Led by a trio of female leaders, SmithGroupJJR’s Bay Area team sees the opportunities of the region trickle throughout the industry
Juhee Cho, Joyce Polhamus and Rosa Sheng lead a design team at SmithGroupJJR that stands out in the industry and in the region, as well. It is not unusual to see great female designers, but to have a group of them lead a prominent organization is something that we wish others will emulate.
As designers, the team sees projects ahead of their public announcements, and they see where the industry is heading before most others. Here is their perspective on today and tomorrow and that drivers of the industry that will shape the region in the years and decades to come.
Looking in the rear view mirror, how has 2017 shaped up to be for your firm based on your expectations a year or so ago?
Joyce: 2017 has exceeded our expectations—by way of more diverse sector and product types of work, as well as volume. There were a lot of opportunities, including repeat work with our existing clients, and we’ve been able to continue to build momentum, a proven track record and consistent client base into the new year.
What surprised you the most, and what were the most interesting lessons learned in this past year that gave you insight about the market and where we are in the cycle?
Joyce: We have seen an upsurge in large, almost mega projects compared to previous years. While clients remain mindful of making the most of their resources, there is a thoughtfulness and attention to delivering the right product for the current market.
I think we have a real opportunity to advance design concurrent with technology, especially here in the Bay Area.
Juhee: We’re experiencing one of the longest running economic booms. In the Bay Area, tech has dominated, and this has significantly impacted the landscape including the dynamics between developers, landlords and tenants.
What were some of the more prominent projects that SmithGroupJJR worked on in 2017? Are there any particularly noteworthy ones that you would like to highlight?
Joyce: In 2017, we saw an up-rise of several cross-studio projects, a testament to our integrated practice model. Our workplace studio’s design of a new high-rise administrative/office/clinic/research building for UCSF at Mission Bay displays the integrated studio approach, as well as our civic center projects pulling multiple disciplines together for cities like Sunnyvale. Our higher education studio is currently working on three STEM buildings for universities and community colleges across Northern California. Many of these programs will train future workforce professionals in areas of research directly related to projects such as the Integrative Genomics Laboratory currently under construction at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. In addition, we continue to work on urban projects including the mixed-use development at Candlestick Point and two new, large urban hospitals for California Pacific Medical Center in San Francisco. Many of the exciting projects awarded in the beginning of 2017 are now taking shape too, including a large Sacramento project with a well-known healthcare provider.
Juhee: This year the workplace studio saw growth in new areas. We have been commissioned for several civic campus planning projects in Sunnyvale and South San Francisco, in addition to a large, mixed-use development. These projects are exciting and unique—affording us an opportunity for placemaking—as we work with the local Bay Area communities on creating new neighborhoods and planning for future growth.
What are some upcoming projects in the pipeline that you think speak to where the firm is headed?
Joyce: As Juhee noted, we are expanding our mixed-use portfolio to respond to the city and civic marketplaces. We’re also seeing an uptick in related projects such as hospitality and senior living. Corporate R&D continues to grow as well. With our model and capacity, SmithGroupJJR is positioned to capitalize on each of these opportunities.
What do you foresee for the year ahead, given the current social, economic and political context, in the Bay Area region and beyond?
Joyce: Addressing economic diversity and affordability is a constant challenge in the Bay Area. We seek to address this through design and planning and are seeing more and more that projects require affordable and accessible components.
Rosa: We need to leverage design thinking to help problem solve these difficult challenges; it’s an opportunity in the face of adversity—be it lack of resources due to rapid urbanization and population growth. We need to think and do things differently to affect our futures in impactful and meaningful ways.
Juhee: As our cities experience rapid growth, we will continue to see increased pressure on our infrastructure. City officials, planners and large companies must share the dialogue around mobility, mass and public transit. Additionally, recruiting top talent is a constant driver in the Bay Area. Greater accessibility will ultimately aid in bringing a more diverse workforce to our region.
