By Jack Stubbs
In a growing and expanding city and region, firms are continually look at new ways to design spaces that reflect their surrounding environment.
We recently spoke with Karen Thomas, regional managing principal for Gensler’s Northwest region and managing director for Gensler’s Seattle office, about local and regional design trends, and how these trends will impact the broader industry in the years ahead.
Gensler is a global architecture, design and planning firm with 44 locations and more than 5,000 professionals networked across Asia, Europe, Australia, the Middle East and the Americas. The firm is organized to support clients at every stage of the design cycle, from initial strategy and design planning through implementation and management.
What can you tell me about Gensler (where the firm operates geographically, some of the firm’s main strategies and objectives, etc.)?
In Seattle, we are a team of 90-plus architects, interior designers, strategists and brand specialists dedicated to the design of innovative and efficient environments.
Gensler’s network of 29 practice areas gives our clients the benefit of an integration of talent and knowledge in multiple practices. Here in Seattle, this integration has allowed us to touch projects from very big to very small–master planning of districts, major building repositioning projects, high-rises and mid-rises, restaurants, corporate interiors, sports, entertainment and retail. We’re touching all the levels of what makes up the heart of any great city. And we’re enriching the human experience.
Given that the new year has just commenced, it’s time for a look back on 2017. How did the year shape up to be? Looking back at the year retrospectively, were there any broader trends in the market that surprised you?
2017 has been a year of challenging norms and creating new ones. Age-old ways that we’ve understood our world are starting to break down, and we’ve been required to go through the difficult process of reframing and generating new paradigms of economics, society and design.
The rise of crypto-currency, decentralized markets and pervasive digital solutions are good examples of these new paradigms. Other trends we’ve been charting are the hospitality takeover across sectors, the gig economy, diversity and inclusivity, the Amazon effect and a new focus on second-tier cities and industrial districts. The world is changing, and our profession must shift quickly enough to remain relevant.
What are some of the more prominent projects that Gensler worked on in 2017? What does 2018 look like at this point, and are there any upcoming projects in the pipeline that you’d like to mention?
2017 was a great year for Gensler, both firm-wide and here in Seattle. Our local office has grown by another 25 percent. We have been able to broaden our diversity of work across architecture, planning, interior design and brand design.
Some of our most notable projects from this past year include the new citizenM Hotel in South Lake Union, which will be breaking ground in the next month, Tableau’s recently completed space at Northedge and the repositioning of the Pacific Place shopping center, set to begin construction in the Spring. 2018 has an equally exciting lineup of projects, including a new mixed-use office building at 1150 Eastlake, completion of the Pali Hotel by Pike Place Market and a new residential and hotel high-rise for Onelin Investment.
Gensler’s clients are wide-ranging in size and scale. What do you think will be the importance of client relationships in the industry moving forward, and are you seeing the demands of clients changing? Will they remain a priority for architectural design firms?
For Gensler, it all begins and ends with client relationships–that is the number one guiding principle for our firm. This will not change in the future, rather, it will become even more prevalent for us to create strong connections with our clients so that we can serve as strategic partners as the market evolves and changes. Our clients’ industries are evolving just as quickly —if not more quickly—than our own, and their needs are changing every day.
As architects, we need to remain nimble to adapt to these changes. Building the right kind of long-term, trusted relationships will allow us to meet these needs. Designers and architects are most successful when they are utilized as problem solvers, not just aesthetic applicators. It is when we are in the heads of our clients, delivering on their business objectives, that we can reach our highest level of creativity.
Given the current social, economic and cultural context of the Puget Sound region, what do you foresee for the year ahead? Given the firm’s global reach, what do you envision for the firm’s expansion in this particular regional market? What are the trends that will continue to shape the industry?
Urban residential is imperative to keep up with city’s growth. I also believe we will see greater diversity in lifestyle markets: retail, entertainment, sports and food and beverage. The office market will continue to evolve with companies housing themselves in different ways, consolidating and re-prioritizing how space is utilized.
We must be local first to go global. The Northwest will continue to model trends coming out of the tech industry and community consciousness, and will keep integrated sustainable design at the forefront.
Many people left the workforce during the Great Recession in the last cycle, but has there been a resurgence in interest in architecture and design? What are the main factors you think will drive architecture and design in 2018?
We are still struggling, and there is a major hole in the mid-level of our workforce. This will take some time to overcome. This has led us to look outside the traditional industry path and bring on business strategists, brand designers and creative directors from other industries. All in all, it is changing our profession for the good.
