and continual measurements against those metrics became a given with every project. Along the way, we could sense our clients’ pride in what we’d accomplished. We credited much of our success to this documentation and measurement reporting. Our clients told their peers about what they’d learned about “real design.”  Because metrics and documentation against the client’s goals were required for virtually every project, the case studies were endless. We had happy clients, proud employees and an expanding business because of referrals.

Whether you’re a new employee or a seasoned veteran, promoting and living the principles of a firm that values clients’ business success above all else will guarantee your teams’ satisfaction and enhance your firm’s reputation and bottom line . . . without compromising design.

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After You’ve Landed the Job

This is the second of a three-part blog on the topic of job success, using my own experiences in a fulfilling 34-year career at Gensler. A couple of months ago I wrote about my good fortune of meeting Art Gensler and intuitively sensing there was a philosophical fit with his fledgling firm. I labeled that first blog installment “How to Find a Job.”

Landing a job with the right firm is just the first step.  That’s when the real work begins. Success goes beyond showing up and producing the best possible work product.

In my case, when I first joined Gensler, I felt aligned with this new organization and where Art and others in the firm wanted to take it.  There were some core principles I wanted to support and build upon. I knew that for both the firm and for me to be successful, I had to be part of making those principles a reality through the culture we built at Gensler.  This is about building an enterprise that works so consistently to a set of values that, as it grows, clients as well as employees know what to expect This was particularly important as we grew to a large number of offices scattered all over the world.

I spent my career at Gensler, from 1969 until 2003, helping to make the principles a reality and ensuring everyone else in the firm was working together to do the same.  When I became president in 1995 and then CEO in 2000, I realized my primary role needed to add a dimension as the steward of our culture and values.  Sure, I was watching the firm’s finances closely. And I worked hard on staying close to our clients and their goals, the people in the firm and our recruiting efforts. But the most important issue for me was that all of this supported the reasons we were in business for our clients.

At a point early in my career, I took on the responsibility of documenting the firm’s vision and values. I began carrying a notebook at all times, particularly as I traveled to our other offices. I asked people what they thought the values of the firm were. I tagged several people around the firm whom I thought understood what I was trying to accomplish.  Each time I had a draft, I would send it around to them and ask, “What do you think?”

I got terrific feedback. Sometimes it was “right on”; other times items would come back annotated, “that’s not us, what we should say is . . .” until one day I seemed to have achieved a consensus. We published the result as a statement of “Vision, Mission and Values” and asked everyone operate by these values.  I knew we had nailed it a few years later when we were in a period of particularly rapid growth and one of our partners during a Management Committee meeting said, “We’ve strayed from some of our values. Let’s republish our ‘Vision, Mission and Values’.”

That’s when you know you’re in the right place, working beside people who share the same values and within a culture that speaks to your professional and personal fulfillment. Here are the five principles that guided Gensler during my tenure and are said to guide the firm today:

  1. We’re in the business of using design as a business tool, not to win design awards, although those are gratefully accepted. Something that pragmatically solves a client’s business problems can also be “pretty.” We were thrilled if a magazine chose to publish our work, touting the design, but most important was that the client’s business performed better.
  2. We should make each design solution suit our client’s culture, both for the employees and the clients or customers.
  3. As the firm grew, we realized we had an enormous body of talent throughout the company.The most qualified person to work on any aspect of a project may not be sitting next to you or may not even be in your office. We asked everyone to adopt a collaborative attitude, reaching out within the firm to bring the most qualified person to join the team for a specific aspect of the task at hand aligned with their expertise.  For us, it was about using the aggregated talent of the firm for each client.
  4. We were all in this together with a common goal:the best business solution that meets a client’s needs and goals.   To be clear, this never precluded making the solution aesthetically pleasing.  Aesthetics have a strong influence on client’s and customers’ attitudes about the company and product, but also affects people’s behavior and performance.
  5. We carefully documented our clients’ performance goals. We established success metrics before we initiated design, and we measured results after occupancy and periodically after that. This helped our clients justify expenditures to their board, their banker or governing body and gave us some wonderful stories to tell future clients. It was a practice in the firm to start each design meeting with a client with a review of what their stated performance objectives were and ask if those objectives had changed. Design presentations specifically noted how each design element was meant to enhance one or more of the client’s performance goals.

