An Interview with KieranTimberlake
Text: Tom Madlener
KieranTimberlake (Philadelphia) is known for LEED platinum certified projects such as the Yale University Sculpture Building and Gallery and Sidwell Friends Middle School as well as experimental structures like the Loblolly House and Cellophane House. Thomas Madlener talked to James Timberlake and Richard Maimon about recent developments in sustainable architecture in the US, and how it will evolve in the future.
How do you assess the current attitude towards sustainable architecture in the US and how has this evolved?
JT: US$140 for a barrel of oil changed the outlook widely. We’ve had a number of reality checks in the last few years and the whole sustainability argument has pervaded the public here much more deeply in the last year. Partly because they started to feel it in their own pockets – and they are realising they have personal control over this in a way they were oblivious to or did not care about in the past.
RM: That, along with the economy in general, really awakened a segment of the population that were not green-type people.
JT: Nearly 50% of the USA’s energy costs are caused by buildings. That has pressured the construction industry and also the architecture community to begin to think differently.
Is this leading to new ways of integrated design or to established concepts tuned with green features?
JT: We believe that these things should be integrated, effective and not simply green “bling”, ornaments on a building to show how green you are.
RM: And therefore does that performance aspect lead us, as architects, to new aesthetics?
JT: I feel that most architects think they can get a sustainability award if they just tick off many boxes – the clients, too. But that is changing. Architects now realise that this is part of their responsibility and more clients understand that ethical building helps them with their students, their trustees, the users of their buildings, and the public. Maybe in five, certainly in 10, years we won’t be talking about Green Awards in the US but calling out those who do not participate. People will change because they do not want to be an embarrassment – to themselves and to their community.
So you think this is really about believing in sustainable architecture and not just a marketing stunt?
JT: That was years ago, at least for architects; at certain client levels of the community, it still is different. For developers it’s very much marketing. The public feels “if I buy an eco-friendly car, I’m cool”. So there’s a coolness factor, a marketing factor, an acceptance factor and people that are actually doing something. It has reached many levels of the public community and is changing from a fashion statement to “this is how we should behave and should live’. But we’re still a generation away. Our kids, on the other hand, reprimand us if we don’t turn the lights off. They get it.
Will the current financial crisis harm sustainable architecture because people just want the cheapest solution?
JT: We have been mulling over that in the office and are seeing a little bit of it in a series of budgeting exercises. This financial crisis, dovetailed with the oil prices first having spiked and now in rapid decline, has led to changing some positions. On the other hand I think it’s much easier to persuade the clients that this situation is here to stay and they ought to be making life-cycle, not first-cost, decisions.
Do developers also think like that?
JT: Not so much. Inexpensive credit is virtually non-existent and this has stopped a number of speculative projects. Those under construction will be finished but you won’t see much new building in that sector for at least a two-year cycle afterwards.
RM: And then you also worry about the major building product and system suppliers’ research and development money. Can companies making mechanical systems put the same money in when sales drop? Photovoltaics seem to jump ahead so ¬often – can they make the next few jumps and really become practical?
Which strategy should architects follow? Should they do research or just try to find low-cost, low-tech solutions that are also effective?
JT: With only half a brain, they’ll go for low-cost, low-tech; if they’re smart, they’ll do the research. I think it’s unfair for me to tell others they should be doing research because their resources may be different, client opportunities may be very different from ours. We are very lucky to have clients like Sidwell Friends School, who came to us and wanted to achieve a LEED platinum building. Or Yale University, with its tremendous resources, said “we want to erect a building in 23 months and we’d like it to achieve at least an LEED silver or an LEED gold’. When we show them that they can exceed an LEED platinum in that time, they see it as good value and it goes forward. We’ve been fortunate to do the Loblolly House and the MoMA Cellophane House to fully engage ourselves in experimentation. We do the research, do the hard educational work, do the monitoring – we’re monitoring five buildings right now. The monitoring becomes very much a tool – we’re ISO-certified and it’s part of our ISO (International Standards Organization) process – so we’re really learning from it. But many architects, for example those who do low income housing for a developer, have to survive on volume and low fees with lots of work. That makes it difficult to advance this whole research agenda rapidly. On the other hand, I think the profession does have to step it up. We have the duty to ask every new client: “What can we do, what are you capable of doing and what can be done using the available resources of this particular project?” That’s why it’s going to take a generation.
At KieranTimberlake you do your own research ?
