Glass speaks to Phil Harrison, CEO of Perkins and Will, one of the leading sustainable architecture firms in the world


A matter of scale – Glass speaks to Phil Harrison, CEO of Perkins and Will, one of the leading sustainable architecture firms in the world


THEIR mission seems simple: create “places that honour humanity”. Established in 1935 and with offices in nearly two dozen cities in North America, alongside South America, Europe, and Asia, Perkins and Will is an architecture firm organised around environmental and human wellbeing. Their ethics are guided by sustainability but what sets them apart from other architecture firms is their desire to share knowledge within the industry, the tools they develop, the research they conduct and the intellectual production of their work.

Bearing in mind the scale of their work, Glass discusses with CEO Phil Harrison the impact it has on the environment as well as on the wellbeing of the communities they work with.

University of Cincinnati, the Gardner Neuroscience Institute building exterior by Perkins and Will

“Wellbeing” is a popular word these days, but what does it mean to your firm?
We’ve always thought of architecture, interior design and planning as human-centric arts, and so ultimately we are designing places for people – we’re not designing objects to put in a museum. From the standpoint of human wellbeing, how you feel matters to us. It’s not simply about liking or disliking, but rather: do you feel healthy? What does air quality do to students’ learning? What does light quality and daylighting do to people’s healing processes? If you put all that together in multiple levels of design rigour – where you think about all of the qualitative dimensions of space, including acoustics, colour, the organisation of spaces – you create places that honour humanity.

Is there a particular project that comes to mind that encapsulates that idea of wellbeing?
A project that I really like is a building we did at the University of Cincinnati, the Gardner Neuroscience Institute building, an outpatient health facility to treat people with or recovering from neurological problems. The impact of light and glare is one of the things that would affect them, either unfavourably or favourably, depending how we designed the building.

That led us to an innovative exterior expression on the building. Diffused daylight – rather than direct sunlight – is a better experience for people with post-traumatic injuries, so you’ll see that building has a scrim on the side, which is modulated. There you have an architectural solution but you also have a specific solution for a particular group of people’s wellbeing, which is different than, let’s say, a paediatric facility, where you would want to open it up to views. In this case, you limit views and create a more soothing type of light.

M_41_Womens_Architecture_UCGNI_mh_exD_4179Detail of University of Cincinnati, the Gardner Neuroscience Institute building exterior

Obviously, sustainability is important for your firm. When we talk about sustainability in architecture, we often think of technological systems. But you would agree there’s more to it than that?
Yes, there is. One of the challenges of sustainable design is that it’s a checklist approach to designing a building. In that way, it’s additive. As you design a building, you’re adding on these other things, and eventually you have so much complexity – you’re adding systems, you’re adding processes, you’re adding design ideas – and you can overcomplicate design. You can also miss the core principles along the way, because you’re focussing on providing things like bike racks. But a bike rack doesn’t make a building a green building in a deeper sense.

The way we think about sustainability is encapsulated into an idea we call “living design”. These are larger principles that include some of the details I mentioned but also get back to the fundamental ideas of human inspiration: restoring our environment on a larger scale, storytelling and the experience of the people occupying a building.

We also pay attention to resources, energy, materials, carbon footprint and so forth. It’s good to “nerd out” into the specifics of technology, but we also need to remember that, at all times, we need to step back and look at the holistic view. This zooming in and out, from detail to the whole view, is what architects and interior designers and planners can do really well.

Front facade of Canada’s Earth Tower Vancouver by Perkins and Will

Perkins and Will are developing ideas to revolutionise skyscraper design through the use of timber.  Explain how this approach contributes to sustainable building approaches.
The idea of building out of wood as a structural material is to design carbon positive buildings. Wood is grown by the sun, so through a natural process it’s infinitely sustainable because it’s continually replenished on the earth. So long as we’re working with sustainably-harvested wood, we’re avoiding a carbon footprint. Trees are actually a carbon sink: they absorb carbon dioxide when they grow. Also, wood is extremely strong and, it turns out, it’s fire-resistant.

Before the industrial revolution, wood was the predominant material for many buildings in American cities. But also, buildings in places like Venice, Italy, were mostly built out of wood, so it’s not a new idea. Today, we’re going back to an old idea, where a very noble, strong and sustainable material is used to craft architecture.

The innovation lies in returning to wood as a sustainable, sustainably harvested material; and in revising and rewriting existing building codes that recognise the fire-resistant properties of wood and allow taller buildings to be built out of wood. For instance, we’re now working on a timber tower project in Vancouver, British Columbia, which will be called Canada’s Earth Tower. It will be a 32-storey building, all out of wood.

GM_41_Womens_Architecture_Project_Atlanta-Beltline_09 - 4 Column HorizontalAtlanta BeltLine project by Perkins and Wills

Could you elaborate on the Atlanta BeltLine project, which aims to change way people move through cities.
Projects like the BeltLine reintroduce the way people have moved around cities in the past – principally by walking or cycling, but also by using scooters, rollerblades and wheelchairs. This is part of our whole approach to mobility and city-making. The BeltLine is just one project, but the truth is, the design of many cities needs to be rethought to allow people to get around without driving in a car.

Urban transport by car is inefficient – it takes up space, it’s noisy, it’s dirty, it’s dangerous. Most cities are becoming more dense, and most people in those cities don’t need to get in a car to go a mile or two; often, they can walk, jog, ride, skate, or use a wheelchair, among other self-locomoted options. Getting around in these ways is so much more pleasurable if you can do them in a place that’s designed for those experiences, as opposed to the margins of a roadway, which are usually one of the least pleasing environments.