Part Three of this blog series will demonstrate how these principles were applied at Gensler with real-life client examples. Visions, missions, values and principles are easy enough to list on a laminated card, but they are unbelievably powerful in the application, leading to job satisfaction and success.

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How to Find a Job (or how did I end up at Gensler?)

You can read many sources about how to get a job and grow your business. My story is just one of many. The business I’ll describe is an architectural, design and planning practice, started in 1965 by Art Gensler. The process of finding a job goes far beyond chasing newspaper ads or head-hunters. I’ll describe my process.

When I joined Gensler in 1969, I was employee number 21, and it felt like a start-up. I had graduated from the University of Pennsylvania with a master’s degree in Architecture in 1968, relocating back to the San Francisco Bay Area in the middle of a recession. There were no jobs for architects, so I went back to work for a developer in Marin County where I had spent a year between college and graduate school. I enjoyed the breadth of experiences I was having but knew that, if I ever really wanted to be an architect, I had to fulfill an apprenticeship working for a licensed firm.

At this time, I lived in a 4-plex built in 1895 that my friends referred to as “rodent heights.” My landlord owned a small, vacant piece of property on Corinthian Island in Tiburon. Most of the properties were postage stamp-sized, that had been given away with newspaper subscriptions to the San Francisco Examiner around the turn of the century.

While a few were grander, with views of the San Francisco Bay, the one my landlord owned looked over downtown which, at the time, was a railroad yard where lumber and wine from the north were loaded on barges to be delivered to San Francisco. Its configuration was a long snd slender triangle that went from 35′ wide at the top to 3′ wide at the bottom. It was mostly a 2:1 slope (very steep) but through the wider section of the property it was even steeper – ¾:1, greater than 45 degrees. In addition, the lot was located between the one-way street that exited the island and Main Street below.

He said, “You’re a young architect; you can figure out how to build something here, right?” Sure, why not. He has going to pay me for my efforts.

It required that I hang over the cliff in a boatswain’s chair tied to an Oak tree holding a surveyor’s pole and getting an outrageous case of poison oak, to get measurements. A friend who was the surveyor on the development site I was working on north of San Rafael, managed to do a topographical map of the site. When we checked the boundaries against the deed, the lot was not where it was supposed to be. The exit road from the island ran across the property and the lot ran across Main Street. A young lawyer friend in Tiburon, along with the surveyor, concluded that this would require a quit-claim action with the City and a quiet-title action to realign the lot to conform with the curbs that defined the two streets.

That led to many meetings with the City Council, the Planning Commission, and the Architectural Review Board. The big question was, “If we approve this, is it a legal lot and what kind of protests can we expect from the neighbors, since this was always thought of this as just a shoulder between the two streets.

My little team and I secured a “final” hearing with the City Council. I came in with a model and lovely drawings to be confronted by protestors from Corinthian Island carrying picket signs claiming that we were going to kill someone if a house were allowed to be built on the property. By the end of my presentation and a positive vote from the City Council, our plan was approved to everyone’s surprise.

The surveyor, the lawyer, my landlord and I went off to a local bar to celebrate. As we compared notes about the hearing, a big guy on the barstool next to me kept bumping into me. I finally offered him my barstool, as well. He turned and said, “You were in the City Council meeting tonight; that was a great presentation. What do you do?” I explained my circumstances and he said he had a little architectural firm in San Francisco. He was hiring, and said he’d like to talk to me. It was Art Gensler. We set an appointment for an interview.

He didn’t show, but he called and apologized profusely, saying he was with a client and clients always comes first. Instead, he invited me to his house up on a hillside in Tiburon looking toward the Golden Gate Bridge.

