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An Interview With Norm Strong
In 2007 Norman Strong, managing partner ofThe Miller | Hull Partnership, a venerable Seattle architecture firm, received a BetterBricks Award in the Advocate category.
"Norman has been ahead of the curve, leading his firm and the architectural community forward," the judges wrote of Strong when he won the award. He is working at a national level to promote change, a challenging and time consuming effort that is commended."
A Fellow of the American Institute of Architects, Strong helps oversee business operations for a company that received the AIA's national Firm of the Year Award in 2003 and has won more than 130 design awards. Since its beginnings in 1977, Miller | Hull has long been a recognized leader in sustainable design, which an unprecedented five projects listed in the AIA Committee on the Environment's prestigious annual Top 10 Green Projects list.
BetterBricks: You have been a local and national leader in sustainable design for some time. How has your career changed or progressed since winning a BetterBricks award two years ago?
Strong: I just celebrated thirty years with Miller Hull. Thirty years ago we were talking about basic good design that used concepts like passive solar, and we were doing it before we even knew what sustainability was. I think in the Pacific Northwest in particular, as designers, we now have the opportunity to go back to that day. As an individual and as part of a firm, I'm still committed to changing the way we do business. It's going to be a continuing goal for many years.
How have advances in energy-efficient design or technology affected what you do as an architect?
We're taking a lead in rough (preliminary) energy modeling now. Instead of engineers doing it at the end of a phase, we're getting our hands dirty with software programs like Revit and EcoTech to better understand performance implications of design decisions. We're way to the left of the decimal point. We're looking at things at a broad scale, not down to the thousandths of a degree. We can make decisions early on using those tools. But none of the technologies replace both the commitment and the common sense that needs to be factored in.
We are using a number of software programs as applications to our Revit (BIM) based design. Right now we are using "Grasshopper" for alternative energy studies and EcotTech to model both lighting and energy consumption pieces of a project. There are many applications out there for architects to explore; it just depends on the project.
What has been your biggest challenge or something you'd like to see change?
I think the thing that hasn't changed enough, unfortunately, is there's still the perception that climate change is not real. That's still a real concern. Two years ago I was on the road a lot for the AIA promoting the Architecture 2030 Challenge goals. I got a lot of comments and questions like, "Is this a hoax?" I'd say, "I believe in the science. If you don't that's fine, but what's wrong with saving people money?" Unfortunately, the perception is still out there. But, as architects in the industry we have to be responsible and we know we need to do something.
What projects have you worked on since winning the award that have been shaped by new innovations in energy-efficient design?
We're attempting to do two Living Building projects right now and are really focusing on those: the Bullitt Foundation Headquarters in Seattle, and the Cascadia Community College Wetlands Education Center. Both are in the predesign phase.
Another recent project, the University of Washington Conibear Shellhouse and Student Life Center is not a Living Building nor certified as a LEED project, but it is a very sustainable natural solution. It is a very innovative building that uses natural ventilation in a new way, coming off the water through the skin, all the exercise areas and up these vent stacks. The only parts of the building that are fully air-conditioned are the computer areas. The thing that was interesting was the occupants wanted to do natural ventilation. The athletic department said, 'we live outdoors, why don't we create our spaces like that?'
For another project, the South Lake Union Discovery Center, in a very short time period, we used a very integrated design process and then opened a sales center within nine months using prefab materials and systems. We're also looking at how it can be disassembled and reused in the future. The idea of adaptive reuse is critical. And we've started to focus more on it. There are so many projects that need to get renovated in a sustainable manner. We're seeing that market is there. You can't achieve the broad carbon reduction goals by just building efficient new buildings.
How are you able to walk the talk and demonstrate to clients your design values?
Since 2007, our firm has officially gone carbon neutral. We had an audit by Seattle Climate Partnership. We've bought some offsets through Bonneville Environmental Foundation's "green tag" program to offset some of our air travel and our work commutes. It's been very interesting. We're a firm of about 50 people. When we looked at our paper consumption in a given year, we were shocked to learn how much we use. As a business, though, we can specifically say how much now. And once we realized our commutes should be factored in, we offset that through green tags.
I've also become involved nationally as a co-chair of the AIA's 2030 Commitment. Architecture firms are not just agreeing to meet these goals but reporting back on their projects, both the great ones and the ones not doing so well, and we try to learn from each other. That's been one positive trend: people are starting to band together.
The 2030 Commitment is a guidebook for how firms can structure themselves to produce sustainable design. How does that complement the Architecture 2030 Challenge?
The Architecture 2030 Challenge is an initiative of the nonprofit organization Architecture 2030. It is fantastic. They've done a great job of making the whole issue real, both to politicians and also everyday people. Still, you commit but you never report. That's the big difference in the AIA program. It's real results verified through reporting.
What do you see in the future for LEED and other green building rating systems?
LEED is a fantastic system and has done a great job of making the general public aware. But we need to explain to the public that even LEED may not meet energy goals. We need to get way beyond LEED in our thinking. The ratings and the plaques are fantastic. But the New Buildings Institute website has a report funded by the USGBC that talks about projects at a Gold or Platinum level that don't come close to some of the energy efficiency goals that the AIA has.
What challenges have you seen in making sure your buildings' energy efficiency performs as designed and keeps performing over time? Are your tenants willing parties in this?
As designers, we no longer can just get a project done and move on. We need to understand how our buildings are performing and step up to the plate. If something's not performing, why?
One thing we're finding is that we can design very smart buildings but if the tenants or occupants don't understand that building, there can be lots of unintended consequences, like choosing to override systems. To avoid that, we are doing post occupancy interviews. That's more a part of our culture now.
And of course it takes occupant cooperation as well.
Definitely. I've been in many sustainability charrettes where I say, "How are you going to change the way you occupy the building? We can't have a plus or minus degree. We need a wider temperature swing. Are you okay with that?" It has to be a new way of thinking and a new tolerance level. One thing that's become apparent to me is people don't want to sacrifice. As architects, we should say that energy conservation is not a sacrifice. It's a new way of thinking. A new tolerance level that's needed by everyone to make this happen. Here in the Northwest, most of our houses aren't air-conditioned. Why not have them breathe and bring in the clean air we have? It's a more natural approach.
Have you seen progress made in related professions like building development and real estate?
Since 2007 I've become more involved with the National Association of Industrial Office Parks (NAIOP), which is basically commercial developers. I'm co-chairing a sustainable development committee for them. The commercial developers of the world are becoming more and more aware of the marketability of doing energy responsible projects, especially in the Northwest because we're not typically in the mode of just flipping buildings. We have a lot of owner-occupied buildings. It's nice. We still have to talk about the business case, but more people are realizing there's a competitive advantage to operating a high-efficiency building and being able to say that to your clients and tenants.
One of our first naturally ventilated buildings was a credit union. They said after a year of occupancy, the amount of sick leave their staff took and staff retention really changed. People felt better and they wanted to stay.