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INTERVIEW: Gensler’s Irwin Miller on Sustainable Architecture and Opportunity Green
Gensler has more than 3,000 professionals in 41 locations around the world, and together they have managed to make quite an impact with sustainable architecture. Granted, not every architecture firm has access to their level of resources, or their repeat clientele, but we decided to dig a little deeper to see if the sustainable trend is just an outward appearance of the firm’s design, or if the philosophy is carried throughout their office’s culture. We recently spoke to Gensler’s Irwin Miller to learn more about the firm’s stance on sustainable architecture, and why they feel it is so important to be involved with green business conferences like Opportunity Green.
INHABITAT: We’ve covered several Gensler projects in the past on Inhabitat. As one of the largest architectural and design firms in the world, how does Gensler prioritize sustainability not only in their buildings but in the everyday operations of your offices.
Irwin: We think of great design as having four equally important parts: ethical practice, experiential design, thoughtful impact, and excellent delivery. Included in ethical practice is sustainability and the idea that you can’t create great design without it. This translates into our everyday office operations in many big and small ways. The really exciting sustainable operations are yet to come in our new office! We’ve worked closely with Glumac to get our energy usage as low as possible through the use of natural light, task lighting, and daylight sensors for overhead lights. We are using chilled beam technology for cooling instead of conventional forced air. All of our plumbing fixtures are very low-flow, and we’ve built showers to encourage the use of alternative transportation, and we offer a great rideshare incentive program. In fact, a key factor in our ultimate decision to relocate to downtown Los Angeles was the proximity of our new office a broader range of public transportation options. We also have recycling, green cleaning products, and paper with high recycled content. All of the vendors that visit our office are asked to share what’s green about their product, and we host weekly presentations that always include sustainable building materials, products, or technology. I could go on, but the bottom line is that we definitely practice what we preach when it comes to sustainability.
Inhabitat: Who do you feel is driving the sustainable movement in the built environment? Is it the designers, the clients, the government? Is it a collaborative process?
Irwin: The sustainability movement is absolutely a collaborative process. That is what is making it such a success. Sometimes different parties push harder, and that’s how it all got started, but now most people understand that it’s better for your community, environment, and wallet to design and build sustainably. It’s a great feeling to meet a client for the first time and have them say, “I want my project to be ‘green;’ how can we do that?” Now that everyone’s on board with the idea of sustainability, it’s our exciting opportunity as architects and designers to guide this process and start pushing the envelope even further to create transformational projects that continue to raise the bar for sustainable design.
Inhabitat: How did you become involved with Opportunity Green? And why does your office have entire team devoted to the project?
Irwin: We’ve been working with OG for the past three years of their conference in Los Angeles. The first year, when the event was held at UCLA, we had a smaller team and worked on only one aspect of the conference – providing design concepts and working with vendors and manufacturers. In 2010, we took an entirely new approach to being wholly involved from start to finish with OG. We were able to dedicate a team of 6 people to the planning, development, design and realization of the designs. These concepts were more holistic in nature and encompassed the entire campus of LA Center Studios where the conference took place. From the cocktail event space, to the breakout lounges and the main venue, the entire Gensler team worked to create an immersive environment for the guests.
After last year’s event, I was asked to join OG’s board of directors, and have become more involved with other aspects of the conference, such as operations and a more thorough infusion of technology into the event. This kind of opportunity is important to both Gensler and the individual design team members because it offers a unique outlet for seeing concepts realized and experienced by hundreds of visitors.
Inhabitat: Many people see architect and designers as the makers of beautiful objects. Why should the person on the street or any business look to hire an architect?
Irwin: At Gensler our focus is on how we collaborate with our clients to provide design solutions. Unlike some architects, who may have the opportunity to realize one unique vision on a project, Gensler is a consortium of talented and diverse design professionals who can respond to a variety of issues – far beyond the making of objects. On projects that I lead, I always try to start the process with our Strategy group, to help identify the actual problem or issue that needs to be addressed. As we move forward into programming and conceptual design, there is a continued evolution of the project that is informed by our ongoing dialogue with our clients and consultants. We learn more and can always do better based on the quality of feedback we receive. My most satisfying projects are those where our clients see us exceed their expectations and both the design and client teams feel like they learned something that wasn’t necessarily in their comfort zone at the start.
We have a repeat client rate of more than 80%. I definitely have had clients who came for the small project but over time came back again and again because they felt the work exceeded their expectations. So, over time, working with an architect or a design firm like Gensler is about creating a trusted relationship.
Inhabitat: What projects do you have on your current boards in the Los Angeles Office that you think our readers would find of interest?
Irwin: We have some really exciting projects happening right now. In particular is our own new office, which is a renovation of a former retail bank building in downtown Los Angeles. We’ve just moved in, and it’s a big change from our former space in Santa Monica, where Gensler has spent the last 20 years. The space features three levels of creative open plan workspace, a variety of collaborative conference rooms and areas, and an abundance of natural light from a central atrium. We are hoping to achieve a LEED-EB Platinum rating. Also in downtown, we have begun work on what will be the ‘greenest’ sports stadium in the country – Farmer’s Field at L.A. LIVE. We have some great new hotel projects – the Cipriani that recently opened on the west side and the new Shore Hotel overlooking the ocean in Santa Monica. We also have a lot of smaller but amazing projects, like the new Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf stores in and around L.A., the Microsoft Store at Westfield Century City.
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