Up until that time, my idea of success in life was to join Skidmore, Owings and Merrill (or someone of that stature) the most highly respected firm in the nation. But they were not hiring. Nor was anyone else in town. As Art and I sat outside his house, we drank a bottle of wine and talked about the future of the profession of Architecture. We were in complete agreement which, I think, surprised us both. As we wrapped up, he offered me a job and I joined Gensler about two weeks later, commuting in to San Francisco every day on the ferry with Art, giving us a lot to time to talk about where to take the firm.

I’m not sure it would be possible to replicate that story, but I’ll provide a few thoughts. First, be honest. Don’t try to puff up yourself or your credentials. Explore the nature of the job and, more importantly, the ideas behind the company with the hiring manager or leaer. Ask lots of questions and be thoroughly forthcoming with the answers you give. Never fake it. If you’re joining an organization that is headed in a certain direction, learn what that is and if that is where you want to go. Decide if, by the nature of your interests and skills, you can (and want to) make a contribution to achieving those ends. If you aren’t aligned, move on to the next opportunity.

34 years later, we had grown to 2,400 people in 25 offices around the country with a few overseas, and I had been president of the firm for seven years and CEO for the final three. We had grown dramatically without a merger or an acquisition and the firm today is 50% larger than when I retired. I’ll explain how and why that “no mergers, no acquisitions” strategy was so important and what the culture of the firm was in my next post.

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Autonomous Vehicles Are on Their Way

Cars that can drive themselves, using radar, LIDAR and other imaging devices will appear within the next five years.  The technology will allow them to follow a few feet behind one another, utilizing our roadways more efficiently and safely (93% of auto accidents are due to driver error).  People will no longer need or want to own their own vehicles, nor pay taxes, maintenance, insurance or parking for them. One wonders what will happen to the thousands of parking garages, the majority of which will become redundant as a result

Most of those structures were not designed with a secondary use in mind.  Most were limited to code minimums, utilizing precast concrete beams with a 7-foot clearance, very deep floor-plates, open perimeters and little, if any, heating, ventilating or air-conditioning.  In other words, they are not easily convertible to alternative uses such as office, apartments, or even data centers.  To make matters worse, many were built with sloped floors to allow a continuous search pattern while trying to find a parking place.

So what are we going to do with these very solidly constructed structures when many of the cars parked in them today are replaced by a vehicle that you summon on your cell phone? The autonomous vehicle knows where you are, picks you up, takes you to your destination, drops you off and goes on to pick up other passengers.  Since it is projected that autonomous vehicles will be electrically powered and able to park themselves at an efficient charging station, what will happen to all those gas stations on prime corners in our cities?

We’re going to see a drastic reduction in air pollution and global warming.  On the flip side of that positive, society will have to deal with such things as what to do with the displaced employee base that provides many jobs today in service, policing, insurance, parking lot attendants and so forth.

On the West 2nd District project that I’m deeply involved with in Reno, Nevada, we’ll be building parking initially because of current demand for ample parking close to stores, restaurants and amusements.  When I hear the cry for more parking, I can’t help but asking the person, “If you could call an autonomous vehicle that drops you off at the front door of your destination and picks you up and takes you home, would you still opt to own, register, maintain, insure and park your own private vehicle?” I normally receive a resounding, “NO!”

So, what kind of parking structures will we build today with an eye toward the inevitable future that includes autonomous vehicles? For the massive West 2nd District project, we’re designing structures that can be repurposed as needed in the future. We’re looking closely at hydroponic farms, where we can grow all sorts of produce that you would normally shop for in your local supermarket. And, by the way, those businesses are transforming as purveyors such as Whole Foods (now part of Amazon) allow you to shop on line and deliver your groceries to your door, and, probably, will offer an option to enter your house and put your produce in your refrigerator.

