Cause for Optimism

Les Shepherd arrived at our offices in late February, carrying a loose-leaf binder bursting with the 78 entries to the 2011 Metropolis Next Generation Design Competition. Asked why he went to the trouble of creating the analog document, Shepherd said he was building a sourcebook of ideas for the General Services Administration. He had a broader agenda than his fellow jurors, who were there to identify the best, most thoughtful, and most forward-thinking ideas. Joining Shepherd were Michelle Addington, an architect and engineer; Larry Scarpa, an architect; and Brian Collins, a communications and experience designer.

As the four settled into our small conference room on that Saturday morning, they identified some highlights among the entries projected on the screen: designing green walls, using cloud computing to save energy, turning single-use government buildings into community magnets, and encouraging responsible behavior by occupants. It also became clear to everyone in the room that this new generation of designers has a larger mission than simply creating high-performance buildings. It’s also advocating using the built environment to give back to and nurture the natural environment.

For Shepherd, chief architect at the GSA, the agency’s 362 million square feet of energy-leaking office space, in more than 9,000 federal properties, are never out of sight or out of mind. But he also confessed to a personal interest in the ideas crowding his sourcebook. As someone who once worked at 300 North Los Angeles Street, in the Civic Center neighborhood, Shepherd remembers the hulking building’s rabbit-warren offices, their lack of air and light in bright and balmy L.A, and the gray feeling of malaise the interiors produced. If good memories can set us dreaming, bad memories can propel us to action. That day Shepherd’s usual reserve was overshadowed by the potential to right the wrongs he suffered in his old office. The entrants in this competition had a real client in the GSA’s chief architect, who had a real institutional and personal agenda.

Here was the U.S. government asking for design help. And young citizen-designers rose to the occasion. They formed interdisciplinary teams within big and small firms, called in consultants, and recruited former students, all in order to deal with the complex issues of designing for “zero environmental impact,” the challenge put forth by the competition. In the process, they have given us a glimpse into 21st-century practice, with its deep awareness of environmental and social sustainability. These designers are intuitive environmentalists, natural collaborators, and experts at using all the technological tools at hand, even as they’re learning to understand nature’s processes.

Consider the winning team, which formed around the Next Generation challenge at the Washington, D.C., office of HOK, a firm known for integrating biomimicry—nature’s processes—into its many projects. Here it’s helpful to put the team members’ game-changing contribution in context: A few years ago, the youngest of them could expect to toil away as CAD monkeys. Now they’re adding important analysis to the firm’s body of knowledge, fine-tuning their own expertise, and claiming their place among a new generation of problem solvers. The HOK team took to heart the words of the GSA administrator, Martha N. Johnson: “Try new things, take risks, be bold. Use the tools that we develop together. Find new partners, and leave no stone unturned.”

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