Q&A: Design Advocacy, Master Builders, and Material Sustainability

Susan S. Szenasy talked with the principals of Houston-based Kirksey Architecture about design advocates and how material sustainability and building codes reflect regional conditions.

The Downtown Houston Childcare Center, designed by Kirksey Architecure with the goal of providing flexible learning spaces and utilizing natural materials and textures

Courtesy Slyworks Photography

Throughout 2015, Metropolis’s publisher and editor in chief, Susan S. Szenasy, led the Metropolis Think Tank series of conversations on the seismic cultural shifts reshaping our society and the importance of injecting a new humanism into design and architecture in order to better deal with emerging challenges. As part of these ongoing discussions, Szenasy engages key industry leaders and gives a voice to different knowledge groups that participate in these processes—from architecture firms and clients to researchers and consultants.

On August 26, she talked with the principals of Houston-based Kirksey Architecture about architects as design advocates, master builders, and how material sustainability and building codes might reflect regional conditions. What follows is an edited transcript of the conversation.

Susan S. Szenasy, publisher & editor in Chief, Metropolis (SSS): Since Houston is set to receive an infusion of people in the coming years, I’m curious about the public discourse on this topic, which is much broader than architecture. Let’s keep in mind that the architecture and design community brings a great deal of specialized knowledge into the public discourse. So it’s relevant to ask about local policy and how it impacts positive change.

Julie Hendricks, AIA, LEED AP, Vice President, Director of Eco Services (JH): We have done advocacy on local policy such as the last two energy upgrades considered by the city council. Also, we’re about to have another energy code upgrade. These regulations are very powerful when every single building we build has to suddenly become 15 percent more energy efficient. That makes a tremendous difference, more than we can make through our advocacy with individual clients.

Healthy Living

Nicola Springer, AIA, LEED AP, Vice President, pK-12 Team Leader (NS): Our local independent school district mandated that all schools must be LEED rated. Sustainable design is important in terms of educating the community and implementing these ideas as early as possible. The mandate was really important for pushing the ideas of green and healthy living. It’s interesting that this mandate came from the parents and the students.

Randall Walker, AIA, LEED AP, Executive Vice President (RW): When we talk about LEED with our clients, some will turn away from it. But when we talk about designing a healthy, smart building that’s environmentally friendly, nobody says no. It’s a matter of taking the politics out of it and treating it only as smart design: You save energy and you have lower energy bills. It’s a matter of changing the terminology that you’re using when you’re talking to them that emphasizes smart design.

JH: I want people to think about LEED like they would about the difference between a person who has a college degree and one who doesn’t. The one who doesn’t have a degree may well be very well read and very intelligent, but they don’t have a pedigree, so how do you know about what they know? You have to have a way to know about what they know. That’s the power of LEED.

No Easy Answers When It Comes To Materials

Gary Machicek, AIA, LEED AP, Vice President, Design Principal (GM) : A few years ago, in downtown Houston, we designed a daycare center, teaming up with the University of Houston and their material collaborative group. Together we focused on finding out the relative greenness or sustainability of every material. When we really got into this, what we found is that there’s no easy answer. Is being more local important? Is it the chemical make up of the material? Is it being able to recycle a material? There were so many different categories, and we realized that this was actually a very difficult discussion. All of the many ratings systems are rating different things so it’s very confusing.

The finished design of the Downtown Houston Childcare Center, where designers from Kirksey Architecture worked to establish the relative greenness or sustainability of all the materials used.

Courtesy Slyworks Photography

SSS: Did you land somewhere specific with that discussion?

NS: While we weren’t doing a LEED project, we knew that we wanted it to be a green building, a healthy building. We were particularly concerned about healthy materials for the daycare center because we understand that young children are more at risk than adults when it comes toxicity. Natural materials feel good in early childhood learning. Texture is important. Whether it’s the cabinetry, the paint on the walls, the window coverings, we looked at all those materials to figure out where they came from. In the end we devised a ranking system that included things like the distance from where the material came. Then we realized things like, “Oh, this may be a green product, but the wood is from New Zealand, it went to the Netherlands to be given a vinegar treatment, and from there it has to be flown into this part of the United States. ” So we ended up using cedar from down the street. We had to come up with our own rankings and asked ourselves: Is it better for a material to be natural and not have any types of chemicals? Is it better for it to be local?

The Downtown Houston Childcare Center, designed by Kirksey Architecure

Courtesy Slyworks Photography

SSS: How does what you learned translate to other projects?