A great advantage of locally grown produce is freshness.  Even organic market produce from places such as Whole Foods and Sprouts or the local Co-op is usually grown a month or more before and stored during that period in a cold storage facility and then trucked for several days to the store.  If you ever have a chance to buy lettuce, tomatoes, strawberries and other fruits and vegetables that have been freshly picked as opposed to a major supermarket’s produce that may be many weeks old by the time it gets to your table, you’ll know what I mean.

There are multiple reasons for us to pursue this option. Reno is in a high-desert climate with over 300 sunny days a year, so water is scarce.  In the project, we’re installing an on-site waste treatment/water recycling system, with water quality sufficient to flush toilets and clean enough for your dog to drink without becoming ill. The recycled water will irrigate our landscaping and fill our cooling towers. This will allow us to reduce our water consumption for the project by 50 percent, a good idea in a high desert environment where water is scarce.  But, we’ll actually recover more water than needed for those uses, so we’ll be able to do some farming with it as well. We have lots of sunlight and plenty of rooftops to place photovoltaic panels.  In fact, one or more of our buildings will have clear, photovoltaic vision glass, so we’ll have adequate electricity for LED “grow lights” and other uses.

We’ll put in a proof-of-concept garden in about 2 ½ years.  Our produce will be a market basket of fruits and vegetables, eventually (our plans project) adequate to feed the residents of West 2nd District and to supply our restaurants. At the moment, we’re working with a local company that is making the growing tubs, the irrigation system and the monitoring and control systems for irrigation, lighting and drainage. They’re also putting together a full-fledged shopping list of things we can grow here. At the same time, we’re looking for a “farmer/entrepreneur” interested in operating a whole new “farm-to-table” enterprise, as I think this is a business opportunity that can be applied throughout the world. We will be ready for those autonomous vehicles when they come. Will you?

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Client Love Matters

Do your clients really love you . . . and do you love them?

Something I learned a long time ago has to do with my relationship with my clients. If they love me and I love them, I’ll do my best work, and they’ll refer me to their friends.  So, what does that love look like?

Let’s start from my first meeting with a new client.  How do I feel about that client? Can we work together?  Do I feel empathy for what they’re trying to accomplish? Do I even like the person(s)? Am I personally committed to what they want to do? Without building from this foundation, I can’t do my best work, and the client is unlikely to relate very well to me either.

So, how does one get started? If these factors are not part of how your relationship develops, I suggest you move on quickly.  You’ll have more fun, and so will your client.  I found early in my career that if I don’t like or don’t trust the client or their motives for what they’re planning, I’m not going to do my best work, and they’re not going to be very happy with me.

An architect’s energies will only accomplish great things if these factors are in place.  And you can’t “fake” it. Establishing a bond with the client must come from your heart. So, what does it look like if your client just isn’t a fit for you … or you for him or her? And, by the way, there is usually one person — the leader of the client relationship — who will set the tone for the way the relationship is going to evolve.  Don’t kid yourself or the client by talking yourself into a scenario that things are going to be all right. You can fabricate excuses (e.g., you really like the key contact; a few people in the firm have their hearts in the right place) because you really need the work or think it could result in a great addition to your portfolio.

A good fit and a successful relationship is all but guaranteed if I can honestly say:

  1. I really like this person and think we could become great friends (after all, we’re going to be working with each other for a long time).
  2. I trust this person and their motives, for the project, for the people they’re doing it for, and for the community at large.
  3. Their motivations for doing the work align with mine (things like sustainability; energy and resource efficiency; what the project will accomplish for the community and the people who will use it). In other words, things that matter to me.

Failing this, I really should refer this client to someone else.

The same advice holds for engineers and planners. If you don’t feel that there will be a strong bond with and an alignment of goals and values.  Move on.

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The HOA Conundrum

Have you or any of your friends owned a condominium? If so, you have probably heard frequent complaints about the HOA (Homeowners’ Association), their fumbles with managing the building or, even worse, a lawsuit they have filed about construction defects and the difficulties they’ve had addressing the claim.

