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Today’s post is a continuation of yesterday’s – a conversation with architect John Kane, the principal of Architekton who was behind the sustainable and beautiful Tempe Transportation Center and the audacious and amazing Tempe Center for the Arts. If you missed Part I, catch it here.

Most big-name architects have a big ego and downplay collaboration.  Not John Kane. This is what he has to say about it:

“The idea of how to work collaboratively is a really fun one.  How to include the consultants and the clients much earlier on in the process to do sustainable projects (is interesting).  It’s the only way we’ve figured out how to make that (sustainable projects) really work, through super-hyper collaboration.

Lots of meetings, lots of brainstorming, a lot of getting ideas out there really early on.  We’re making a lot more decisions up front to get things integrated so you can’t take pieces out (later).”

On what’s new with design at Architekton:

“More and more this idea of indoor-outdoor space is becoming important.  A lot more operable walls that can kind of just dissolve.

This idea of self-shading skins.  How do we do skins that are mitigating the heat, not through mass but through lightness?  So trying to figure out how to lighten up structures so we’re not using as much embodied energy and structure to build.

The early thought was a lot of these kind of heavy walls and it’s just so expensive to do that.  So how do we shade things and how do we pull those materials away so they don’t heat up and radiate back into the building?

(We’re) searching for the right combination of daylight, views and transparency at the same time as protectedness.   So the roofs are getting bigger.

Most of our work is public sector.  We don’t have a lot of budgets.  These are all taxpayer dollars or student dollars like at ASU.  How do we do as much of that in a normative way?  Saving the money for a sustainable strategy or an architectural roof that ties it all together.

Our work is changing. It used to be a lot more formal.  We spent a lot of time trying to resolve all kinds of crazy issues.  We didn’t have any money left over for skin or anything like that.  Now we’re trying to save that money and trying to do things in a more rational way.”

On trying to do things with less money:

“We’re trying to spend a lot more time trying to figure out how to do things with a lot less money nowadays.  Which is, I think, healthy.  I think we’re getting back to what’s important.

Less circulation.  The correct orientation for envelope.  Trying not to play gymnastics with east and west glass.  Just don’t put program there where you have to mitigate that.  That’s really what we’ve been focusing on.

Getting back to the fundamentals.  That’s the only game we’re playing right now.  Just trying to be really smart about this stuff.  We have to get everybody to the table really early on and figure out what the problems are.

Making sure we’re not painting ourselves into any kind of design corners with mechanical issues and figuring out what the mechanical engineers are telling us right off the bat.”

On BIM (Building Information Modeling):

“BIM is very instrumental in the process. Currently, we’re doing two rec center projects for ASU.  We’re working in free hand and model form and we’re also paralleling the process with BIM.

As information gets plugged in, it’s a database.  So as a decision is made, as a material is selected, it gets plugged into the (BIM) model. It’s in real time.

But we don’t work exclusively with BIM.  I think the trick is to have parallel approaches.  Physical models, and hand sketches, Sketchup and BIM are all going to tell you different things.  It’s a wonderful muddy mix that when you bring it together, it’s exciting to see what comes out.”

On tighter schedules and still trying to deliver a quality project:

“We have to work faster these days.  Everybody wants things much quicker.  How do you still give your client design and a high performance building in half the time?  That’s an interesting proposition.

Hopefully that means we can make a little bit more money and hopefully it’s a win, win, win for everybody.  In the early days, I would have freaked out.  I would have said it’s not possible.

But through collaboration, through talking through a lot of the realities early on, identifying those and getting everyone around the table to solve the hard problems first, so that they don’t get in the way of other things, makes it an interesting proposition.

It’s a messy process. It’s not linear.  You have to have the right attitude and no ego.  It’s hard, it’s not an easy thing.

But I think it’s extremely rewarding to see what you can accomplish in a shorter period of time.

If you’re smart about it, you’re including your client in that conversation too, because they’ve got to make decisions too in a timely manner. So you’ve got to give them the right kind of information so they can make well-informed decisions.”

Why John chose to practice in Tempe:

“Part of it is living as close to an urban lifestyle as I can.  So my commutes are shorter.  I like to be in Tempe central.

We decided our office would be central to the Valley.  And I always wanted to maintain a connection to ASU for teaching, for lectures.  That synergy is really important too.  It all made sense for me personally.”

Why John likes to see his peers do well:

“You want them to be just as successful if not more successful.  Everybody is contributing to this greater awareness of design and how important design can be to our lives, to our city, where we live, work and play.

It’s really fun to go to the lectures.  And when people get national recognition, it’s so healthy and exciting.  It raises the bar for everybody.  The clients see it and they’re expecting more.

It goes beyond ourselves.  You’re plugging into a much larger community.  Being a part of the conversation is really intriguing.  You look at people like Wendell (Burnette), Will (Bruder) and Eddie (Jones), and being able to rub shoulders with them is amazing.

We’re all trying to do the same thing, we all have that same aspiration.  To be in that conversation, even now when the economy is the way it is, I think Arizona still has this amazing potential.

We’re in the forefront. We’re doing stuff 10, 20 years before a lot people started doing it.  And seeing the younger generation come into it, wow.”

John’s advice to up and coming architects:

“The first thing, my professor Carl Straub use to say, don’t let the bastards grind you down.

You’ve got to be an optimist, you’ve got to stay positive.  It’s not easy, what we do. There’s always going to be things that are going to be thrown your way.

It’s that aspiration that you can make a difference, that you can go beyond the normative and push the envelope.

You’ve got to have the right attitude.  You’ve got to have a good attitude. It doesn’t mean ego. It’s a can do approach to doing things.

The other thing is to engage those of us who are practicing.  Go to the lectures.  Go visit the projects.

Hopefully they will find that we’re accessible.  There’s a lot of us out there that really believe in helping young people because we were helped when we were that age.  And to take advantage of that and realize that they don’t have to do this in a vacuum.  The AIA (American Institute of Architecture) is a really great organization for that.

Dream big.  It’s a balancing act.  I’ve chosen to set our firm up as an optimist.  But I have realists on my team.  Because I understand how things work.

So let me qualify this.  You have to be idealistic, you have to be optimistic, but if you just look through rose colored glasses and put the blinders on, that could be really dangerous too. It’s a balance.  It’s really important.  You’ve got to have the reality, you’ve got to know when that comes in, but you can’t let it hold you back.  At the same you can’t have (optimism) let you go off and crash and burn.

Understand what your strengths and passions are.  Figure out how you’re going to bolster that, how you’re going to support that and how you complement those skill sets.  And be brutally honest about that.  Don’t be afraid.

There are those brilliant people out there that can do it all.  Will is one of those.  Mark Meyers.  These guys pretty much command it all. There’s a lot of people that make this happen.

But not me. Don’t be afraid of that kind of collaborative approach.  You have to find your own way.  And there’s more than one way to do this.  That’s the really cool thing about this profession.  There isn’t one secret to it.

You bring your own background, your own education, your own passions, and then the people that you surround yourself with.  Make a unique approach that yields something just as great as the next architect that does something with a completely different approach.

A lot of us might have our preconceptions about what’s really good and what’s really bad.  I think it’s all gotta be informative.

That’s the other thing.  You cannot stop learning!  You’ve got to stay on top of it.  It’s changing so fast around us, you can lose relevance really fast if you don’t keep investing in yourself and in your firm and try to stay in the forefront. Embrace the change.”

Photo: Tempe Center for the Arts, an Architekton project.

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