Gensler places a significant emphasis on research, surveys and data collection in its strategy. How do you think surveys and hands-on research will influence and shape the industry in 2018 and beyond?
The need for research-based design solutions has never been more paramount. Today, we face new levels of ambiguity and an unprecedented pace of change in our world. This makes our ability to investigate the unknown and charter our path forward more valuable than ever before. We believe design-led firms with a robust approach to research and strategy integrated deeply into their DNA as a firm will be uniquely positioned to leverage the power of architecture for substantive and meaningful impact on the lives and experiences of our communities.
The growth in research, both in our firm and in our industry, is also a recognition that the challenges and opportunities that we and our clients face are becoming increasingly complex, requiring solutions that pull from a wider base of knowledge and expertise than ever before. More than ever, creating a great design solution means creating a great experience—and that requires a broad understanding of human behavior and psychology that can be brought to bear on how the places and spaces we inhabit are designed and built.
Over the last few years, sustainable design and the environmental impacts of construction have become hot topics: many firms are trying to build and design sustainably while also creating buildings that please the eye. What will be some of the challenges in striking this balance moving forward?
Designing for beauty versus performance is an interesting and false dichotomy. In general, things that perform well have their own beauty and aesthetic. Particularly, in Seattle, how a building works within the lifecycle is an evolving aesthetic in itself. At the same time, something that is ugly for the sake of working is not acceptable. We are in an era of transformational thinking, where the architect’s relationship with the owner and users is about their wellbeing and their physical experience.
The allocations of project funding will continue to be the challenge in doing the right thing. It takes very forward-thinking clients and developers to keep the bar high and prove the ultimate value to the end users.
As climate change becomes an ever-more pressing and immediate concern, on the micro- and macro-scale, companies in the industry must act accordingly. How do you think architectural design firms will rise to address this threat in 2018 and beyond?
At Gensler, we focus on partnering with our design colleagues and owners/operators to think about the lifecycle of the energy use of a building. We are diligently tracking energy and water use for all our projects. Gensler designed nearly a billion square feet of space in 2016, from workplace interiors to sports stadiums and mixed-use towers. This is a profound responsibility on our part to lead clients towards sustainable practices. Last year alone, the sustainable performance of Gensler’s project work is poised to keep nearly 11 million metric tons of CO2 out of the atmosphere every year. Of great importance are the partnerships we build and how we can assist them to make their buildings work well, perform well, and have climatic impact.
In addition to continual measurement of energy use, we are building a greater focus on our use of materials, including how we approach renovation and repositioning so that we can all be better stewards of our resources. This also applies to how we plan cities, and architects, designers and planners play a big role in this. For example, we need to continue to look at transit-oriented design so we can build smarter communities, depend less on the automobile and provide people access to services and amenities where they both live and work.
Architectural design is an art form, but it also has impacts upon the spaces in which we live in very tangible ways. What challenges do you think the industry will face in 2018 and the years ahead?
Questions we will face in the near future will likely be: how do we integrate mixed/augmented reality into our environments? With the aging, but sophisticated, boomer generation, how do we create communities that support active aging? With space costs on the rise in dense center-cities, how can we design hyper-modular environments? Driverless cars will necessitate a complete rethink of urban geography and movement patterns. How will we respond? With increased biometric data and sensors, how can designers fine tune their design to alleviate stress and elevate mood?
What trends in workplace design do you think people will be talking about in 2018? What makes you most excited about where the industry is heading?
We are in a unique moment in time where trends are no longer measured in five-year increments. We are not building trend cycles over five years and then evaluating. We must be developing real time, instant feedback loops to what we are exploring in every workplace project. Trends now occur every six months to a year! As a result, we are exploring and taking some intuitive risks to design the workplace for today, right now, with adaptability and flexibility built in.
Clients are taking this instant journey with us…putting half their workforce on a mobility plan, creating one big “quiet experience room” for focus work, incorporating digital systems for co-sharing desk space and office space. We are creating “work nests” for our employees’ comfort and protection, for their experience and heightened productivity.
Is there anything else that we should be talking about?
It’s about focusing on the creation of new planning and building frameworks for future growth. We’re setting a table that’s pretty spectacular. If we can focus on the community place-making, developing new emerging districts like SODO, creating extraordinary new sustainable buildings, repositioning our current building stock, and rethinking workplaces, we will be a city that will continue to grow and be emulated.