Three Generations Of Architect

March 23, 2007
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GRAND RAPIDS — They may have been schooled a little differently and started their careers at different times, but four Grand Rapids architects agree that this is a great time to be an architect. That’s because design is much more appreciated today.

Progressive AE Architect Phillip Lundwall has more than 30 years of experience in design, master planning and urban design, while Progressive’s Bryan Koehn has 22 years of experience in the field of architecture, Adam Clark has eight years and Robert Ferguson has five years.

“We’ve seen in the last three or four years a real change in the respect for design — not just in architecture but in the design of all products. It’s an awesome time to be an architect,” Koehn said.

Clark noted that people seem to have a better understanding of and appreciation for their physical space and a greater awareness of the environment around them.

Looking back, Lundwall said one of the most significant changes in architecture has been in the design process. Architects used to build scale models of buildings for clients, and it took quite a bit of time to develop the ideas and put them into model form, he said.

“The models we built were out of vinyl and plastic and wood, and had incredible detail and proportion,” Lundwall recalled. “Now all of those studies would be done on the computer, where we can manipulate the proportions of scale and color and texture and all of those things in a much more rapid fashion.

“There are also more materials available to architects than ever before,” he added.

Design technology, particularly the more recent technology, has had a really positive impact on the design process and the architect’s ability to engage clients in the process, Ferguson said. On top of that, the software is now more intuitive and continues to become more so, he said.

“I think technology — as a set of tools — has given us a different medium to interact with the client,” Clark said. “It gives us the opportunity to sit around a table with them and talk about space, as opposed to looking at a set of flat documents, and gives us the ability to quickly change space.”

AutoCAD (computer-aided design) was introduced to the market after Lundwall and Koehn had launched their professional careers, so they had to teach themselves how to use the system and all the computer-based design software that followed.

Although technology has helped architects in their profession, in a way it has hurt education, said Koehn, who volunteers as a design instructor. Institutions are not making sketching a core part of the curriculum these days, he observed. The first thing students want to do is get on the computer, and they don’t learn the craft of sketching. Clark has experienced the same among the design students he teaches. He has included sketching as part of a new, computer-based class he’s teaching on digital presentation. His intention is to show students how they can use the combination of sketching and digital to their advantage.

“Sketching is a tool used to create with, and it’s a critical component of the design process,” Koehn said “I’ve seen that students’ ideas and concepts have become a little more stagnant because they’re trying to come up with ideas they know how to draw on a computer. The craft of sketching is not really being emphasized anymore, and I’m afraid it’s going to become a lost art.”

Architects still need to have the ability to sketch and present ideas in sketch form, which then can be converted to computer models and drawings, Lundwall said. As Koehn sees it, software can only enhance an architect’s innate abilities and the pace at which he can fully develop an idea, but it can’t make an architect more creative.

There has been huge growth in the sustainable design movement in recent years, as well. Principles of sustainability were being worked into architecture curriculums around the time Clark was closing in on his degree. On the other hand, when Ferguson was in school in the ’90s, sustainability courses were a regular part of the curriculum. He took courses in sustainable design, energy-efficient home design and environmental issues.

Lundwall’s schooling didn’t include emphasis on sustainability, but sustainability was a personal passion. In the 1980s he built a passive solar house with night panels that enclosed the house. That was during the midst of the oil embargo that created widespread panic, and there were a lot of government grants to support more energy-efficient design, Lundwall said. He believes that today the majority of people understand the need to sustain the planet.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, sustainable design was more focused on energy costs and the shortage of natural resources rather than environmental responsibility. Now the focus is more on a building’s life cycle and the use of natural resources such as sun, wind and heat, Koehn said.

“Sustainability has been one element that has had an impact not only on education but on how we talk to our clients and how we feel committed to the environment and to the community,” Koehn said. “I think as architects we can have a big impact by understanding how we can eliminate waste in how we design.”

Clark adds: “You can be sustainable and potentially not even add cost. You can be sustainable by being smart about how you orient a building, about how you use space and about the kinds of materials you use.”

Ferguson said where the materials come from is important, too. By using materials that are found within a tighter radius of the project, an architect can help the local economy as well as reduce the impact of the processing and delivery of the materials.

Client expectations are completely different today, the four of them pointed out. Things move faster, there’s more pressure and expectations are higher, so architects have to be quick on their feet, Clark said.

Koehn said the majority of Progressive’s clients now understand the role of an architect, but that wasn’t the case 20 years ago. More people use architects today than they did in the past, and he thinks that’s why their expectations have changed.

There’s also a much higher level of engagement between architect and client; architects involve their clients more intimately in the process of design early on in a project, Lundwall said. Architects are a lot more accessible to clients in this day and age, too, because of e-mail, instant messaging and cell phones, Koehn said.

A good designer understands the client, what his needs are and how he’s going to react to certain things, then shapes the communication to that client, Ferguson said.

“So at the end of the day, you’re not just the architect for the project, you’re the client’s personal architect. When you can be successful at that, then you know you’ve done your job.”    

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