While I was working as an architect, I strongly resisted accepting commissions to do condominium buildings, largely based on the number of lawsuits filed against architectural firms. Typically, 9 ½ years after the certificate of occupancy was issued, and 6 months before the statute of limitations had run out, the architect, contractors and others involved were sued by HOAs.  In some areas, this pattern was rampant. For example, in San Diego County alone, 100% of condominium HOAs had filed such suits.

I’ve pondered this HOA conundrum for years, especially after having had to pay the price once or twice. We had one project that particularly annoyed us, since it was initially built as an apartment building and converted to condominiums 9 years later. Sure enough, a lawsuit was filed against us after a subsequent 9 ½ years.  Everyone – contractors, subs, suppliers, and, of course, us – were sued nearly 20 years after construction. We all threw money into a kitty to make it go away, despite the fact that most of the problems were due to faulty maintenance by the HOA. With a little investigation, we found a number of law firms were assigning summer interns to run around with cameras and dictation machines, documenting new condominiums under construction in order to build an archive for possible litigation 9 ½ years later.

This was back in an era when “exclusionary” zoning was being rewritten to be “inclusionary,” meaning cities and lenders that felt it was too risky to underwrite a mixed-use building were finally modifying their approaches to encourage and fund mixed-use projects. As a consequence, there was added pressure from many of our clients to take advantage of this new trend in urban development, mixing retail with housing and office uses.

With some of the risks mitigated, I studied the condominium lawsuit issue and discovered that most of the problems had to do with leakage through the exterior skin – particularly at balconies, where the exterior finish was interrupted and not properly maintained – and with elevators and mechanical systems. At the time, I proposed wrapping all of these elements under a Master Homeowners’ Association to maintain and service each of these elements for the entire building, including units that were rentals. Sounded great at the time, but I couldn’t get anyone to bite, especially the insurance companies. They’d never done anything like this before, and no one wanted to be a pioneer.

As a principal in West 2nd District (www.west2nddistrict.com), a massive mixed-use project in Reno, NV, I chose to pick up the banner again. One of the biggest problems we would face in the market, I believed, would be individuals who had owned a condominium or who knew someone who had dealt with an HOA lawsuit. We wanted to alleviate that concern by doing what I had proposed years before and adding to that approach, engaging each contractor for each building with a 20-year maintenance contract. This way, the onus would fall on the contractor to inspect and repair any problems that arise, rather than the HOA having to do a “cash call” whenever a repair is necessary.

As developers and architects, we must address the issues with multiple uses in each building; my development partners understood the HOA concerns. They also felt the marketing advantages and the actual experience of living in the West 2nd District meant taking this approach to risk mitigation was worthwhile.  After all, what does a typical HOA board know about the exterior skin, the elevators and mechanical systems, the appropriate reserves to hold for maintenance and repairs and when to spend them?

The next time our insurance carrier was in the office, I was asked to present my idea. Their response? “Why doesn’t everyone do it this way?” How times had changed. They were open to and supportive of the idea.

We’re now in the process of precisely defining what’s in the Master HOA, which will cover many buildings, leveraging our purchasing power, versus the typical HOA which covers individual buildings. The Master HOA, much like the typical individual building HOA, will cover cleaning and interior maintenance, replacing light bulbs and carpet, patching and painting walls when required and, of course, rules and regulations that govern the behavior of the owners, their visitors and their pets.

We’re also in the process of documenting these ideas so we can finalize our Covenants, Conditions and Restrictions (CC&Rs). I’ll keep you posted on our progress, and, along the way, we’ll report on our track record and the results to our homeowners.

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Environmental Impact Leadership

A great deal has been written, and there has been significant hand-wringing, about America backing out of the Paris Climate agreement.  But, more than any other country, America –thanks to forward-thinking companies, professionals in our industries, and consumers themselves — has made enormous progress in reducing our environmental footprint, and the Paris Climate Accord has had nothing to do with it.

