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Architecture Minnesota
The Magazine of AIA Minnesota

Progressive Homes
May-June 2009
Vol. 35 No. 3
Editor's Note

In this guest editorial, AIA Minnesota President Renee Cheng, AIA, highlights the indispensable role that architects play in powering the 21st-century economy and creating quality of life.

Designing the Way Forward

In the $1.2 trillion U.S. construction industry, architects play a key role. They connect a team of allied professionals and contractors, designing projects to serve client needs. As the project evolves and ground is broken, additional players enter, including subcontractors, fabricators, and suppliers; crane operators, excavators, truck drivers, electricians, plumbers, and laborers join the effort to get the project built. Depending on the scale of the project, city planners, economic policy makers, zoning officials, and cultural leaders are brought in to help shape the impact of the project on the community. For technically demanding projects, architects may coordinate the work of specialists to integrate advanced lighting or energy systems.

Architects stand at the nexus of intense activity; they are responsible for balancing multiple agendas and maximizing the impact of each project. In the economic enterprise of building, architects have substantial fiduciary responsibility, yet they aspire to an even greater role. Each project—large or small; residential, commercial, or cultural; new or adaptive reuse—has the potential to advance building performance, improve quality of life, and generally add beauty to the world. The 2008 AIA Minnesota Honor Award winners (page 22), for example, do all of these things and more.

Design at its best does not focus on perceived desires; instead, it precisely defines needs and addresses them in innovative and resourceful ways. Designers do this by holding in their minds multiple solutions while envisioning a wide spectrum of potential outcomes. Among designers, architects and landscape architects are distinguished by their versatility and range: They’re able to detail materials touched by the user’s hand or plan the communities and cities we inhabit.

In the past several years, we have all come to realize how powerful design thinking can be in addressing climate change. Architects have also come to understand how rapid improvements in data-based technology can transform the way buildings are conceived, tested, and built. There is urgent need for improvement, because buildings are estimated to be responsible for 38 to 48 percent of all carbon emissions, and the building industry contributes some 60 percent of the material in U.S. landfills. At the same time, the construction industry has calculated losses of more than $300 billion each year caused by errors and poor communication.

As architects and their clients take advantage of increasingly sophisticated tools for measuring the costs and benefits of green design decisions, it becomes clear that investments in green design do far more than assuage our consciences: They make good business sense. Well-planned green buildings may have higher initial costs, but they pay them off relatively quickly by reducing energy costs, improving worker productivity, anticipating future growth, and providing brand recognition.

Green design can be enhanced by technology. Integrated project delivery is the fully coordinated process by which architects work in collaboration with owners, contractors, and other project partners. Data-based technologies allow a high level of communication and a virtual “rehearsal of construction.” By building first in the digital environment, problems are identified and solved before costly delays and errors can occur. Complex interactions of energy systems can be simulated to calculate return on investment for high-end equipment.

Less easy to quantify in dollars is the value of design thinking. Architects are fluent in lateral, simultaneous thinking, equally adept at problem solving and problem seeking. This skill set has immense value in a world where messy, complex issues have no simple solutions. Architects who augment their design skills with knowledge of sustainable-design principles and integrated technologies deliver beautiful and economically viable forms, bringing grace to everyday life.

@ the threshold

A quick guide to Architecture Minnesota discussion on Threshold, the AIA Minnesota blog

Could Toronto’s bold approach to redesigning its Lake Ontario waterfront (page 47) be usefully applied on a smaller scale to waterfront areas in Minnesota cities? Share your thoughts by commenting on writer Adam Regn Arvidson’s post at