JT: In 1999/2000 Steve and I looked at the firm and asked “what’s missing from the model?” – it was a reinvestment in the future. Almost every other industry does that, they do research and development, reinvest a percentage of their pre-tax profit in the firm. Back in 2000 we couldn’t find any other architects in the US doing this. Perhaps there were some, but they weren’t readily apparent. So this is about growing, participating, taking care of the intellectual health and motivation of our staff. It is really about the sustainability of our firm. Now we’re not just discussing things like form and surface, there’s a really deep substance of issues that engage people and they find it fun to come into work and talk about it. I think that’s been a unique experience for us – it’s been transformative.
RM: Back in 2001 we won the Latrobe Fellowship, the inaugural award from the fellows of the AIA in Washington, recognising research. We had submitted a proposal looking at other industries like the automobile industry, the aeronautical and ship building industry and how they achieve such high quality work. We wanted to learn from them: why are these buildings that don’t even have to move, so behind in the US. Why is quality low and construction cost so high, why is productivity flat, whereas in every other industry it has increased? The prize money allowed us to start a research arm where people are able to be dedicated to research full time, not necessarily associated with the projects. Now we have a full-time research director and a team of several people. They work independently to make projects like the ¬Cellophane House possible, evaluate research for clients with a special agenda and lastly, do more conventional research as part of our projects. Where a project presents five or 10 major issues because of its programme, its location and client desires that we then make part of the design. We’re involved in material research, life-cycle cost, recycled content, restreaming materials, energy-modelling, building systems. We also have a workshop in our office where we can produce and test mock-ups in scale 1:1. This gets recognised by certain clients. Now clients come to us who are even more interested in innovation than in the past. They become selective. Also young architects, who contact us from around the world looking for employment, ¬mention that as an attraction. They seem genuinely interested; they’re not just writing back to us about what they see on our website.
JT: That said, KieranTimberlake has been practising sustainability and environmentally ethical responsibility since we began nearly 25 years ago. This has been exercised in a commonsense way with our clients, discussing how to use certain systems, certain strategies, certain materials. Sixteen years ago, we designed the West Middle School at The Shipley School, all pre-LEED, in a pragmatic way, using sustainable local materials, low-VOC paints, low-emitting materials, and ones with a long life-cycle, integrated as a series of systems.
Was it also easy to convince the client in that case?
RM: The Levine Hall project, which has since become completely embraced at the university, required a tremendous amount of research and analysis on our side. We weren’t necessarily paid for that. We involved outside consultants who helped to demonstrate the benefits of that system. Finally we made a trip to Italy to demonstrate such a system in use. But it took meeting after meeting, widening the audience at the university.
Where do you see possibilities for improvement in the future?
JT: I think the next big issue affecting how we think about ¬buildings lies in the programme. The way programmes are ¬being developed by clients and architects anticipates a certain level of quality and growth and is driving costs upwards. If you look at automobiles, 10 to 15 years ago, there was a much greater stratum between the least and the most expensive car in terms of quality and amenity and now even the cheapest automobiles have electric lifts on the windows, they have carpeting rather than rubber floor mats. The public wants more luxury and amenities – not less – but I think our buildings need to be spare and more flexible; that will lower costs. They should be simpler to make it easier to integrate newly-developed sustainable systems. Their complexity, both programmatically and system-wise, makes it difficult and expensive to make them sustainable today. Systems can be ¬integrated but they also have to be easily identifiable, so that they can be replaced on a cycle – structural systems lasting longer than mechanical systems that last longer than interior finishes.
How do you think sustainable architecture, and the way the public embraces sustainability on the whole, will develop in the future?
JT: Sometimes catharsis and crisis is good. It makes you re-evaluate the ratcheting up of the status quo. We’ve all heard stories about the Depression and none of us wants such circumstances for our children, nor do we want to experience them ourselves. We hope we can learn from those generations without suffering ourselves, but each generation will experience something that will ask them to re-evaluate and transform how they make or do things. I think we’re in such a transitional phase right now and how we behave and manage our resources in the next decade will be important. There’s a greater public discourse than two years ago.
RM: The fact that the average American house started to decrease in size prior to the financial crisis is the beginning of a sign of broad recognition of all these issues; it has been ballooning since 1970 to reach an almost embarrassingly large size.
JT: Looking back on it in the 20/20 realm, I wouldn’t be surprised if people see the years between 2000 and 2010 or 2015 similar to the social upheaval of the ’60s. If the social discourse hadn’t changed then, we wouldn’t have an African-American President in 2009. I think the real environmental impact of our time will be manifest in 20 years.