There’s more to this progress than a blind championing and adherence to a worldwide climate accord.  It’s called leadership. And America has done a very good job through several noticeable constituencies to reduce our environmental impact.  There’s been peer pressure among and between corporate CEOs to consider energy and material conservation, along with recycling and waste reduction.  There’s been pressure from prospective employees, relentlessly quizzing companies about their environmental programs, as well as customer/client pressures about an enterprise’s environmental approach to the manufacture of their products.

Why has this happened? Certainly, the  drumbeat of global warming (which, in my opinion is still not “settled science”) but concerns connected to climate change have made the public aware of potential disastrous change on our planet.  But, there’s so much more to it than CO2 in the atmosphere. Our concern and response regarding our planet must include elimination of toxins in the environment and the development of renewable energy sources, being realized in the advances in solar power and wind energy. In Nevada, NV Energy, for example,  is now able to build a solar power generation array, and they’re doing it at a lower cost per kilowatt hour than a gas-fired turbine.  Many wind generators in the United States are producing power below the cost of more conventional, oil, gas or coal plants. Material conservation and recycling are big considerations.  Let’s face it, there’s only a limited supply of petroleum, aluminum, steel, copper, zinc and many other substances that we will continue to require for generations to come, so recycling has become a strong mandate.

The U.S. Green Building Council, with their LEED certification programs, along with Energy Star and other metrics that provide tools to the design and construction industries, have done much to help us respond to our serious concern for conservation. And there’s competition in the market to build Net Zero Energy buildings as well as other such programs throughout the country.  Together, we’re doing this through public awareness and increasing peer pressure, which is much more effective than making rules and demanding adherence.

I contend we should spend more time searching out and elevating those who truly embrace the objectives of reducing the use of complex hydrocarbons, toxic materials, and those that can’t or aren’t being recycled. Here are some examples:

  1. BP has renamed itself “Beyond Petroleum.” And that’s not just a carefully-crafted marketing line. BP is a major wind-energy producer and, for a while, they were manufacturing photovoltaic panels, the first batch of which went onto my house in San Francisco in 2001.
  2. Ray Anderson, then the CEO of Interface Carpet, wrote a wonderful book titled “Business Lessons from a Radical Industrialist.” The subtitle is “How a CEO Doubled Earnings, Inspired Employees and Created Innovation from One Simple Idea.” The simple idea: we must be completely sustainable for our planet to survive and be a place I’m proud to have left to my grandchildren.
  3. Our West 2nd District project here in Reno, a high desert and very dry environment, will have its own waste treatment/water recycling system, using 50% of the water a conventional building here would use. We’re building a central heating and cooling plant that will reduce energy in the district according to our current projection by 34%. We’ll also have several photovoltaic panel arrays, and we’re exploring generating electricity from vision glass. I was the champion of sustainability at Gensler for many years.  We made believers of our colleagues and our clients as we created proof statements about the value of what we were doing. In most cases, the cost was lower to start, and the long-term operating savings were impressive.
  4. And all of this is without a Paris Climate Accord, a carbon tax or complex rules and regulations. People are doing these things because they are the right thing to do. And others, through public education, peer pressure, that great American Spirit: “I want to do things because they’re the right things to do, not because someone is shoving it down my throat.”: Often cited is the example of Ethanol made from corn to reduce carbon emissions, all the while raising food costs, enriching politicians through lobbyists, and damaging many engine types, such as motorcycles, which I know a lot about.

I challenge you to get out there and publicize your success stories and those of others.  Spend more time leading  and guiding others to embrace what you’re learning. I believe this will be 10 times more effective than any rule generated by the Paris Climate Accord.

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Mixed-Use Urban Communities in Demand

We’re listening closely to the market desires for our West 2nd District Project here in Reno.  We’re observing some interesting trends relating to millennials and retirees.

