Architecture as Team Sport


Edited by Rebecca Falzano | Photography Trent Bell

New technologies may come and go, but according to Alan Kuniholm, collaboration remains an architect’s greatest tool


AIA2Before he was an architect, Alan Kuniholm was a young boy building forts in the woods. He and his friends had a secret place they called “cool country”—a stand of enormous white pines that they walked through on their way home from school, named so because the light and warmth of the sun never hit the carpet of pine needles beneath them, even during the hottest of months. One day, after a freak windstorm left several limbs on the ground, Kuniholm carefully arranged the branches to form an igloo of sorts—just high enough to stand up in but not so high as to stick out in the neighborhood landscape. One of his friends figured out that they could keep the rain out by layering deciduous leaves with the branches and more pine boughs. “Before we knew it,” recalls Kuniholm, “we were winterizing with more pine boughs on the inside for insulation, relocating the entry away from prevailing winds, and forming windows by freezing ice in our ‘flying saucers.’ It was my first foray into the built environment. Little did I realize that one of us would become a contractor and the other an architect—and that was our first collaboration.”

We asked Kuniholm to share with us his ideas on collaboration and how he got to where he is today as principal of PDT Architects.

Q: How did your interest in the built environment evolve over the years?
A: My constructivist sensibility in the early years evolved into the planning, the drawing, the figuring-out part. Drawing by hand was the thread that connected the dots for me and left an indelible imprint on that side of my brain. It was the way I communicated, solved problems, and described ideas. I devoured visionary drawings by early masters and was enamored with Frank Lloyd Wright’s ability to draw with both hands, with Le Corbusier, Alvar Aalto, Michael Graves, and my college years filled with yellow trace. I put myself through school for the most part providing renderings for other architects and developers. I actually felt threatened when computer technology came on the scene. I was worried that “my art” was being turned into a commodity of sorts. I felt a bit estranged by my own profession and the direction it was taking. Something was happening out there that was transforming the idea of the “master architect.”

Q: Is there still room today for architectural masters, or is the collaboration of many always preferred?
A: I believe in early collaboration over isolation on any project. Early collaboration among the specialists that make up the owner/builder/architect design team determine the goals of the project. That team then expands to bring on specialists who develop strategies for meeting those goals. It is true that sometimes “too many cooks can spoil the stew,” but bringing as much information as possible to the table early on usually provides the most benefit and impact to the design and outcome. As an example, on a recent classroom building we were having such a meeting and were working to get more daylighting into the various spaces. Our structural engineer was looking to reduce the spans on some of the steel, specifically over the classrooms, in order to gain more efficiencies with the steel budget. But it was our mechanical engineer sitting in on the meeting who recognized we had the ability to change the aspect ratio (length to width) of the classrooms and their relationship to the outside wall of the building to enable us to do both. This is a relatively simple example, but our collaborations and relationships to specialists are much more fluid, as we can host meetings via WebEx or similar technologies that allow us to share and work over the same image via the Internet, saving travel time.

Q: It seems that the same technology you were first threatened by now plays a huge role in the effectiveness of collaboration, yes?
A: As our practice has grown, we have embraced the new technology. We have converted our entire office to a digital platform using BIM (building information modeling) in the form of Revit. It enables all team members, including but not limited to architects, structural engineers, mechanical engineers, and electrical engineers, to work on the same virtual three-dimensional model. We can share this model with anyone, anywhere, including collaborating with contractors, estimators, and marketers. We are able to bring science into the design through energy modeling, site design, envelope analysis, and natural and artificial lighting design. We can provide limitless realistic visuals to our clients. What’s best is that these new tools allow early integration of all players in achieving the goals of the project.

Q: What collaborative challenges do larger firms with larger projects face when there are more players involved?
A: One of the challenges of larger public projects is project continuity and leadership. As the architects, we often find ourselves “carrying the water,” as projects can last years and many of the participants, including owners, leave their positions for new opportunities. The good news is that we now have the technology and tools to stay connected to the various players on a continuous basis. A classic example of large-scale collaboration with any municipality can be found in parking requirements. In many cases approaches to public-private partnerships look at off-setting uses and shared commitments to reduce the impact of parking. As we move to a future of fewer resources, climate change, reducing carbon footprints, and changing demographics, this will be imperative. On a recent project here in Portland, the development team considered a joint partnership for a shared geothermal application. The waste heat from air conditioning in a new office building and hotel could be stored in the ground and then used during the heating season or used to provide hot water to the hotel. Architecture is now being informed as much by science as it is by context and aesthetic. It is truly a team sport. While I still believe that many a good concept can be developed over a cup of coffee and doodles on paper napkins, it is the ability of the other players to access and develop the idea that informs the success or failure of the project.