Hiring has been an anathema in many industries as unemployment broadly across the region reaches new lows? Many people left the industry during the Great Recession, but have you seen a resurgence of interest in architecture and design? How will this play out in 2018 and beyond?
Rosa: During those years, the industry experienced a talent loss that we will never get back. Now, we must be more strategic about shaping a workplace that is equitable, diverse and inclusive to minimize barriers and maximize potential for all to succeed. In conjunction, meaningful work, strong mentors and sponsors, and clear pathways for advancement makes a positive impact on talent recruitment and retention. We’re fortunate [at SmithGroupJJR] to be at the forefront of the industry.
What are some of the challenges that you foresee in the industry over the next year or so?
Rosa: Talent recruitment and retention will continue to be important focus areas. Despite a graduation rate in our industry that is nearly balanced amongst male to female, studies have shown there is a pivotal time period throughout an architect’s career at which women tend to leave the industry or be overlooked for leadership advancement opportunities. In order to mitigate this, we must understand the data behind this phenomena and develop equitable practice models to better retain talent, improve design outcomes and create new models of practice that produce value for the profession.
Juhee: I agree. Now, more than ever it is important to retain the talent you have. We need to take a broader look at the labor pool, and companies need to adjust current policies to reflect not just equal pay, but also set a new precedent that supports the direction of our workforce and work environment.
Aging infrastructure and buildings that have reached their useful lifespan also pose a challenge, however we see this as an opportunity to continue to help owners repurpose and reposition their assets effectively.
What are some potential opportunities that you would like to highlight?
Rosa: I think we have a real opportunity to advance design concurrent with technology, especially here in the Bay Area. Design opportunities focused on Artificial Intelligence needs to be tempered with emotional intelligence, empathy and social awareness. While many would like to think otherwise, architecture is fundamentally social and has real impact on our emotional, mental and physical health. Understanding how our bodies react to design experiences and responding with solutions that promote holistic wellbeing is paramount.
Juhee: We have a great stock of buildings here in San Francisco, so there is opportunity in enhancing and repositioning assets as a sustainable solution. We’ve demonstrated this with our current San Francisco home at the Bently Reserve. As the first office tenants in the building, we reimagined the historic structure to be a collaborative office environment. It’s now home to multiple other businesses.
As our region continues to grow at a rapid pace, we also see great opportunity in strengthening Bay Area communities through smarter planning and design. This is evident in our growing civic portfolio.
How do you see sustainable design expanding in the future? Is this going to be a major focus for companies going forward or has become an integral part of design that everyone pursues today?
Joyce: Sustainable design is at the core of what we do, and it is already a prominent factor in every project. The expectation going forward will be helping clients achieve net zero, something SmithGroupJJR has already achieved on multiple projects. We are well positioned to lead our clients in this formative transition.
Rosa: Sustainable design is evolving to encompass both physical and mental wellbeing. We are seeing opportunities for biophilic design thought leadership. Biophilia promotes synergistic strategies of stronger human engagement between our natural and built environments for optimal outcomes. Not only will it impact office environments, but we will start to see it take shape in labs and other work environments as well.
What will be new in workplace design that everyone will want to talk about in 2018?
In particular, what are you and the firm most excited about in 2018? What’s on the horizon?
Juhee: It’s important to note that one trend does not fit all. There are however several fundamental shifts that have influenced workplace design including daylight, air quality, wellness, emphasis on collaborative space and agility to accommodate a diverse workforce. Beyond those, I think we will see the WELL building certification take center stage, since it places more of an emphasis on the emotional wellbeing of the user. This can include elements such as a yoga room, having healthy snacks readily available, access to open space and a shift in HR policy to support employees as they strive to balance both work and life.
Rosa: Exactly. I think we’ll see more blurred lines in the work environment—creating more inclusive spaces that welcome all types of people and support diverse working styles that are emerging based on the rapid advancement of technology. Whether it’s agile work space, family friendly, or wellness integrated, there are a lot of opportunities to redefine productivity and work as we know it today.