A significant number of new jobs, many of them with technology firms (e.g., Tesla, Panasonic, Apple, Google, Switch, etc.), are being filled by bright, young millennials relocating from California and other states. Most of these transplants are coming from urban settings.  They are not coming from single-family homes, but from apartments or condominiums in cities, where they can walk to their favorite café, a grocery store, a pharmacy, the hair salon or barber shop and other conveniences that make for an attractive lifestyle.

And, we’ve had many inquiries from the older segment of our population whose children have left the family home, which is larger than the empty-nesters want to maintain at this stage of their lives. While they also claim to need a garden to putter in, most of them (like my wife who mourned the loss of her garden when we moved into a high-rise Reno condominium) rapidly adapt to the beauty of no-yard-to-take-care-of, no-gardener-to-pay, and no-sprinklers-to-maintain. There’s lots to say for the freedom to lock-it-up and go traveling for a while.

That’s what is being planned for West 2nd District, including  a much more walkable planning pattern.  We hadn’t expected the immense interest we’re seeing from (about-to-be or already-are) retired baby boomers.  Like many cities in America, Reno has a dramatic shortage of this urban, mixed-use pattern of development. And by walkable, I don’t mean a gridiron street plan where pedestrians and automobiles often make for an uncomfortable interface.  In West 2nd, we’re closing a number of streets, making them into paseos with fountains and sidewalk restaurants and public plazas. All parking structures will be fed from the perimeter to avoid pedestrians having to wait for cars entering or exiting the parking garages.

We’re finding there is a finite time for this generation of seniors to live in their new urban home.  There’s a robust  market for active senior housing, smaller in scale, with a different set of services. We’re curious about whether old and young people are okay living in the same neighborhood.

The condominium my wife and I live in has 380 units with a broad age demographic, from college students and young professionals to seniors like us.  And, by the way, everything in between. We have a few families in the building with school-age children. We’re a pet-friendly environment with lots of diversity. It makes for lively conversations and friends that cross generations. What our building lacks, though, is that walkable, urban setting.  We’re on a busy street. Sidewalk cafes and  restaurants are blocks away, and there are few retail convenience shops.  Finally, 10 years after the building was completed, a small grocery store is being built across the street.

I’m seeing an increase in demand across the country for this mix of uses and planning pattern. As we look at other projects around the Reno area, we’re hearing people speak positively about what West 2nd District promises. The community is debating how these characteristics can be incorporated into lower-density housing and retail developments. Most of our buildings range from 10 to 25 stories, with one 40-story tower in the center. Can these same amenities find their way into a four- to six- story environment?  We believe so, and are  beginning to study a few suburban sites that can be anchored around a village center with many of the conveniences and a small grocery store, and an environment that provides the same walkability attraction as the central-city development.

As autonomous vehicles begin to displace the need for a three-car garage (two cars plus a boat), we think the pattern is going to shift, and walkability – to the grocery store and other conveniences we drive to today, to work, to school – becomes a more desirable way to live than the current pattern of suburban tract houses with wide streets and sidewalks no one ever walks on.

Let me know what you’re seeing in your city.  If you have good examples of these patterns, send them to me. I’ll accumulate them and publish them in some form.

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A Suggested Extension to the New Grand Strategy

After reading Ed Friedrichs’ blog post, “The New Grand Strategy,” I was inclined to email him and suggest a complementary extension of our “national strategic imperative.” Consider, if you will, an expanded definition of sustainability that focuses not just on the built environment, but one that includes the people who use our built environment. When designers and developers do so, we are rewarded with positive health outcomes as well as the environmental benefits associated with walkable communities, regenerative agriculture, and resource productivity – just as Mark (Puck) Mykleby describes in his book, The New Grand Strategy – Restoring America’s Prosperity, Security and Sustainability in the 21st Century.

We need healthy approaches to place making. The vast and ever-increasing percentage of GDP expenditure on reactive health care – live one’s life, get sick, treat the symptoms – must leverage architecture, planning, and development to proactively create the latent conditions in the built environment that improve health outcomes, slowing down or potentially reducing the growth of GDP spending on traditional, reactive healthcare.