Who uses the BeltLine?
Everyone who is near to the BeltLine uses it. I know there are people who don’t live in the city, or are far away from the city, but the BeltLine will eventually form a 26-mile loop around Atlanta. Because of that, it’s socio-economically diverse, it’s accessible to everyone, and it’s universally accessible – a person living with physical disabilities can use it, for instance, since there will be all sorts of access points.

Eventually the plan is to have a light rail system adjacent to the path, so that it will have a low-impact option to the heavy rail in Atlanta. Part of the plan for the BeltLine includes housing that’s affordable, too, so people from multiple socio-economic backgrounds can enjoy it.

You speak about about social housing being included in the BeltLine. At the same time, you want the project to inject economic life into the area by attracting businesses to set up there as well. But this also leads to gentrification. How do ensure that these places contribute to communities’ wellbeing, regardless of their socio-economic status?
That’s a huge question and I can’t give a comprehensive answer. The BeltLine’s masterplan was designed, not as a single perfect circle around the city, but rather as a series of stories, a series of neighbourhoods or places, which have a cultural connection or are linked to the identity of the specific region that you are going through.

Subtle changes occur along the BeltLine, with an intent to honour the specificity of the different places of the city. It unifies the city while respecting its diversity along the way. Part of the problem is gentrification: as with any successful real estate project, you attract people and housing and retail, and the area goes up in price. That’s a disadvantage of a project like this. In New York City, the High Line has some of the city’s most expensive real estate adjacent to it, and that’s becoming true in Atlanta along parts of the BeltLine as well.

The good thing about the BeltLine is that it’s much longer that the High Line. Yes, there are areas that are gentrified, where fancy companies have their office headquarters in expensive real estate developments. But if you go just a mile or two down, you go through neglected neighbourhoods, and what the BeltLine is doing, by bringing more people there, is benefiting those neighbourhoods through increased safety and wellbeing.

People are out there exercising and enjoying nature. And, for now, real estate has not become expensive in those parts. I think there are pros and cons to this sort of a project – it’s a balancing act. The affordable housing component is a key piece of its success, though, as is the public transportation component.

Are communities being consulted during during the design process?
Oh yes, there is a strong community participation. It helped determine, for example, how and where you get on and off the BeltLine. There’s also a public art programme, with art that represents some of the cultural attributes of the communities the BeltLine passes through. There are environmental education programmes, too, with group readings and other activities for school groups.

These are grassroots activities; they’re not organised by the city or the BeltLine. It just happens. That’s one of the good things about the BeltLine’s accessibility, as opposed to the High Line.

The High Line is an amazing project, but it’s elevated and kind of rarefied. Once you’re up there, it’s sort of all about the High Line, whereas on the BeltLine, it’s really about the experience of getting around the city, in a self-locomoted way, along a green corridor.

New Nuuk Correctional Facility rendering by Perkins and Will

When it comes to other countries outside of the US, what unique challenges do they present when attempting to create “places that honour humanity”?
We are a global firm, with studios in China, Brazil, Denmark and the UK. But wherever we’re working, we do research and think about the culture and values of the particular places in which we’re practising. One of the more interesting projects we worked on was a detention facility in Greenland. We normally don’t get into the business of designing prisons, because we generally don’t think that prisons honour humanity – they’re a place to do the opposite.

But in Greenland, detention facilities are designed to rehabilitate and improve the lives of the people who are detained; they’re actually using architecture as a healing force. This is one of the most inspiring projects in our portfolio in the last year, because we would normally think of a prison as an uninspiring place. But in Greenland they have a very progressive attitude about healing the human soul, including healing people who have been negative participants in society. That is a completely different way of honouring humanity, and a completely different approach than the penal system in the US, for example.

Given the current political climate and the government’s hesitation to act on climate change, where does Perkins and Will see sustainable architecture going in North America?
I actually think that the private sector and state governments are increasingly focussing on sustainability in the absence of federal government participation. We have not seen any loss of commitment to sustainability. In fact, I think it’s increasing every year.

Building codes are getting better in terms of energy use, and cities, states and private companies are passionately pushing for sustainable architecture. For them, it’s not just that it’s the right thing to do, but also it’s a matter of having lower operating costs, having a facility that doesn’t rely on the power grid so much.

It’s also about having more productive people in the building, where they’re happier and healthier in the space. That makes the building more valuable, allowing it to get preferential financing from banks who also support this idea. We’re missing the federal government’s involvement in this dialogue, and we look forward to them rejoining the conversation of green architecture principles. They are absolutely necessary and make so much sense on every level at this point.

That brings me to the matter of “resilience” – another one of the firm’s core values. What are resilient ways of designing for our cities?
A core goal of resilient design is to design places that are able to adapt to changing environmental circumstances: short-term environmental circumstances (severe weather events, such as hurricanes and storms), or they can be longer term adaptations (sea level rise and climate change). We’re designing a new masterplan for South Beach in Miami. The city realises that they need a new masterplan to tackle how they’re going to continue to function when the water level is 3 to 4 feet higher.

On the coast of Texas, where we’ve just finished Christus Spohn Hospital, hurricanes and extreme weather events are the biggest risk factors we had to design for. That includes sea-level rise and heavy winds. In other places, resilient design might mean addressing drought, or social issues such as poverty, lack of access to resources or even cultural divisions.

If we take a little bit of time to think about these things, then the architecture or urban design is informed by those principles proactively at the outset, as opposed to being an add-on. That’s quite a simple thing to do, but you need discipline and rigour to do that. That’s what we’re doing.

by Regner Ramos