By Jack Stubbs
At a time when the city and surrounding region are experiencing sustained amounts of growth and change, architecture firms are striving to be at the forefront of social and civic engagement as a means to give further weight to their design strategies.
Seattle-based LMN Architects, founded in 1979, is one firm looking into incorporate civic engagement into all levels of its design practices and change the way that the community thinks about socially-oriented design.
We recently spoke with Sam Miller, managing partner at LMN, and Wendy Pautz, design partner at the firm, about the company’s founding and current philosophy around civic engagement, how client collaboration remains a key component of the firm’s practices, and how different design strategies are increasingly being impacted by advances in the world of technology.
In February 2018, The American Institute of Architects elevated Miller and Pautz, along with four other architects, to its College of Fellows for 2018. Miller and Pautz will be officially inducted into the College of Fellows at the AIA Conference in June 2018.
What can you tell me about LMN Architects’ overall business philosophy and strategy (as well as how and when the company was founded)?
Sam Miller: LMN Architects was founded in 1979 by George Loschky, Jud Marquardt and John Nesholm around a collaborative design approach that aspired to serving people and communities through civic projects. For nearly 40 years, the firm’s overriding focus has been to wed design of the work we do to the life of cities and communities. Today, we are led by eight partners, and with a firm composed of over 150 people including architects, interior designers, graphic designers, urban designers, and technologists, to touch upon just some of the skill sets. While the variety of clients and project types we engage with has grown over the years, our commitment to the public realm and to design that supports our shared experience continues to permeate all aspects of our work.
Per its philosophy, LMN’s projects emphasize “civic design” in the public and private realms, and focus on how to connect places, projects and people—can you elaborate upon LMN’s “radically pragmatic” approach to design?
Wendy Pautz: In a world that views much of what goes on around us as subjective, we seek to bring a level of pragmatism to our projects that helps people—decision makers, the general public, interest groups, owners, builders, etc.—understand the implications of building (the positive outcomes as well as the challenges). We want to know how well spaces connect people to one another, satisfy function, and how effective they are in providing comfort and efficiency. By applying both qualitative and quantitative assessments throughout the design process, and testing our ideas through post-occupancy studies, we are better able to determine whether or not the decisions we have made during design yield the results we thought possible.
Can you expand upon the “maker” culture at the firm and how this ethos inform’s the company’s projects?
Sam Miller: Our culture of “making” works its way throughout all aspects of the firm. At its core, it means we are open to invention and to problem solving. Traditionally, the practice of architecture was very much about boundaries. Architects had a certain scope of work; engineers had a certain scope of work; and contractors built what was designed by the architects and engineers. Recent technological changes have meant that we can now blur that line between design and construction to yield better building performance, as well as increased cost benefits. There’s a social benefit as well: people are better able to come together through a shared sense of responsibility in the design process. Ultimately, we think that this cultural shift has a positive benefit to society. And it’s a lot more fun.
Especially in a region like the Puget Sound, and a city like Seattle in particular, sustainability in the built environment remains a key concern. What are some of the sustainable or green initiatives that LMN looks to incorporate into its projects?
Wendy Pautz: We take a holistic approach to design. What this means for the design process is that we don’t apply sustainable design elements after the fact to solve problems that should have been solved through good design in the first place. We don’t divorce sustainable design from design; it is part of it in the same way we consider form, material, and function. Good design is sustainable.
Collaboration and a transparent, interdisciplinary perspective seems key to the projects that LMN produces. What will be the continued importance of this collaboration at a time when so much densification and growth is occurring in the city and the region?
Sam Miller: At a time when specialization seems to be the rage, we are actively engaged in trying to unify the process of building. Whether that’s through co-locating contractors and engineers in our office to cultivate a stronger sense of sharing (and efficiency), or through reaching out to non-traditional team members such as artists, our goal is to bring a richness to the process and resulting design that responds to the culture and community in which we design. Collaborative design is still in its infancy. We anticipate this trend to continue to grow and develop in ways we can’t imagine today. It is only when we work together that we will ultimately be able to successfully face the challenges before us.
Can you tell me about some of the current/in-the-works mixed-use projects that the firm is working on (e.g. Seattle Aquarium Expansion)? Where do things stand on this project, and how will it contribute to changes occurring on the waterfront?
Sam Miller: Currently in the works is the Aquarium project. Along with the new overlook walk, and the entire waterfront revitalization, these projects will fundamentally transform our city and reconnect it to the water. We can’t share too much about the Aquarium project at present, but stay tuned for more details.”
Wendy Pautz: As for other work, we have a number of exciting projects in the office, including a number of projects in Seattle besides the Aquarium. [These include] other cultural projects such as the renovation to the Seattle Asian Art Museum; civic projects such as the Washington State Convention Center Addition; education projects such as the Cardinal Union Building at the Seattle Academy of Arts and Sciences; transportation projects such as the 520 Interchange and University Station among others for Sound Transit; and commercial projects such as the Hyatt Regency Seattle, among others.
Community engagement and collaboration seems to be at the epicenter of everything LMN does. With some of the challenges we are facing as a region (e.g. housing affordability, transportation, etc.), is there anything that concerns you about staying ahead of the curve at a time when so much is happening?
Wendy Pautz: The firm was founded upon the idea that buildings, places, and spaces can positively impact community. This belief is part of our firm’s DNA and is evidenced in the countless volunteer hours we give to programs such as Sawhorse Revolution, the ACE Mentorship program, Seattle Design Commission, Design In Public, and Seattle Design Festival, among others. As we grow as a city and a region, it will be increasingly important to make sure that everyone has a voice. Not everyone is internet-savvy, or has the wherewithal to make themselves heard. We must as designers, and society as a whole, continue to find ways to craft our cities and region with everyone in mind.
In the current era of commercial real estate tech, companies (architecture firms among them) are continually striving to implement technology into their services and strategies—what can you tell me about LMN’s “tech studio” projects? How do you think they represent a new frontier in the world of tech-based design?
Sam Miller: LMN Tech Studio (LMNts) is our in-house integrated design technology studio. LMNts provides the expertise to deploy emerging computer technologies in a dynamic architectural practice. LMNts is setup to give our firm the digital infrastructure to explore in depth the most complex of designs, while enabling us to critically question and—if necessary—re-tool the underlying technologies.
Technology adds an incredibly valuable tool to help solve problems that would otherwise take a great deal of time to resolve or to execute. It helps us in prototyping solutions that might in previous years have been too costly or time-consuming, and in helping to secure real-world feedback to understand the implications of our designs. We continue to use Tech Studio to expand how we think about the work we do and to explore ideas. For example, a series of recent Tech Studio experiments involved looking at how facade design can be influenced, in real time, by its surrounding—responding to light, movement, and so on. We don’t know exactly how we might integrate this into a project, but that’s the value of Tech Studio—it provides us with the opportunity to explore ideas without needing to respond to actual project constraints. What we learn through experimentation and exploration is invaluable in expanding how we think about solutions to a problem.