“Over the next 20-years, total global healthcare expenditures on the treatment of chronic disease will total $47-trillion (US$) or 30% of GDP.” – Global Economist Thierry Malleret of Monthly Barometer (2015)

As design helped conquer the epidemics of late 19th and early 20th centuries, what if the design choices we make now addressed the chronic conditions of today – obesity, heart disease, isolation? Can the idea of sustainability extend from “green building” and the environmental science driving the development of buildings to community planning and the health outcomes of the people who occupy those buildings?

Historically, good design choices have proved themselves essential to creating health-giving environments at home, work, study and play. With the belief that there is no greater achievable “sustainability” than health and well-being, I’d like to offer our findings on an initiative we call, “Designing for Healthy Living.”

Our firm, Hart Howerton, partnered with the University of Virginia’s Center for Design and Health and brought together medical, public policy and business school participants to verify our firm’s proposed “punch list” for constructing the conditions for improved health. We wanted to find out if the annual worldwide investment in commercial real estate could be made in a “smarter way,” in a way that helped alleviate chronic health conditions. Could building communities differently proactively change health outcomes and, by extension, help protect our national economy from the “material” risk posed by rising healthcare costs?

Published jointly in 2014, “Designing the Healthy Neighborhood” is a synthesis of available studies in a multiplicity of areas, from urban planning to nutrition to gerontology. It makes its focus the community infrastructure necessary to install opportunities for “healthy living.” We identified nine principles for designing healthy communities. Some of these principles are pre-development ideas, ideas like “smart location.” Some are design opportunities to embed within plans: integrate nature, mix uses, incomes, and generations. Others, like “pride of place,” rely on both physical settings and long-term programming to create of a sense of community, and, “circulation alternatives” – walkability and other modes of “active transportation” – which research associates with a reduced risk of obesity and cardio-vascular disease.

Our collaboration substantiated our original premise that health can be a “deliverable” through design. “Healthy Living,” like LEED, the green standard, could be a primary guideline. And, it’s not limited to physical health – it’s places for people, for community interaction, for mental stimulation, for continued social and academic learning. It’s places that people enjoy being, or being together, as well as facilitating physical activity and fostering social interaction.

That’s how our initiative of “Designing for Healthy Living” evolved – we identified basic elements of design that optimize the quality of complete well-being, for mind, body and spirit, in creating new communities. Our principles are buildable components of a design that can be applied by anyone reading this blog in order to infuse their project with the same positive health outcomes. Our findings bore evidence that the right design might programmatically empower and encourage healthier lifestyle choices, helping reduce or prevent certain chronic conditions and their reactive care. We encourage you to try, too, in pursuit of health equity.

“Designing for Healthy Living” intends to be an insistent invitation to act upon its documented recommendations, enabling built projects that can be studied for their achievement within the context of sustainability’s logical evolution. From Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring” and the broad environmental awareness that defined the basic notion of sustainability, to the 80s and 90s fascination with sustainability and LEED for buildings as a technological pursuit, to the more recent transition that focuses “sustainability” on the people inside buildings, not just the buildings themselves. Given our suggested, broader definition of sustainability, it is time to act – it is time for design professionals and their clients to embrace Ed and Puck’s “national strategic imperative,” as expanded, in order to weave together the complexities of community design and development in the next generation of ownership and investment.

If you’d like to read more about our findings with the University of Virginia, please follow this link: http://www.harthowerton.com/pdf/DesigningtheHealthyNeigborhood.pdf

Tim McCarthy, AIA, LEED AP, is the Managing Principal of Hart Howerton. His commitment to understanding how conditions in the built environment may drive a health and wellness-based design paradigm has guided his most recent professional efforts. He leads the firm’s sponsored research at the University of Virginia’s Center for Design & Health and he is an active contributor to ULI’s Building Healthy Places Initiative. He can be reached at tmccarthy@harthowerton.com

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