GM: That’s our daily struggle. For instance, recently we did a project that involved brick and masonry so we looked for those materials within the radius defined by LEED. We found masonry at a newer factory that’s more efficient than the one nearby. We didn’t get a LEED point because the factory was outside of the radius that we were designing in. That said, LEED has been great because it brought these issues to the forefront and gave architects a baseline to work from. A lot of our clients say: “We don’t want you to be LEED, but we want you to follow LEED principles.” That’s a slippery slope when you get to a certain point in the process and the project is over budget—it’s very easy to say get rid of the LEED principles, which function as a baseline. But you have to get beyond that baseline now, and change the discourse.

A rendering of the Houston Community College Brays Oaks Workforce Building, a project for which Kirksey Architecture searched for brick and masonry materials within the radius defined by LEED.

Courtesy Kirksey Architecture

SSS: Can the local AIA band together with a university and create local ratings that may help you navigate a less complex system?

JH: A couple of years back we were looking at regional bonus credits. In LEED, if you do certain credits that are significant to your region, then you get this extra point. This came about because we had asked USGBC if it was possible to have special credits for strategies that mean the most to our region. The answer was no, because LEED works universally for the whole country. But, in reality, nothing works universally like that. It would be great to have all local rating systems. Do you know that one of the first green-building rating system came out of Austin, Texas—the Austin Energy Green Building program? LEED is based on that.

John Kirksey, FAIA, President (JK): We went through a process here in Houston, some years ago, on what are called the landscape ordinances. Basically the ordinance would require the planting of trees primarily around commercial buildings. This was mostly directed at shopping centers. Then shopping center developers got together and fought that ordinance tooth and nail; they thought the trees would block the visibility of their clients’ signage. The argument dragged on for two years to get these landscape regulations passed. In the meantime, a group called the Friendswood Development built a shopping center and planted oak trees all around the perimeter of the property. That property leased out overnight. It was a huge success and by the time we finally passed the ordinance, most developers were exceeding the guidelines it set forth.

SSS: Kirksey has knowledge and skills that can start a public a dialogue around the environment.

Brian Richard, AIA, Executive Vice President, Science & Technology Team Leader (BR): One of our big clients, a very large chemical company, (“chemical” being in their official name), now wants to be known simply as a technology company. They have strategic principles in place that set them on a course of making the world a better place than when they started. Clearly, chemical companies are making some things we don’t want in our products. When we talk to them, it’s clear that they understand the complexities we face every day. They understand that the world is connected—that we’re not just picking products and throwing them together to make something pretty, but that we’re figuring out how things are compatible and how they are not. I sincerely feel that architects have done themselves a disservice in moving away from the idea of the master builder. That’s important because the expertise that’s involved in the mastery of our field allows us to make the proper judgments. Selecting the right products and putting things together that work correctly is a big complex equation.

Maker Spaces and Knowing Your Materials

JK: People have lost touch with the quality of materials. When you hold a piece of wood in your hands, for instance, you can feel how you want to use it.

SSS: That’s why maker spaces are popping up all over the place, including on college campuses. The need to know your materials, making a prototype, a model, gives people an opportunity to test ideas.

The Houston Community College Brays Oaks Workforce Building, designed by Kirksey Architecure

Courtesy Kirksey Architecture

GM: In designing university facilities we can implement some of these maker practices allowing students to manipulate materials and experiment, the same way they will figure out problem in the real world after they graduate. In the real world, you do something a lot of times, until you get it right. I think that universities are recognizing that they want to teach in a similar fashion, and so designing spaces that accommodate that sort of set-up is important.

NS: While we may be talking about us becoming better master builders, on the K-12 side, we’re very much facilitators. In that sector some clients look to us to help lead the research. We often hear them say, “We don’t know what it’s going to be.” So one of the things that we try to do with our process is approach it with the same theories as 21st century learning. In today’s K-12, we hear a lot about “project-based learning” and “problem-based learning.” Interestingly, as architecture students we learned the way today’s K-12 students learn.

This Metropolis Think Tank conversation is presented in partnership with our sponsors Bretford, DuPont, Sunbrella, and Teknion. Think Tank 2016 will be in Washington D.C. next month. 

Panelists: John Kirksey, FAIA, President; Wes Good, AIA, Managing Principal; Julie Hendricks, AIA, LEED AP, Vice President, Director of EcoServices; Randall Walker, AIA, LEED AP, Executive Vice President, Interior Architecture Design Director; Gary Machicek, AIA, LEED AP, Vice President, Design Principal; Nicola Springer, AIA, LEED AP, Vice President, pK-12 Team Leader; Brian Richard, AIA, Executive Vice President, Science & Technology Team Leader

Moderator: Susan S. Szenasy, publisher and editor in chief, Metropolis

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