SHAPING OUR BUILDINGS
Leigh Stringer, LEED AP, Managing Principal
Why did you become an architect?
My father was a mathematician (early computer scientist) and my mother was an artist. I became an architect because it came natural to me. I have always worked for architecture firms because I love being around design and every day is challenging. I especially love the social side of architecture – the fact that it’s so much about people makes it endlessly fascinating.
Why did you decide to choose the school, Washington University? What degree(s) do you possess?
I have a Bachelor of Arts with a major in architecture, a Master of Architecture and a Master of Business Administration (MBA) all from Washington University in St. Louis. I chose Washington Univerity initially because it was an excellent liberal arts school. I worked for a couple of years and came back because I realized I could pursue architecture and business in three years, and I really loved and continue to love the school. My undergraduate and graduate experiences were very different… different friends, different teachers and a different level of focus in terms of education.
Why did you pursue the Master of Business Administration and how has it helped you in the career as an architect?
When I worked as an intern, my first year out of school, I worked for a small firm of highly talented designers that could not run a business to save their lives. I also got exposure to “programming” or pre-design services and realized that I wanted to be more involved in the early part of the design process. I was accepted to Master of Architecture program at Washington University without knowing I would get into the business school, but really happy it worked out. I was always the one person in the architecture school having to wear a suit and the only architect in the business school wearing all black.
What is programming / pre-design services? Why and how is it important in architecture?
Before it is determined that a building should be built, there are a number of decisions that must be made with our clients. Can the needs of a client be accommodated within existing facilities? Could moving into a new building be an opportunity to change the way the business operates? Could this be an opportunity to change the way the organization operates to gain efficiencies? What if more people work at home or share office space?
Then, once it is decided that the building is necessary, there are another yet another set of decisions to be made. Where should the facility be located? Should the objective be to centralize or decentralize facilities? Should facilities be leased or is it better for the client to build, operate or own the facility? Should the building be flexible to accommodate change or highly customized? What methodology should be used to determine the amount of space and technical requirements for the building?
The process of making these early decisions, of narrowing the options and helping a client carefully consider their choices before they design or begin construction is called “programming” or sometimes “pre-design services.” In the pre-design phase of a project, it is fairly easy to change direction, consider multiple options and do so at little cost. Later on, when the construction site is cleared, steel is being welded and carpet going down, it is significantly more costly and difficult to change direction.
At the beginning of a project, it is very tempting to want to put pen to paper and just start drawing! But the years have taught us that it is really best to “go slow to go fast” and take the time to put the right structure and parameters on the project upfront, before major investments are made and expectations are set. I also refer to this phase as the “credibility phase.” When clients see that their architect is taking time to get to know them, to test assumptions and ask good questions, they are establishing their credibility as a professional and as a valued partner.
What has been your greatest challenge as an architect?
The same challenge the planet is facing right now. Learning how to do more with less, and how to differentiate what I do from everyone else so that it is valued. Many architects today complain about how our fees are reducing, how we have to do the job of two people and there are not enough hours in the day. I feel pretty confident that this trend will continue.
My personal (and continuing) challenge is to stay inspired… to set a vision for myself, my team and our profession.
What is the most / least satisfying part of being an architect?
My life’s work has been about helping people understand the impact of space on human behavior and then leveraging space as an instrument for change. Clients tell me that the space we design make them more efficient, more effective, increase collaboration and innovation. The connection between buildings and behavior are remarkable and real.
"We shape our buildings, and afterwards our buildings shape us."
You may have heard the famous quote from Winston Churchill. "We shape our buildings, and afterwards our buildings shape us." Here is the full quote from Churchill:
"On the night of May 10, 1941, with one of the last bombs of the last serious raid, our House of Commons was destroyed by the violence of the enemy, and we have now to consider whether we should build it up again, and how, and when.
"We shape our buildings, and afterwards our buildings shape us. Having dwelt and served for more than forty years in the late Chamber, and having derived very great pleasure and advantage therefrom, I, naturally, should like to see it restored in all essentials to its old form, convenience and dignity."
At the time, Churchill was speaking to the House of Commons but in the space designed for the House of Lords that day in October 1943. The old House of Commons was being rebuilt in its old form, remaining insufficient to seat all its members.
Churchill was against "giving each member a desk to sit at and a lid to bang" because, he explained, the House would be mostly empty most of the time; whereas, at critical votes and moments, it would fill beyond capacity, with members spilling out into the aisles, in his view a suitable "sense of crowd and urgency."
I work with clients to influence the behavior of their organization to become more flexible, agile, connected and global. Churchill wisely knew that design matters and can impact organizations in a meaningful way. Seeing design “work” as it should is one of the most powerful and satisfying moments for me.
Who or what experience has been a major influence on your career?
In 2008, I started a blog called TheGreenWorkplace.com. That blog became a book, and that book became a mulit-city global book tour. The process of writing (and lots of speaking!) has helped me to really think through my ideas and give them structure and purpose. I learned, through writing, how important the environment really is to us, our impact on it, and the power we have to improve our planet. I realize that I can make a difference in a way unlike most architects - not just through drawing and designing - but by writing and speaking about trends, ideas and visions of a better future than today.
It has been a powerful and liberating lesson for me. I always thought I had to have my design work published in a fancy architecture magazine to be influential. Turns out that is not the only way. Writing and speaking about design is just as powerful and can have an even further reach.